Finding good Chinese food in Omaha — real Chinese food, that is — is a challenge.
We've all had our share of Styrofoam containers full of heavily-breaded and fried pieces of meat and overcooked vegetables drenched in thick, sweet sauce that becomes gelatinous when left in the fridge overnight.
It's quick, cheap and easy, but also not that good.
Canton House, a small, simple restaurant near 90th and Fort Streets, is among the spots that serve food beyond broccoli beef or almond chicken.
It's dim sum and then some.
Diners will find a menu divided into sections: Chinese-American cuisine, authentic Chinese cuisine, Canton specials and dim sum. During two recent sitdown meals (and a separate trip for takeout), my favorite items were the steamed, stuffed, rolled and fried delights from the dim sum menu. I also liked entrees from both the authentic cuisine and Canton sections.
“Dim sum” refers to small dishes served in portions of three or four pieces in steamer baskets or on small plates. Similar to Spanish tapas, items are shared among everyone at the table, allowing diners to try a variety of food. I'm drawn to it because I love hors d'oeuvres, small plates, anything bite-sized.
Canton House serves dim sum daily with more than two dozen items; most restaurants that serve dim sum do so just on weekends. Diners make their selections by ticking off items on a list, and the dim sum is delivered to your table as it's prepared.
The selection at Canton House includes fluffy steamed buns filled with sweet-savory barbecued pork; thick, slippery rice noodle rolls; deep-fried shrimp balls; pan-fried, then steamed potstickers with a moist interior; sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf; fried turnip cake; and an assortment of dumplings.
Most of the goodies cost just a few dollars and include both the recognizable and the unusual. I'm not the most adventurous eater, especially when it comes to unconventional meat, so I skipped such items as spicy pork ear, chicken feet and marinated jellyfish.
I mostly ordered dim sum that I've had elsewhere, but I did try a couple new-to-me items, including stuffed eggplant. Served three to an order, the dish features a filling of shrimp, cilantro and onion sandwiched between two tender (but not mushy) discs of fried eggplant. It was a great-tasting way to enjoy one of my favorite vegetables. My dining companion, who isn't a fan of eggplant, said he was surprised how much he liked it.
We also shared an order of spring rolls: hot, crispy and stuffed with a filling of minced pork and shrimp, black mushroom, carrot and bamboo shoots. The rolls were OK, but I found the dipping sauce they were served with more interesting.
Unlike the sticky, cloying, bright-red sweet and sour sauce that's often served at Chinese restaurants, Canton House's version has a thinner consistency and a nice balance of sweet, tangy and savory flavors. Along with ketchup, it features white vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and other ingredients.
“I make it Hong Kong style,” Canton House chef-owner Jimmy Ng said later in an interview.
A Chinese native who developed his dim sum techniques at restaurants in Hong Kong, Ng makes all the dim sum and their accompanying condiments. I enjoyed sampling the wide variety of sauces, including hot chili oil, almost as much as the dim sum.
Of the treats we tried, highlights included siu mai, a minced pork and shrimp dumpling with a ruffly, open top; delicately-wrapped, translucent steamed shrimp dumplings called ha gao; and steamed Shanghai dumplings served in the same bamboo basket in which they're cooked.
The Shanghai dumplings were my favorite. Each plump pouch contains a mixture of minced pork, mushroom, carrot, cilantro, onion, ginger and garlic. After dunking a dumpling into a sauce made with Chinese red vinegar and fresh ginger, I popped the whole savory morsel in my mouth and could've easily polished off all eight pieces.
From the list of Canton specialties, we liked the minced garlic bok choy ($4.50 for a big platter of the sauteed greens), and beef with black bean sauce and pan-fried rice noodles ($9.50). Enough to feed at least four people, the entree includes tender slices of beef, onion, red and green bell peppers, black bean sauce, garlic, soy sauce and chili sauce, tossed with rice noodles. It's a dish I'd have again.
An item I probably wouldn't order again is the pan-fried scallops with shrimp, one of the menu's Chinese-American selections. It features the seafood in a thick brown sauce with garlic, onion, diced carrots, peas and bell peppers. The dish wasn't bad, but I would have liked a less-sweet sauce.
As for decor and atmosphere, the dining room is pretty basic. Pumpkin-colored paint, brown paneling, a flat-screen TV and Chinese-style poster art adorn the walls. Pendant lights and a few red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. Chinese zodiac paper placemats cover the laminate-top tables.
Service during both visits was prompt and courteous. A takeout order was ready at the promised time, filled correctly and still piping hot.
Until I'm able to take that bucket-list trip to China one day, a visit to Canton House satisfies my cravings with a tempting selection of traditional and, more importantly, tasty Chinese food.