The intersection of Ditch Rd. and 86th St. might not evoke the kind of imagery we typically associate with the concept of a "neighborhood." It's practically a shrine to the internal combustion engine: a crossroads defined by strip malls and surface parking lots. Pedestrians venture here at their peril.
All the more reason, then, to celebrate the existence of a decidedly neighborhood restaurant at the heart of this vehicular Valhalla. For that's what Sesame Chinese Restaurant feels like.
On the snow-whipped Friday night we visited Sesame, the tidy, café-like room was well-populated with families and couples tucking into sumptuous portions of piping hot Chinese cuisine. A white board fixed to the back wall was covered with handwritten plaudits, indicating that Sesame is the kind of place that inspires loyalty among the initiated.
It didn't take long for us to get the drift.
We started by ordering an Egg Roll ($1.25), Vegetable Roll ($1.25), Crabmeat Rangoon ($2.00) and a bowl of Seafood Deluxe Soup ($4.50).
Both rolls were plump as a tycoon's cigar. The Egg Roll was crispy on the outside, whereas the Vegetable Roll featured a flakier wrap; the first bites into both were immediately rewarded by fresh ingredients on the inside – among them, bean sprouts, finely shredded cabbage and carrots (with a bit of pork included with the Egg Roll).
Freshness, it turned out, would be a theme running throughout this meal. The Seafood Deluxe Soup was a great case-in-point. This satiny egg drop-style broth was given additional substance through the judicious inclusion of a few finely chopped vegetables to complement bits of shrimp, scallops and white fish. Everything was cooked to perfection, making the most of the ingredients' subtle flavors and textures.
The star-shaped and batter-fried Crab Rangoons were the right blend of crisp and creamy -- an appetizer that could easily pass for dessert.
We ordered entrees from the Seafood, Meat and Vegetable portions of the menu. The Mongolian Barbeque ($7.95) was a heaping plate of thinly sliced beef and pork served on a bed of grilled cabbage with mushrooms and scallion stalks. Both meats were almost meltingly tender, with a rich, dusky flavor that, for my taste, would have benefited from some additional pepper or garlic.
The Sesame Bean Curd ($7.50) was a generous serving consisting of large cubes of carmelized tofu with stir-fried broccoli. The tofu could not have been better. The carmelized coating managed somehow to be both chewy and slightly crisp at the edges, giving way to an almost creamy center. In addition to its brilliant green color, the broccoli retained a nice, fresh crunch.
The star of the evening was, arguably, the Pepper-Salt Tilapia. For a mere $8.50, a whole fish, about the size of deflated football, was brought to the table. The crispy skin was scored in a number of places for easy access. When this was peeled back, the tilapia's tender white meat was easily plucked from the bone and then lightly sprinkled with a mix of sea salt and black pepper served in a small dish on the side. This has got to be one of the best deals of its kind in the city.
Speaking of deals, all three of our entrée portions were so large that a couple could share a single serving and be easily satisfied; we brought home boxes of leftover barbeque and bean curd.
Its location may not look like a "neighborhood," but Sesame provides a feast of fresh, honest fare for hungry folks.