IF YOU GO
* What: Kim San Chinese Restaurant
* Where: 215 Keith St. Plaza, Cleveland, Tenn.
* Phone: 423-476-1551
* Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
* Price range: $8.45 (most chicken dishes)-$26.95 (Peking duck)
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — When Kim San Chinese Restaurant opened on Keith Street here in 1986, mullets were the style, MTV was cool, cellphones were science fiction and the Commodore 64 computer was the height of technology.
While the fashion among the restaurant's clientele might have changed over the years, Kim San's top-quality dishes continue to set a standard today as one of the region's best values in carefully prepared Chinese cuisine.
My party of three headed north from Chattanooga earlier this month to revisit one of the longtime eateries of my hometown. The restaurant with its trademark imperial bronze-colored lions guarding the door is on the older, south end of town, tucked into an aging strip center.
Kim San is not a buffet, and though it doesn't promote it heavily, it does provide carryout service. The restaurant hits its stride with a 110-entree menu that features a lineup of classic and traditional dishes that stays away from prepackaged taste and ho-hum presentation.
We found it just as it was one memorable night in the mid-1990s when my son was about 2 or 3 and the waiter spied him bounding from end to end of the booth seat happily singing, "Chinese, Chinese, Chinese ..."
Early Chinese food fan.
Inexplicably, there were only a couple of tables filled when we arrived around 7 p.m. on a Saturday. The waitress seated us quickly and had our drinks out in less than a couple of minutes. Once we ordered, the meal arrived 10 minutes later, and the waitress quietly made certain we had everything we needed.
The menu, with the Chinese name for the dish preceding the English, is extensive with 23 seafood dishes (ranging from $8.75 for sweet and sour shrimp to $9.95 for Gan Shao scallops), 20 chicken dishes (ranging from $8.45 for sweet and sour chicken to $8.95 for Moo Shu Chicken), 15 beef dishes (from $8.95 for pepper steak to $9.75 for Singapore Sizzling Beef), and 10 pork dishes (from $8.45 for sweet and sour pork to $8.95 for Mu Shu pork).
There also are three duck dishes (ranging from $10.25 for Mandarin to $26.95 for Peking) and a list of Chef's Specials (ranging from $8.95 for Lemon Chicken to $18.95 for either the Dragon and Phoenix, Lobster With Scallops or Neptune's Delight).
The menu includes nine vegetable dishes, a number of chow mein, lo mein, egg foo young and chop suey dishes, as well as family combination meal deals for two to six people. A lunch menu has many of the dinner menu items but is priced between $5.55 and $6.25.
Starters include 10 soups and myriad other goodies including egg rolls, fried meat dumplings, barbecue spareribs, fried jumbo shrimp, Crab Rangoon and chicken wings.
The familiar hot and sour, egg drop and wonton soups are available in small ($1.70) and large ($4.25). Other soups for two ($4.75-$6.95) include vegetable, sliced chicken, combination, chicken, seaweed and egg drop, and chicken, shrimp and imitation king crab meat sizzling rice.
I chose my favorite, Basket of Two Delights ($10.95), from the list of Chef's Specials.
My basket arrived beautifully presented with a splash of julienned cabbage and a carrot rosette.
Thinking the vegetables were just garnish, I tried a bite and found they were fresh-made and delicious.
The entree included tender pieces of beef and chicken drowned in a flavorful, spicy brown sauce with broccoli, snow peas, water chestnuts and green peppers corralled into a string potato basket as tasty as it was pretty.
My son, now 20, wasn't likely to repeat the song and dance act, but he did order his favorite: Spicy Chicken, also known as General Tso's Chicken ($9.25).
My wife had the Kung Pao shrimp ($8.95).
We all ordered hot and sour soup and an egg roll ($1.20).
Nothing tasted prepackaged or "formerly frozen," and the sauces were complex and quite hot in our three spicy orders. The little potato basket was good enough to eat right along with its contents.
The hot and sour soup is about the best in the area, with medium heat from a generous dose of white pepper and just enough body to make it soupy but still light. The egg rolls very light, crispy and delicious, far superior to anything found at the typical buffet.
The waitress had no problem keeping our drinks freshened and condiments replenished, and the check hit the table as soon as she carried off our empty plates and bowls. In past visits, the wait staff was attentive even when most of the tables were filled on a busy night.
Kim San looks the way it always has, very clean with traditional red, gold and black decor with a phoenix and dragon theme I hadn't noticed until this visit. There's a small waiting area at the front door by the cashier and good-size fish tank to entertain the younger ones if there's a crowd. The bathrooms were clean but very rough, perhaps not having had an update since I had the mullet.
Kim San is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the region, a secret dining wonder for Clevelanders for 27 years and well worth the drive for Chattanooga diners. We'll return many times as long as the place remains open and, if it ever closes, we'll shed white-pepper-laced tears.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...