The most common complaint some folks have about Chinese restaurants is that what they serve is toned-down and Americanized. An example of a similar cultural disconnect is found at the Olive Garden, whose food is so far from genuine Italian cuisine that it's a wonder there hasn't been a diplomatic protest lodged at the U.N.
That is not a criticism you can level against Lam's Chinese Restaurant, one of the finest restaurants in northeast Bakersfield and one I haven't devoted a full column to in years, despite its consistent inclusion on my year-end Best in Bakersfield list and my affinity for dining there when I'm not visiting restaurants for this column. There is so much that is good besides the restaurant's famous stir-fried hot and spicy shrimp ($12.95) -- if you can muster the resolve to try something new. Which I usually can't.
In fact, over the past 15 years I have never neglected to order the shrimp specialty as part of the feast. If I go too long without this dish -- much like the walnut shrimp at Great Castle -- I get cranky, curmudgeonly and generally out of sorts. I thought I was alone, but our waiter shares my passion. As he cleaned our plates, he noted the empty platter where the shrimp used to be and said, "I could eat those every day."
What makes them so great, especially for someone like me who is not typically fond of fried shrimp, is the thin batter, the crunchy exterior and the perfection of the finely chopped hot-peppers-oil-garlic-green-onions mix on top. It's so good, you'd be tempted to order it as a last meal (available all day as one of the restaurant's special lunch plates, with rice and soup, for $8.75).
But there's a lot more to recommend on the extensive Lam's menu (175 entrees, 19 special plates, 14 special lunch plates), and some items on the family-style dinner list that you can order as entrees, such as the braised green beans. I couldn't find them on the list of vegetables, so I didn't order them even though I heard they were excellent, and I'm a sucker for expertly prepared fresh green beans. But as I was walking out, I saw them on a table and asked our waiter about them. His reply: "Oh, yes, braised green beans." My best advice for diners is that this is the kind of place that will make whatever you want, with their old-school keep- the-customer-happy attitude. So just order what you want, and don't be afraid to ask.
We ran across something else that, based on the enthusiasm of my companions that night, also is a must-order. Off the chow mein list we selected dry-style beef chow fun ($9.95). We were presented with a platter of those flat, wide rice noodles known as hefen (also spelled ho fun, hence the name) with the crispiest of bean sprouts, finely chopped green onions and tender, slightly smoky-tasting thin medallions of beef. The dry in the name means the noodles were cooked without sauce, and sauced later. Both my companions dug in for seconds. There was just enough garlic to make it interesting and not too much to overpower the delicate flavors. Too much oil and this dish is a gooey mess. If cooked too slowly, parts of it fall apart. If you were looking for a dish that highlights the skill of the kitchen personnel at Lam's, this is it. I haven't had a finer version ever in Bakersfield.
Another item worth recommending is the hot and spicy pork chop ($11.95), a land-based version of the shrimp mentioned above. Tiny pork chops are battered and fried before getting the same oil-garlic-pepper garnish. It's odd; some of the cutlets have a tiny bone in them and some are free of such impediments to consumption. It makes dining an adventure.
My companions noted the high quality of the ingredients that was a consistent thread during our meal.
The biggest disappoint besides the absence of a decent wine list (box wine only, by the glass; no thanks) was the sliced chicken with lemon sauce ($10.55). The lemon sauce was fine, but the boneless fried chicken was unevenly battered and hacked would be a more accurate adjective than sliced. The presentation here can occasionally be underemphasized, but it was the least visually appealing dish brought to the table. In some areas the batter had separated from the chicken and was lying to the side. Ugh.
Readers have praised the four duck dishes (fried, roasted, Peking and with plum sauce). On the list of special plates (available all day) I love the tomato beef over rice ($7.75). If I can stay away from those shrimp. I've also heard good things about the pork with eggplant but didn't see it on the menu.
I give the service four stars, mostly because our waiter was one of those polished veterans who did so many things well. The order was taken efficiently, we never wanted for attention and he quietly moved around the room like he was the master of his domain. Even a small thing like packing our leftovers was done so efficiently. We felt well-tended from start to finish.
Lam's Chinese Restaurant can still be recommended for a fine-dining experience.