BURNT HILLS It was one of those oppressively hot evenings when the last thing on your mind is firing up the stove or the grill.
Still, you’re hungry. An excellent night for comforting Chinese food, we both agreed, and then started scanning the possibilities online. Our mission: something close by and familiar. Our choice: Sam’s Chinese Restaurant in nearby Burnt Hills.
Besides offering reliably good Chinese-American food, there is plenty of room in the three separate dining areas at Sam’s so we knew there would be no trouble getting a table. As it turned out, for at least part of our visit, we were the only customers in the place, though take-out patrons periodically appeared at the front counter to lay down their cash and cart off what appeared to be weighty bags of food. Evidently we weren’t alone in our determination to steer clear of cooking on this sultry night.
A word about Sam’s. It’s been around for a long time, as restaurants go, and its seasoned staff is efficient and friendly. The food isn’t exotic, as Chinese-American menus go, but in my experience it rarely disappoints and some of it stands out from dishes I’ve had at other Chinese restaurants. I particularly like the broths that are the bases of Sam’s soups — they’re dark and flavorful and not at all like the weak, salty brines you find in many places.
And for those who might like to wet their whistle with something other than hot tea, Sam’s has a full-service bar where you can find Chinese beer.
I ordered soup — wonton — for an appetizer, and Beverly ordered the hot and sour ($1.75 per cup), along with some scallion pancakes to share ($3.25), which were flour-based pancakes served with a soy-based sauce with sliced scallions. The pancakes were a little doughy for my taste and a little filling for an appetizer, but the texture was interesting enough to merit more than one bite. As for hot soup on a hot night, we were sitting in relative comfort thanks to the restaurant’s overtaxed air conditioning so soup seemed a sane enough choice.
For her entrée, Beverly ordered one of the evening’s specials, the Crispy Shrimp with sticky rice ($9.95). The shrimp were small but succulent and flavorful, she noted, with a very light, crispy coating. It was served with a light sauce with diced sweet onion and green peppers, and small bits of carrot for color. She pronounced it the perfect choice for a shrimp-lover on a hot summer evening.
For my entrée, I asked our server for a suggestion and she promptly chose the Dragon and Phoenix ($12.95), a Hunan dish popular in Chinese-American restaurants. It consists of jumbo shrimp sautéed in a spicy garlic sauce on one side of the dish and General Tso’s Chicken on the other side. There were also al dente veggies and a big portion of sticky rice.
Sam’s Chinese Restaurant
WHERE: 824 Saratoga Road (Route 50), Burnt Hills; 384-1997
WHEN: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Tuesday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
OTHER INFO: MasterCard, Visa and Discover accepted; handicapped accessible
On this particular night, it was a satisfying dish, though tomorrow I might well choose something lighter and a little less cliché than the General Tso, crispy chicken with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce that is said to be centuries old but clearly has been adjusted to appeal to American tastes.
Our dinner came with a big pot of strong hot tea, which on a hot night can be inexplicably soothing. We also were served little dishes of hot mustard and fruity duck sauce as dips for the complimentary fried noodles, which our server obligingly replenished for us at least once. The noodles were particularly good, tasting as if they were fresh from the fryer and not out of a box.
For those who value quantity as well as quality, we carted home enough leftovers to provide lunch for two in the future.
Our tab for two entrées, hot tea, soups and the scallion pancakes came to a reasonable $39.02 with tax and tip added.
The prices at Sam’s are modest; the most expensive dish I could find on the menu was Seven Stars Around the Moon, a dish for two priced at $23.95 and consisting of scallops, beef, crab meat, chicken, pork and vegetables in a brown sauce, all artfully arranged and then topped with seven fantail shrimp.
You can find duck dishes here, too — Wor Shu Duck or Hunan Duck for $13.95, crispy roasted half-duck with mixed vegetables in a brown sauce, and there is a House Special Duck, also for $13.95, that comes with a sweet-and-sour sauce.
The standards are all available — Chow Mein, Egg Food Young, Sweet and Sour dishes, barbecued spareribs, Moo Shu dishes (served with pancakes).
What I couldn’t find were french fries, which have crept onto a lot of Chinese menus, but you can order chicken fingers and chicken wings.
Our experience at Sam’s was positive on every level, and we’ll certainly return, perhaps the next time we need to slip away from the hurly-burly for some peace and some comforting food.
I was struck by one section of Sam’s menu that offered “Health Food” selections. They included choices like Steamed Mixed Vegetables with Shrimp or Chicken ($8.95/$7.75) and there was a notation that said no salt, oil, MSG or corn starch are used in these dishes. Sauce is served on the side along with the white rice so you can help yourself — or not.