Happy Chinese New Year! The 15-day celebration began Sunday. That makes the timing right to visit the Ming Cafe. It's serene, it's pretty and it offers a welcome respite from navigating North Main Street. (The driving there is still a challenging thing.)
We were happily surprised when we did get there, though. It's amazing what can be done with a very ordinary storefront. This tiny place is adorned with beautifully carved woodwork; shelves display handmade Yixing pottery teapots. In other words, the dining room is about as far from typical strip mall Chinese buffets as Western New York is from China itself. Takeout is a definite option here, but why bother? It's more than comfortable to eat in.
There's a good-sized menu; many popular favorites with nice little twists to them. Case in point: my Spinach and Tofu Egg Drop soup ($3.75), a soothing brew if ever there was one. The chicken broth was crowded with the vegetable and chunks of bean curd.
For contrast's sake, we also tried the Hot and Sour Soup, quite a complex mixture and very definitely spicy. In fact, the soup was much hotter than it was sour.
By and large, you'll note a larger proportion of spicy dishes on the Ming menu than at most local Chinese restaurants. And you do have the option of stating just how zingy you want the dish to be.
Hint: order "up." We selected Shrimp with Cashew and Almonds ($7.50) -- the restaurant offers many choices of what they call "Over Rice" plates, which are really stir-fried dishes. We specified "Medium." But to tell the truth, the dish could have been much peppier for our tastes. And though we enjoyed what we were eating, we couldn't help but notice that the amounts of shrimp, cashews and almonds were minuscule. Lots of rice.
Another one of our choices was marked with the red chili symbol as well. The classic Orange Peel Beef ($11.95) turned up in deep, intense and slightly sweet sauce. Strong citrus flavors here -- in addition to the crunchy orange peel. Again, only medium spicy. But still a highly recommended dish.
The third choice was our favorite, selected because we knew it would have a gentle flavor to complement the other dishes. Country Style Vegetables ($8.95) boasted loads of tofu and mushrooms. The sauce was subtle, but it boasted a garlicky rather than a chili taste.
Obviously, we only scratched the menu here. Perhaps we'll choose Chicken Basil Fried Rice next time, because it comes with Salted Anchovies ($9.95) -- can't think of a better reason to order something. Or Singapore Vermicelli ($8.95), because it comes in a curry sauce.
There's even a Mongolian Wok Seared Beef ($13.95), which is marinated in spicy bean paste, cilantro and sesame.
Not to mention the assorted vegetables dish "wearing a hat" as it says on the menu. That simply means that the julienned veggies are topped with an omelet ($8.95).
In fact, come to think of it, there could be worse things than relaxing in this lovely setting while working down the menu step by step.
3 stars (out of 4)
WHERE: 3268 Main St. (833-6988). A serene oasis that serves freshly prepared food. No beer or wine. No credit cards. FAVORITE DISH: Country Style Vegetables
NEEDS WORK: All food is of good quality.
PRICE RANGE: Entree style dishes from $8.95 to about $15.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
HOURS: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Reservations for large parties only.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Many stir-fried dishes; much tofu.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: One step.
PARKING: On the street or in the lot at the corner.
KID APPEAL: Sophisticated youngsters will enjoy it.