They don’t make restaurants like Jinlan anymore. Most Chinese restaurants in Western New York look the same; a boring interior with some random artwork, the standard backlit menu and occasionally a waving cat at the cashier counter. Jinlan is not like these restaurants, it’s design dates back to the 50’s and 60’s when the United States was going through a what can only be described as a Polynesian/Tiki Bar renaissance. When you walk into Jinlan you are transported back in time and that’s worth the trip alone, which is a good thing because the food isn’t that great.
Alli and I decided to check out Jinlan last weekend because our friend Donny had given us the heads up about this wonderfully dated Chinese restaurant that served tiki drinks (what Chinese restaurant still serves liquor?).
Their bar design is sadly nothing special but the mini bridge artwork in the walkway, metal artwork in the hallway and the intricate paintings and molding in the dining room are fantastic. It genuinely feels like they haven’t changed one thing about the restaurant since they opened. The lighting fixtures with stained glass have seen better days but it’s still amazing that they’ve existed this long. Even the hardcover (!) menu looks like it’s the original. The prices have been tapped over and re-written over the years but the descriptions and options include numerous dated Chinese classics.
We started our meal off with two tiki drinks because at $6 a piece you just have to. Alli ordered herself a Mai Tai while I ordered a Zombie. Both were made with store bought orange juice and your major label brands of rum and brandy. These weren’t ‘craft cocktails’ by any stretch. Still, they were shockingly delicious. Served in proper tiki glasses, if we lived within walking distance, I would have ordered three for myself.
For our meal we ordered the Pu Pu Platter for two ($10ish) that was served in a traditional wooden bowl, complete with skewers of pork on top of an open flame. Our waitress said we could let them “cook as long as we wanted” but those pieces of meat had been cooked long enough already. The rest of the fried options on the plate were what you’d expect at a Chinese restaurant; crispy eggrolls and very cream-cheese-heavy crab rangoon.
For our main courses, Alli embraced the menu and ordered one of her favorite guilty pleasure dishes, Chicken with Broccoli. I tried to sample something on the menu that was unique and ordered their Cha Jong Noodle (Mandarin style soft noodles with minced pork). Alli’s Chicken was coated in a shiny brown sauce and overall the dish was a a bit above-average in comparison to other Chinese take-out. The chicken actually had a fair amount of white meat in every bite and the sauce wasn’t too salty. My dish was not that great. Advertised as a ‘hot’ dish, it had almost no heat or spice whatsoever. The sauce resembled squid ink and had notes of pepper and soy but it all blended into a generic flavor that overwhelmed the noodles. It was a disappointing dish and I wish I had gone with my initial menu choice, the sweet and sour pork (my personal take-out favorite).
So, OK, the food wasn’t great, but I wasn’t expecting it to be. At Jinlan, the experience is so unique that I may actually go back when I next get a craving for my favorite guilty pleasures. This place doesn’t hold a candle to Miss Hot Cafe or Peking Quick One (it’s not even in the same category) but if I just want some standard Sweet and Sour Pork and a tiki drink…why not.