Head East, Young Man 

Tucked-away Tsing Tao House worth the search

Sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake. Maybe I'm getting set in my ways. Maybe I'm losing my mind. Maybe I've heard "There's this place you've got to try" a few too many times. But if someone makes the effort to tell me about a new restaurant, eventually I will get there.

I wish I hadn't waited so long to visit Tsing Tao House. It's tucked away near a King Soopers at Woodmen Road and Lexington Drive in the Woodmen Plaza -- not exactly the city's most advantageous location. Interestingly enough, this same plaza contains a Panda Express (akin to a Chinese fast-food chain) and a little Teriyaki joint, neither of which have I visited. Tsing Tao is on the east side of the plaza; make sure to look for the sign.

The food at Tsing Tao House stands out among the other Chinese food purveyors in the Springs, both for flavor and absolute high quality. They have an extensive menu with no enormous surprises, and the interior of the restaurant is simple bordering on austere.

The friendliness of the wait staff more than makes up for the fact that the walls aren't covered with Chinese kitsch. Service is astonishingly fast and exceptionally polite, with children and large groups made to feel as welcome as everyone else, and prices are reasonable. Lunches range from $5.25 to $6.25, which includes soup, rice, egg roll and a crab Rangoon. Dinners start at $7.25 for lo meins and chow meins, most are in the $8 to $11 range, with some seafood and chef's specials reaching $18.95 (for lobster). (A whole Beijing Duck is $28.95, and must be ordered 24 hours in advance.)

What's good? ... What isn't! The steamed dumplings are sparked with just a discernible bit of green onion and fresh ginger, and the surrounding dough isn't too heavy or thick. The hot and sour soup is rich and flavorful, due to an excellent, well-seasoned stock and a light hand with the heat.

If the entrees are marked spicy, you have an option of requesting regular, medium or very spicy. The regular has a nice little heat, not too challenging. The medium lets the chilis stand up to be accounted for, and the very spicy is, frankly, just too hot for me, although the true flavor of the food is enhanced, not overpowered, by the heat. The chicken with garlic sauce was an exceptionally fine dish, with the spice nicely balanced with the flavor of tender, white meat chicken, garlic and peppers. The flavor intensified overnight, and the leftovers made a fabulous lunch the next day. The curry chicken, however, was very hot, and although it tasted divine the first day, it didn't make as good a leftover because, by then, the heat overpowered the flavor of curry. The very spicy twice-cooked pork, however, I can't rate as a leftover, since it was devoured in one sitting.

One of the true tests was the order of sesame shrimp. Whenever I order sesame anything, I generally hate getting little deep-fried globs in a stiff, sticky-sweet sauce. I'm happy to say that wasn't a problem here. The shrimp were amazing, cooked perfectly and covered with a thick, sweet sauce nicely balanced with a kick of heat, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with emerald-green steamed broccoli.

On the nonspicy side, the beef with snow peas was delicious for such a simple dish. The beef was flavorful and tender enough to just melt in your mouth, while at the same time the snow peas retained their vivid green color and crunch. The chicken chow mein, served with the crispy noodles on top so they retain their crunch, was another showcase for the vegetables involved. And the lo mein was also outstanding; in the wrong hands, it can be a very greasy dish, but here, the noodles are light and flavorful, with julienned vegetables that retain their color and crunch.

And these are just the dishes I've had a chance to try. I've already marked several on my take-out menu for future reference -- particularly the chef's specials. I'm looking forward to assorted seafood in an edible basket, which promises shrimp, scallops, king crab, fish fillet and vegetables in a special white wine sauce, or the king crab with black bean sauce served in a hot pot. But maybe first I want the sweet and pungent shrimp, the kung pao lobster, the stuffed eggplant served in Szechuan sauce over shrimp, or the stuffed scallops with shrimp meat.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some decisions to make.

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