MARGATE - There is little doubt that Chinese cooking ranks among the world's great cuisines. The interplay of hot, sour, sweet and salty in the hands of a good cook embellishes the cuisine with layer upon layer of nuance.
Unfortunately - like French and Italian, two other great cuisines - the Americanized adaptations yields watered-down versions of the wonderful food eaten by more than a third of the world's population. Chinese flavors should not be shy. Our review meal at Billy Ho's Imperial East showed little of what great Chinese food can be like.
We nibbled on fried wontons served with a mild mustard sauce and a sweet/sour duck sauce.
A blackboard special, lettuce wraps ($7.95), arrived as a plate of washed lettuce leaves, a plate of stir-fried chopped chicken, water chestnuts and scallions, hoisin sauce and a red-hot sauce similar to Thai-styled sriracha. It was our job to assemble them in a form that would allow us to get the roll to our waiting mouths intact.
We spooned some of each sauce on first, then added a spoonful of the chopped-chicken mixture and rolled them to resemble an egg roll. We loved the play of the sweet hoisin sauce on the savory chicken. They were messy, but worth all of the work. Our astute server had delivered a stack of paper napkins and a moist towelette in anticipation of our questionable assembling skills.
A plate of pork-filled steamed dim sum ($4.95) was just that. A half-dozen pleated dumplings were slightly doughy with a filling that seemed undercooked. We did like the dipping sauce, mostly soy and mirin.
We had been dreaming of Peking Duck, but at Billy Ho's it is only available for two and we couldn't do a whole duck on our own. We opted for the PuPu platter ($14.95), again for two, but more manageable we thought, and with a wider view of how the kitchen was able to perform.
A lettuce-leaf-lined wooden lazy Susan featured an assortment including two each of beef on a stick with pineapple and maraschino cherry, batter-dipped shrimp, red cooked spare ribs, vegetable egg rolls, salt-and-pepper chicken wings and shrimp toasts. A tiny, cast-iron hibachi allowed us to reheat items as we dined.
The batter-dipped shrimp were slightly greasy and the shrimp inside were mushy, with the tail sticking out of the batter to be used like a convenient handle. The rest of the dish was OK yet uninspiring.
My dining companion chose the Imperial Bird's Nest ($13.50), which was a straight stir-fry of scallops, shrimp and chicken with carrot, Chinese cabbage and straw mushrooms, coated with a thickened chicken stock and slurry sauce. No strong flavors emerged; it was bland and boring. The attempt to dress it up came by way of the presentation. That was a fried-noodle nest shaped like a bowl and filled with the stir-fry mix, nestled on a bed of chopped raw cabbage and lots of parsley.
Dessert was not offered, although we saw a listing on the menu. A plate of refreshing orange wedges along with fortune cookies arrived just before the check.
The physical part of Billy Ho's is showing its age. There's one large room, colored in burgundy and peach, and the wallpaper in the waiter's station is ready to be replaced. Some of the wood trim is in need of a fresh coat of paint.
The menu is long, in typical Chinese restaurant fashion, with plenty of choices and several unintended spelling errors.
We never saw a chopstick and were never offered a pair. Part of the fun of eating a different cuisine is dealing with the nuances of the culture. When in Rome ...
There were obviously some misunderstandings that were language related between guests and servers, another hurdle easily overcome by graceful service. As we dined the room filled with regulars, including a lady who mentioned several times that "someone else was already seated at her favorite table." That's a good reason to call ahead to Billy Ho's.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
7800 Ventnor Ave
Hours: Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 9:30 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $1.75 to $14.95, entrees $11.95 to $15.95
Our bill for two: $45 plus tip