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Battle of the Chinese Restaurants in State College

Is there any style of food better represented in State College than Chinese? Off hand, I can count more than a half-dozen Asian restaurants, and that’s not including the two new ones that opened just in time to welcome students back for the start of the new semester. But while Penn Staters are plenty familiar with Hunan Wok, Uncle Chen’s, and Maki Yaki, newer options like Yummy Cafe and China Dragon are unfamiliar to most–but after last week, not to some members of our intrepid staff.

China Dragon, located across from Panera on South Allen Street, is much like Panda Express or Chopstick Express, offering a number of dishes on a combination plate with rice. Unlike those two, however, China Dragon featured not only the Americanized ideal of Chinese food, but also authentic creations that seemed to be the biggest draw of the restaurant; when we walked in, the restaurant was full, and we were the only ones there who weren’t Asian.

Unfortunately, the management seemed to know its clientele almost too well. When one of us inquired about the traditional dishes, the woman behind the counter brushed off our curiosity, instead directing us towards the more familiar tastes. The limited selection there included the typical fare: General Tso’s Chicken, Sesame Chicken, Beef and Broccoli, Chicken and Peanuts, and Kung Pao Chicken. It was by no means of poor quality–it’s difficult to use the qualifier, but the food was of a high caliber, considering the nature of the restaurant.

The Kung Pao was more spicy than we had expected, but not at the expense of flavor. The other dishes were succulent and juicy–impressive, given the lengthy time they spent on a heating tray–if forgettable. Next to one another on the plate, it was difficult to know when the Sesame Chicken ended and the General Tso’s began. The servings were generous, too–only one of the three of us managed to polish off his plate, and for just over $6 for three dishes, a giant heap of white rice, and a can of soda.

However, the most notable feature about China Dragon was, quite simply, the beauty of its interior. It may have taken an eternity for the place to open, but the finished product was magnificent. The tiled floor and large, comfortable, leather chairs gave the impression of a sit-down restaurant, and one reviewer marveled at the bathrooms, which he called “the nicest in State College.”

The overall experience, then, would be highly satisfactory, if not superlative. It’s hard to recommend such a casual restaurant, but it’s certainly a step above Chopstick Express and Panda Express, and at that cost, it’s hard to beat.

Yummy Cafe offered an entirely different experience. Unlike the fast-food of China Dragon, the dishes were cooked to order, and the restaurant isn’t located in the heart of downtown, but tucked into Calder Alley, behind Chipotle. It also presented more of an Asian fusion culinary style, with dishes in a number of distinct styles, ranging from the familiar to the apparently authentic.

In that vein, one of our reviewers eschewed his traditional can of soda for a mango bubble tea, thinking outside the wire-handled takeout box in an adventurous selection. However, we didn’t stray too far outside our comfort zones when ordering main courses, selecting Sesame Chicken and General Tso’s tofu to go along with vegetable egg rolls.

The egg rolls were delicious, if standard–and fresh fried. The chicken, on the other hand, was par-for-the-course of cheap Chinese lunch restaurants: most chunks of chicken-and-filler that were stir-fried in a sauce that was a little too sweet for our tastes. It wasn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was’t particularly good. However, the portions were abundant–had the meal been good enough to merit bringing home leftovers, it would’ve provided that night’s dinner.

The tofu experience couldn’t have been more different. Although that dish similarly suffered from a lack of broccoli, the tofu was amazing. It was more succulent and flavorful than any other tofu we’ve tasted in the area. It was also a bit more spicy than the competition’s; an instant hit even with those of us who load globs of Red Hot onto everything. Though the serving wasn’t quite as glutenous as an Uncle Chen’s take-out portion, there was enough for a few meals worth of grubbing from the leftovers.

But what really made us enjoy Yummy Cafe was the mango bubble tea we were originally skeptical about. It was fruity and refreshing–a perfect contrast to the spiciness of the tofu. The taste could best be compared to a melted cup of mango Rita’s Italian ice–albeit with chewy tapioca pearls adding a fun texture, and it’s what officially converted one of us into a returning customer. For just under $3 a cup, it beat going to Starbucks for my normal fruit drink fix.

Although we enjoyed our meals plenty, we couldn’t help but feel a bit of regret looking at the more authentic dishes as they came out of the kitchen. From the Vietnamese noodle soups–called pho–to the authentic Japanese ramen noodle dishes, each looked delicious. On our next trip, perhaps we’ll be more adventurous.

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