THE PLACE: The numerically fortuitous 168 Chinese Restaurant is tucked in the back of Orchard Plaza. Don’t recognize the name? I didn’t, either, until I made a point of looking at the sign. Orchard Plaza is the center on South Virginia Street, just south of Hillcrest Drive, that also contains Star Cleaners and Black Bear Diner. So now you know.
THE LOOK: 168 is bright, clean and sports plenty of tables, including round tables with lazy Susans that seat 10 and are so handy for groups and families. Spin me round the pork with Sichuan sauce, please! Chinese art garnishes the restaurant here and there.
THE MEAL: Chef Hong Li hails from Shanghai and began his career in the city; the Shanghainese have a reputation for being among the pickiest and most sophisticated diners in China.
Li’s menu at 168 is large, as is typical in Chinese restaurants in this country, and offers dishes for both adventuresome and more retiring palates. Chef specials include mustard greens and shredded pork with bean curd, sweet-and-sour Shanghai spareribs (the Shanghainese are fond of sugar in their cooking), and spicy stir-fried duck tongue (like Chinese potato chips — addictive).
On one visit, my companion and I share a plate of duck tongues — rich and fatty without being greasy — and a bowl of rice porridge studded with pork, extra ginger and slices of preserved egg with creamy, deep green yolks. The rice porridge (what the Cantonese call jook) is big enough to serve two easily. At $12.95 for the tongues and $6.95 for the porridge, we’re just under our $20 budget.
On a more recent visit, the afternoon is chilly, so my companion and I are both thinking soup. Like the porridge, the soups at 168 Chinese are big enough to share or to be a main course. At first, she opts for hot and sour soup, and I’m set on beef soup with rice noodles. But then won ton soup draws our attention, and a second later, the wor won ton soup (“everything” soup) listed below it on the menu.
Sold! Steaming bowls arrive. We spoon up the broth to taste test: It’s full-flavored but still light and delicate, as it should be. The soup brims with onion, broccoli, bok choy, bamboo shoots, chicken, shrimp, pork, plump won ton parcels and a snarl of thing egg noodles. My companion and I splash on some soy sauce, drizzle on sriracha and commence slurping. At $8.95 per bowl, we’re again just under budget (and stuffed, too).
KUDOS: Portions are generous. Chef Li has a gentle hand with his cooking, never deploying too much oil or cornstarch. The chef and seasonal menus offer some of the best truly authentic Chinese cooking in the region. And 168 Chinese is open every day until midnight.
QUIBBLES: Fried potstickers, which I order everywhere, are the one item I haven’t liked at 168 Chinese among the dozens of dishes I’ve tried. They’re chewy, doughy and almost bland. I wish the kitchen would prepare them steamed.
ALTERNATIVES: Lunch specials, 20 of them, are $6.95, served weekdays and include soup and an egg roll. Some choices: roast duck and rice plate, chicken in Sichuan sauce, kung pao beef and cashew nut prawns. More than 20 noodle dishes or noodle soups are $10 or less. And green beans with X.O. sauce (dried chili and seafood sauce) always are worth a try.
RETURN TRIP?: As often as I can.