CANTON Nearly 25 years ago, St. Lawrence County got its first Chinese restaurant.
A#1 Oriental Kitchen opened in downtown Canton at the corner of Main and Hodskin streets in the late 80s. Its still there today, with its white convex awning and neon window signs proclaiming Chinese Food in both English and Chinese.
Inside, the ambience could use some work. Faded pictures on the walls show their age, but perhaps thats testament to the restaurants longevity there arent too many restaurants in business for a quarter-century to allow fading to happen.
Over the years, A#1 has opened additional restaurants in Gouverneur and Potsdam. The owners also are responsible for the Asian Buffets in all three villages.
I dont know about you, but Im a little leery about the food on those all-you-can-eat buffets. Food thats been sitting in trays on a steam table under heat lamps for hours doesnt exactly scream, Eat me. And Im pretty sure very little of it is made fresh to order.
But at A#1s smaller restaurants, its pretty much all made to order.
The woman behind the counter in Canton has been there for as long as my friends can remember.
Probably since she was 15, they joked. Maybe they werent joking.
Shes polite and helpful, a friendly face that gives a feeling of comfort to the place. She knows the menu inside and out well over 100 items and is poised to explain the ingredients of dishes that have no description or photo.
Behind her, an expansive kitchen is commandeered by a single cook surrounded by pans of meats, veggies, seafood and sauces ready to whip lunches together in his wall of woks.
The menu/placemat is similar to those youve seen elsewhere. One side has all the numbered appetizers, soups, combination platters, chow mein and chop suey dishes, as well as endless varieties of dishes made with beef, pork, chicken and seafood by the pint or quart for takeout.
The other side is dedicated to lunch specials, 30 very reasonably priced selections ($5.39 to $5.99), all served with pork fried rice. Its got all the stuff thats been in Chinese restaurants forever, like General Tsos Chicken, moo goo gai pan, chicken chow mein and more.
We were there for lunch and chose things that were a little out of the ordinary kung po chicken, shrimp with lobster sauce and house special lo mein, each priced at $5.79.
From the appetizer portion of the menu, we tried steak teriyaki on sticks, three strips of skewered meat for $4.95.
I havent had to use tough as shoe leather in a long time, but the meat on these bamboo skewers was tougher than shoe leather.
I mean, you had to hack away at them with the little plastic fork that was supplied and you still got nowhere. If you tried to pick it up and gnaw on it, you still got nowhere and looked like a fool with this piece of meat hanging out of your mouth that you couldnt begin to chew through.
The teriyaki sauce was thick and cloying, more like hoisin, bordering on annoying.
But things got better. A lot better.
Shrimp with lobster sauce is a favorite of mine, a kind of Chinese cuisine benchmark for me, and A#1 did a nice job with it.
Lobster sauce is a type of white sauce that does not contain any lobster. Its typically made with chicken broth, a little garlic and ginger, coddled egg white and thickened with cornstarch.
While a bit gelatinous and not all that visually appealing, the mild sauce nicely complemented the perfectly cooked, good-sized shrimp about eight of them that literally popped as we bit into them.
The pork fried rice was excellent, small-grained yellow-hued rice that contained little pieces of carrot, peas and bits of seasoned pork. The rice was light and fluffy, the perfect foil for the lobster sauce.
Kung Po Chicken (more commonly Kung Pao Chicken) is in red ink on the menu, indicating hot and spicy. Its a stir-fry of bite-sized chunks of marinated chicken, diced green bell peppers, crunchy cashews, sautéed onion and chunks of baby corn in a generally hot sauce. Its pretty typical fast-food Americanized Chinese, tasty and solid with fresh, crisp vegetables. And while it claims to be spicy, its not. But if youd like it hotter, it says on the menu, We can alter the spicy according to your taste.
House Special Lo Mein is a variation of the chicken or pork lo mein on the lunch menu. It combines chicken and pork as well as beef and shrimp. My friends have been patronizing the restaurant for years and know all the ins and outs of the menu. House Special Lo Mein is one of their favorites crisp veggies, tasty proteins, filling noodles (Chinese wheat flour noodles that look like fat spaghetti) in a not-too-salty brown sauce. Very tasty.
Three lunch specials, three soft drinks and the skewered shoe cost $29.01 with tax.
We also took two items to go, a pint of hot and sour soup ($2.95) and Sezechuan-style bean curd ($8.95).
The soup was very good, containing lots of tofu, mushrooms and banana shoots in a dark, spicy broth.
The bean curd also was very good long strips of tofu, cabbage, scallions and carrots in a moderately spicy sauce (not much different from the Kung Po). A hearty meal served with white rice.
A#1 is a good choice for fast, reliable and healthy Chinese food in Canton. The restaurants dishes have just the right amount of seasoning not too salty, not too pungent.
And you cant beat their vegetables, which are cooked perfectly, still a bit crunchy.
The restaurants service and stability for so many years has helped business and commerce in downtown Canton. And if youre looking for an inexpensive cooked-to-order lunch, how can you beat a plentiful main dish with a heap of fried rice for under six bucks?
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A#1 Oriental Kitchen
43 Main St.
A restaurant thats been around for 25 years, offering cooked-to-order Chinese food.
HOURS: Open seven days a week
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Lunch specials are available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday
OUR PICKS: Kung Po Chicken, House Special Lo Mein, shrimp with lobster sauce, Szechuan style bean curd