Following the Chinese menu down the street 

Sesame restores local Asian favorite to Indy’s Northwestside

From its colorful though slightly dissonant décor to the paper menu taped to the wall, you might think Sesame is a startup Chinese takeout making the most of a closed frozen yogurt store.

But for devotees of the old Cheng Du at 86th Street and Township Line Road, this new place, open just a few weeks, is an oasis. Even if you can’t get the kitschy cocktails in tiki glasses at this much more stark and barebones locale, you can get the pork wraps and the hot and sour soup, the triple delight hot pot and a wide selection of lunch specials. In short, you can get much the same tasty Shanghainese and Szechwan cuisine you may have come to love at the old place, just a few blocks up the street.

Ordinarily, strip-mall Asian joints don’t exactly cause much stir when they close. When a city approaches nearly 200 Chinese eateries in one form or another, the shuttering of one hardly seems newsworthy. No doubt you can find that Mongolian beef or that moo goo gai pan nearby, in some instances, almost next door. But when Cheng Du closed several months ago, forced out of the location it had called home for nearly a decade by the cancellation of its lease, fans of the restaurant, with its familiar and no-nonsense waitstaff, started e-mailing and posting notes on Web sites. Just what had happened to their old reliable haunt? One thing was clear: This place had a following.

Stopping in at Sesame, you can easily see why these folks stand out from the rest. Don’t expect a buffet here, though plentiful lunch specials with fried rice and an egg roll will run you less than $5. Here, the emphasis is on freshness, and while some dishes err almost to the side of simplicity, you’ll never fault the chef at Sesame for serving limp leftovers waiting for you on a steam table. Dishes marked with an asterisk are definitely several notches spicier than anything you’d get at most Chinese restaurants that tone things down for Midwestern tongues. While nothing is too unusual here, Sesame definitely takes more care with its dishes and apologizes less for its authenticity.

What will bring you back as much as the food, however, is the staff. Less cheery than warm and accommodating, they’ll make you feel like a regular on your very first visit. Come back, and they’ll remember what you had the last time. Instead of glowing about their chef’s decades of kitchen experience, they’ll concern themselves with making sure you’re satisfied with what he can create. If you’re willing to put yourself in their competent hands, you can sit back and have them bring you the most authentic dishes off their special Chinese language menu.

Even if you want control, the things on the regular menu won’t disappoint. Pork wraps ($3.95) with sweet barbecued pork and a sweet Hoisin-like sauce make for a great start, as does an exceedingly straightforward celery salad ($2) in the lightest of sauces. The ironically named vegetarian duck ($3.50) is basically mushrooms wrapped in soy paper, apparently popular though a tad chewy and bland. Likewise, vegetarian dumplings are a bit doughy, though the filling is fresh and flavorful. Soups aren’t gloppy or overly viscous as they are elsewhere; hot and sour is definitely more hot than sour, but egg drop is a nicely sweet and warm elixir with bits of corn.

Shrimp and scallops Shanghai style ($9.50) in a slightly sweet sauce don’t come padded with filler vegetables, and the triple delight noodle soup ($4.50) is equally simple but chocked full of beef, chicken and shrimp. For the less timid palate, the twice-cooked pork ($6.95) packs a big punch of chiles, garlic and ginger with delectable braised Taiwanese cabbage. If you don’t mind the shells, the salt and pepper shrimp off the special menu is some of the meatiest and sweet shrimp you’ll ever sink your teeth into. Even with appetizers and soups, you can get out of here easily for under $10, undoubtedly another reason people were clamoring for these folks to reopen their beloved Chinese eatery.

1413 W. 86th St.

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 4:30-9:30 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Saturday:11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Four stars

Handicapped accessible
Recommended dishes: pork wraps, celery salad, dan dan noodles, twice-cooked pork, salt & pepper shrimp

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