It’s no secret that many Chinese restaurants aren’t owned by people of Chinese heritage, much in the same way that their recipes are only in the vaguest sense influenced by the country of China. As much as purists can rail against the sickly sweet monochromatic fried morsels dished from the woks of many a corner restaurant as inauthentic, their wares have satiated generations of American palettes and created a revenue stream for Asian-Americans of varying descents.
Sometimes the true heritage seeps onto the menu of these Chinese menus, extending a cultural branch and a culinary secret passage into what the owners are really interested in cooking. One of these is situated off Central and I-235 in an unassuming Chinese takeout restaurant called China Express, and within you can find some surprisingly good Vietnamese cuisine.
The Vietnamese menu is only a small portion of the menu, so the ingredients available are limited compared to an out-and-out Vietnamese restaurant. But China Express can still surprise, particularly if you order the banh xeo, a yellow egg pancake that’s served with a slew of romaine lettuce leaves, designed to be used to wrap bits of your egg pancake, and topped with cucumber, basil, and nuoc cham, a dipping sauce made with fish sauce and sugar.
Altogether, these ad hoc lettuce wraps are both sweet and savory, a combination of lightness and complexity.
There are a limited number of other Vietnamese dishes that aren’t as unanimously successful. The pho, for instance, includes the flank beef and the bo vien (beef tendon meatballs) in a typical pho dac biet, though without the tendon and tripe commonly found at other locations.
The bun thit nuong, a noodle dish topped with grilled beef, dried shrimp, peanuts and a variety of vegetables, is a nice distraction from the typical list of Chinese fare, on par with Wichita’s other great Vietnamese restaurants.
The name of the restaurant is nevertheless China Express, and that is the majority of the food you’ll find here. A full menu of American Chinese standards is available, and odds are good that there will be at least one person waiting for a takeout order when you visit. The renditions of the familiar standards here will hit the spot for whatever you’re in the mood for, though they’re a little more restrained on the sugar than the typical takeout restaurant. Whether that’s a good thing will depend on your preference.
The banh xeo alone is worth a trip to China Express.