Santa Rosa's new China Legend restaurant, which recently opened in the strip mall on Mission Boulevard just north of Highway 12, isn't an innovative or epicurean dream, but it certainly has charms.
The mostly Cantonese recipes, with nods to Hunan and Szechuan provinces, have the virtue of familiarity. You know what you're getting, whereas in China itself, foods can get pretty exotic: seahorse, scorpion, cicada and starfish are among the street foods sold there.
A most wonderful aspect of the food at China Legend is the sheer volume of it. You can order a main dish for nine or 10 bucks, eat your fill, take the rest home, and have it for lunch and dinner the next day. Put some on tortillas with squirts of Sriracha sauce to make fiery Chinese tacos and you can stretch it out for two days.
The quality of the ingredients is another point in China Legend's favor.
The chicken is the Rocky brand from the Petaluma Poultry Processors, which means it's local, never given antibiotics or hormones, and is "free range." (But don't imagine flocks of chickens pecking and scratching on green pastureland.
The company uses poultry houses with access to an outdoor area.)
Service is snappy and attentive. Chinese, Japanese and Thai beers are available, along with teas made with filtered water. You get chopsticks if you ask for them. Otherwise, it's spoons and forks.
Some menu items come pre-prepared from suppliers, or, in the case of the Chilled Lychee Dessert ($6.95 **), from a can. You do get a full dozen husked and pitted lychees. They don't have the melting texture, floral aromatics, or full flavor of fresh lychees, but they're good nevertheless.
Steamed Barbecued Pork Buns ($7.95 for 6 **) are an example of an item bought pre-made from a food supplier. The small amount of pork filling is short on flavor and the buns are gummy — but so are the fresh-made pork buns you can find in San Francisco.
When the food is prepared in-house, things start looking up. A cup of Egg Drop Soup ($5.95 ***) featured a delicious chicken broth, floating shreds of egg, and bits of vegetables, and was salted with admirable restraint. A large plate of Mongolian Beef ($10.95 **1/2) mixed sauteed onions and hot little Chinese bird peppers with thin slices of tender beef, all tossed with lots of glistening brown sauce.
Prawn Egg Foo Young ($10.95 *) was more problematic. Instead of the prawns and Chinese vegetables being incorporated into the eggs, then cooked in the pan to a steaming fluff of delectability, it seems the eggs were put into the pan first, where they partially congealed from the heat before the filling was put on. So they weren't fluffy and didn't surround the filling. Then a sauce was poured over the top of it all, which made the eggs soggy. In its favor, it tasted good, but the texture detracted.
Broccoli, along with its fellow brassica, kale, is just about the most nutritious food we eat. And so Broccoli with Oyster Sauce ($8.95 **) was the healthy choice of the night. This simple dish suffered from overcooking, so the broccoli was mushy rather than al dente, but there was a lot of it.
On a second visit — mostly to see if the glitches were just a one-night stumble — it was pretty much the same. An order of Garlic Chicken ($10.95 **1/2) had a mild garlic note but no visible cloves. It did have lots of tender sliced chicken, Chinese vegetables, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, snow peas and a brown sauce. And for the price, a huge plate of Beef Chow Fun ($7.95 **) was a bargain. This beefy noodle dish alone would feed a family of four.