Where many Chinese restaurants in the United States fail to distinguish themselves, Orient House succeeds for one basic reason. Orient House has a secret menu-except that it isn't a secret.
The "Chinese-only menu" is no urban legend, and restaurants like Asia Express and Fugu reveal that it's becoming harder and harder to hide a secret specialty menu. If a critic doesn't sniff it out, the Internet will.
Having replaced the relocated Vientiane Garden, Orient House has acceded to transparency - a little. Though the dine-in menu lists only the more familiar items, there are two paper menus on the takeout counter. A tan menu includes all your sweet-and-sour this and chow mein that. But there's an unassuming pink menu lying in wait right next to it - let that sit for a moment.
The standard menu is the typical sprawling kind, with numbered items into the 200s. Crab rangoon are served hot and fresh, and the egg rolls never came off as overfried or stale, though both dishes are a little skimpy on meat.
The lo mein and fried rice (sampled as vegetable and chicken, respectively) bear the smoky kiss of a well-seasoned wok, and those dark flavors stick to your lips. Enjoy it here, because consistent flavor is a weak spot for the Orient House kitchen.
One serving of the good old General Tso's chicken was vibrant and quite spicy; another was unremarkable. Both the vegetables and pork served with hot garlic sauce offered little garlicky kick and even less heat, though the ingredients themselves were of respectable quality.
A savvy diner, or maybe a cynical one, might think that the best stuff is being withheld for the Chinese customers who know to ask for the "good menu." The pink trifold paper on the counter beckons, and opening it reveals an entirely different set of offerings. Orient House is nearly two restaurants in one.
Right off the bat, there's ox tongue and tripe, batter-fried quail and shredded pork with radish soup. These are not your usual Chinese restaurant items. The quail was out, and I never got around to that tongue and tripe combo plate. But the soup was thin and bland - not a great start to this semi-mystical menu.
Moving on to the proteins opens things up a little. The five flavored veal ribs are packed with the aromatic flavors of clove and peppercorn. The dish, one of the most expensive on the menu, also provides a good bit of gristle and bone, dropping the value substantially. Chicken, interestingly, sticks close to the familiar; kung pao and curry chicken are here, too.
Pork and vegetable dishes take up a good bit of menu real estate. The scallion pork is an approachable and tasty dish, if heavy on the white onions. (This is a common occurrence here, and not always a welcome one.) Sparerib and stew with preserved vegetables beckon for future visits.
The non-meat options include lotus root, tofu and eggplant. The braised vegetable with shiitake mushroom is disappointingly literal; the only vegetable is baby bok choi, and there's a lot of it. It's well prepared but a bit much for one person. Half the order would make this a nice starter.
Where Orient House really sets itself apart from the competition is in the seafood section of the secret menu. There are whole fish dishes and plenty of sour and spicy accents. If the stir-fried squid and green pepper with black bean sauce was a little lackluster, the shrimp with XO sauce looks promising. I can only trust for now that nothing with XO sauce could ever be bland.
A true gem on the menu is the small fish with chili and spicy salt, a wonderful condiment. The small fish in question are smelt, and they are minimally processed before being fried and tossed with green chilies. Fishermen won't flinch at lunch that looks back, but the average diner might. Rest easy; these little guys are easy to eat and addictive. Even after a reheat for the next day's lunch, they're still delicious.
There's a bit of secrecy this menu wants to hold on to, with a lack of descriptive clarity and some linguistic ordering difficulty. Thankfully, the friendly staff was always willing to say things twice and didn't begrudge my Anglo ear. Whether you're in the market for familiar or remarkable, Orient House will feel like home.