That Food Guy
Monday, October 17, 2016
  China Lights - Eagle River, Alaska


 China Lights
12110 Business Blvd #2
Eagle River, Alaska 88577
(907) 694-8080

 
 
 
 

The China Lights Restaurant in Eagle River is a small to medium-sized facility located in a strip mall. This particular restaurant has been there since 1980. A sister establishment, located in Anchorage, has been extant since 2010. I have not visited the Anchorage facility so everything herein pertains to the Eagle River store.
I have a mixed history with China Lights that goes back a long time. I first became aware of the Eagle River China Lights when I moved into the area about 1995. A fan of Chinese food, I was quick to spot it and mentally mark it for later. Sometime later I had that urge for some fried rice, one of my favorite foods, and went to China Lights for takeout.  It was excellent! I really loved it; very flavorful with a great seasoning combination I wished I could emulate. I was very happy to have some tasty Chinese food close at hand.
It was a busy time for me then. There was work and the extracurricular activities such as dog mushing that kept me busy and it was a long while before I was in town, at the right time, to get some more fried rice takeout. It was, to put it plainly, terrible. The rice was almost crunchy. It wasn’t seasoned at all except for a splash of soy sauce and there was only a pittance of vegetables and chicken thrown in. Even steaming it a bit at home I was unable to revive it and, sadly, most of that order ended up in the compost pile. After that encounter I pretty much erased the mental note and never again considered the China Lights as an asset. Over the ensuing years I have driven past the China Lights many, many times but never had any inkling to try it again.

During this 2016 trip to Alaska I noticed some TV ads for the China Lights. They mostly featured the Anchorage store, especially the interior shots showing the buffet, but the ad did tell of the two locations, Anchorage and Eagle River. That got me to thinking… (Sometimes that is a dangerous thing to do.) So, if the China Lights has been there all this time without going under they must be doing something right and not chasing away customers like they did me. Also, if they have made enough profit to open or take over another facility they must have a fairly large and satisfied customer base. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to give China Lights another try.
I called good buddy Larry Tower and asked if he would like to go to lunch one day soon. On the appointed day we made the fifteen minute drive to China Lights. Apparently the buffet is popular and the hostess/waitress assumed we were there for the buffet and when she seated us she didn’t offer the menu as an option. I thought for a moment and then decided, “Why not?” We would try the buffet today and I could come back later for a “lunch special” take home meal rather than eat in. She took our beverage order and bade us to go and select from the buffet.

As I mentioned, the store is of modest size. It is well decorated in the Asian theme with bas-relief paneling depicting Chinese scenes. The ceiling is embossed tiles in a copper color. Various wall hangings and objects d’art round out the décor. There are several booths along the front window wall and the main dining area features tables and chair that can be arranged as needed to accommodate different sized groups. There is no room for free standing serving bars as you would normally find in a Chinese buffet. In the addition of the buffet to the more traditional sit down and dine in and take out there was little room for adding the serving bars. There is a salad bar and steam table combination, serve from one side only and about 16 to 18 feet long, against the back wall. That leaves little room for a large number of selections one would normally associate with a Chinese buffet. As I remember the selections (and memory can be spotty) the selections, with some of my initial impressions, were as follows.
Soups – Egg flower and  - one other: Egg flower soup good, didn’t try the other

Almond Chicken – Lots of chicken, pretty good but a bit confused flavor wise

Sesame Chicken – A mainstream sesame chicken but a bit weak in the sauce

Mongolian Chicken – A good amount of chicken with pretty good flavor, interesting

Spicy Meatballs - a bit over cooked, kind of bland

Vegetable Lo Mein – more noodles than vegetables

Pot Stickers – not exceptional, need the sauce

Fried Rice – for a filler dish, not too bad with good flavor and fresh looking vegetables but not as good as my sampling many years ago

Spring Rolls – little prepackaged rolls a bit chewy/crunchy

Tempura Vegetables – onion rings and medallions of squash, I believe.

Sweet and Sour Chicken – ahhh, yes! The New York-style is here too. Too bad…

Sweet and Sour Sauce – It’s red.

French fries – that one puzzles me – I didn’t try them but French fries in the limited space available?

Assorted fruits and Desserts -

 What is the allure of the Chinese buffet? I would answer that it a place where, for a relatively small amount of money, you can eat to your fill with palatable food; a place to go get stuffed. To that end China Lights does quite well. Its selections, although limited by space, fare well compared to any of the other buffets I have tried in the past. I do have some minor issues with some of the offerings but overall, as I mentioned, it is quite good as Chinese buffets go.

On my first go through the buffet line, I got a bowl of egg flower soup and a plate with tempura vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, a pot sticker, spicy meatballs, sesame chicken, some Mongolian chicken and my favorite, fried rice. The soup was good. There were a lot of egg shreds and the broth had a good flavor as well as a nice mouth feel; it wasn’t just a bowl of flavored water. The selection of the tempura vegetables was limited to some onion rings and some small medallions I think were squash. The items were battered and fried but the batter was very heavy for tempura and detracted from what taste the vegetables had. The pot stickers were a bit chewy and perhaps had been in the pan too long. The spicy meatballs relied on the sauce for the spice and the texture was coarse, perhaps a lot of filler, Not one of my favorite for the selection. The Mongolian chicken was one of the better dishes they offered. It was flavorful with lots of chicken. The sesame chicken was much like other buffet sesame chickens, an amber sauce and toasted sesame seeds. It didn’t stand out, kind of bland, and I think the sauce needed a bit more sesame oil to liven up the flavor. The sweet and sour chicken here was what I have come to learn is called New York-style; breaded chicken pieces and a red sweet and sour sauce on the side. I learned to like sweet and sour chicken a long time ago on the West Coast. It was dish of breaded and fried chicken pieces, stir fried Bell peppers, onion and sometimes thinly sliced carrots and pineapple chunks all tossed with a red sauce with definite sweet and sour overtones; a medley of many great flavors and textures. I am a bit biased and it is difficult to be positive about a dish that is missing most of its elements. The China Light’s version was heavily breaded chicken (I suspect the breaded chicken is a bulk pre-made kitchen supply) and the sauce was indeed red, sticky and sweet but lacked any definite sour component. It was just like all the other buffet sweet and sour chicken just a shadow of the real thing. The fried rice was good. It was a filler dish to be sure, an inexpensive food to bulk out the meal. Even so, it had good flavor and there were some little goodies in the mix to add to the taste and texture.
Larry, my dining companion, said that he was satisfied with the meal and if he were in the neighborhood when it was time to eat he wouldn’t mind eating at China Lights again. He pretty much echoed my feelings. Aside from the negatives I noted above, China Lights is on a par with just about any other Chinese, all you can eat, buffet.

To date my favorite Chinese restaurant in Alaska is the Imperial Palace. It is located in Anchorage which is a 45-minute drive away from home. China Lights, on the other hand, located in Eagle River, is barely a 10-minute drive away. I suspect that on my next trip to Alaska I will try out China Lights and order from the menu for a sit-down dinner. I remember once I had some great food from there. It would be very nice to know that a good and trusted source was near to home. I will let you know how well that turns out in a later blog post.
It should be noted that there is a certificate proudly displayed on the entranceway wall of China Lights:  Top 100 Chinese Restaurants:  Exterior 100%, Service 100%, Food 97.06%

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