Rick's China Garden a huge harvest

October 31, 2004|by E.T. MOORE

HALFWAY - There are two ways to get Chinese food at Valley Mall.

Walk through the food court and you'll hear a patter of offers for free samples at the side-by-side Chinese places. One employee, a lively character, once posed for a picture with some teenagers - but a mall security guard prohibited them from using their camera in the mall.

There's a more sedate option for an inexpensive meal. Go to the JCPenney side of the mall, facing Halfway Boulevard. Rick's China Garden has its own entrance there.

We had lunch on a weekday. Two of us dove into the $5.25 all-you-can-eat buffet. Our third picked Shrimp with Chinese Vegetables ($4.95), served with fried rice, an egg roll and won-ton soup. The heaping helping was all she could eat, anyway.


The buffet boasted nearly 20 items - more than many fast-food-type Chinese joints, but less than the county's megabuffets.

Entrees included vegetable lo mein, cashew chicken, Cantonese seafood and a meatball dish that didn't seem to belong but was surprisingly good.

You wouldn't think to look for sushi on a table with cream puffs, pineapple chunks, chocolate pudding and iced brownies. But, the sushi doesn't compare to authentic Japanese; missing it would be no loss.

That sentiment shouldn't be taken as rejection. A buffet requires an open mind and an eager stomach. The quality might not be extraordinary, but there'll be enough good food to appease you.

Vegetables in various dishes were crisp and fresh. Food was warm or hot. Nothing was spicy, a possible letdown for hot and sour soup fans.

One lunch companion said the boneless barbecue spareribs were chewy, but he raved about the plump and juicy fried chicken wings. He also loved the beef with broccoli - mild, but flavorful, with the right amount of garlic.

I thought the shrimp was mediocre, and I didn't care for the imitation crab, but most of the rest was pretty good.

My other companion said her egg roll and entree were fabulous. Large shrimp came with crunchy broccoli florets, water chestnuts, mushrooms, carrots, green peppers, onions and celery, coated in brown gravy.

Our server was right on top of things, bringing a steaming pot of tea early and returning to us at the right times.

We sat in relative comfort in high-back plastic chairs. Our table by the buffet was in a cove with mirror-lined walls, a nice buffer for when the lunch crowd swelled.

If you're so inclined, you can sit caf style, near a stroller-cart rental stand in the mall. But you'd lose atmosphere, getting shopping traffic instead of traditional wall hangings and low Chinese music inside.

We've been to Rick's before. Take-home dinners, such as orange chicken and beef with snow peas, have always been good, standard fare. Unfortunately, many items aren't available in small portions.

The menu notes that many items can be ordered spicy. The buffet offerings probably were muted for mainstream taste buds.

Rick's borders on upscale, relative to this area's Chinese places. Lunch can be as little as about $4, but the top entree - Peking Duck - is $25.

I enjoyed seeing several cheerfully named dishes: Happy Family, Bride and Groom, Lovers Shrimp (Or do I have the sequence backwards? And would a lovers' spat require a portion of Dragon & Lion Fight?)

Well under budget, we brought General Tso's Chicken to a colleague who stayed behind.

"I got two dinners and a lunch out of it," she said two days later.

Our bill for four - with only water and hot tea as drinks - was $21.40, plus tip.

Restaurant reviews are contributed biweekly by Herald-Mail staff writers and editors alternating under the pseudonym E.T. Moore.

Rick's China Garden

Overall: 3 forks

Food: 2 forks (out of 4)

Service: 4 forks

Atmosphere: 3 forks

Value: 3 forks

Hours: 11:15 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Many entrees range from $7.50 to $25. Others are available by the pint, starting at $3.25, or the quart. The lunch buffet is $5.25 ($5.95 on Sunday). A $15.95 seafood buffet is served Friday and Saturday. Low-calorie and vegetarian dishes are available.

Credit cards: All major ones accepted, except Diners Club

Location: Valley Mall in Halfway, near JCPenney

Phone: 301-582-3398

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