There’s something special, almost heroic, about walking into your home with a literal box of food, filled to the brim with cartons of takeout from Egg Roll Chen.
A legendary establishment in the Columbia community, Egg Roll Chen (715 Crowson Rd., eggrollchen.com) has been serving Chinese fast food to the community since 1985. There are many Chinese fast food places in Columbia, but this one has always been a standout because of the special menu board, which features a host of the owner’s native Taiwanese dishes.
While the beef noodle soup and yen su jee have been staples of my diet (which I’ve written about in Free Times before), the rest of the menu has been a lingering mystery. Until now.
I ordered the majority of the specials — I’ve had enough beef noodle soups and yen su jee to recite from memory those taste experiences — to give you a look into the deep end of Egg Roll Chen’s menu.
Beef Noodle Soup
Though I didn’t order it this time around, we can’t not talk about it. So beefy, so aromatic from the signature anise flavor that envelops the broth, the noodle soup is one of the great gateway dishes at Egg Roll Chen. It doesn’t even matter that the noodle is basically linguine. It’s all about that broth. The one thing that beef noodle soup is really missing is a distinctive name to help really break out in the same way ramen and pho have worldwide.
Rice Noodle Soup
While the beef noodle soup is full of big flavors, the rice noodle soup is the polar opposite, with its light, refreshing broth. The soup comes with a thin rice noodle, often used for pancit, which adds to the feeling of airiness. From chicken to shrimp and pork, there’s a bit of a wild mix of protein here, but these are distant afterthought to the comforting broth and noodles. This was the dish I kept going back to item after item for a palate cleanser.
Dumplings (Steamed or Fried)
Given the choice, there’s no question that the steamed dumplings are the way to go any day of the week. The wrapper they use is a thicker variety that not only holds the contents well, but has an incredibly pleasing chew. Steaming also keeps the filling plump and juicy, emphasizing the deliciousness of the well-seasoned pork. The fried version is crispy, but otherwise loses much of the luster.
Ma John Mein
Known as ma jiang mian in Taiwan, the dish is typically a popular noodle dish with sesame sauce drizzled over. With Egg Roll Chen’s version, my upfront opinion was that this just was not great. The sauce just needs more punch, and the dish overall has a bit of a texture issue, between the heavy noodles and soft veggie and protein. The only pass on the board.
House Fried Rice
Wait. Should I be ordering beef fried rice from now on? Egg Roll Chen’s take on house fried rice involves throwing the literal house in: shrimp, chicken, beef and pork are fried with onions and rice and shoveled into an intimidatingly packed to go container. While the shrimp, chicken and pork falls a bit on the take-it-or-leave-it side, the beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender. The fried rice in general is inoffensive and a likely crowd pleaser.
While most of the special menu is fairly unique to Egg Roll Chen, the super combo is your classic bang-for-your-buck option with an enormous heaping of fried rice alongside two wings and a drink. This is a quantity over quality situation of the highest magnitude.
Ma Po Tofu
Classically a Sichuan ground pork and tofu dish simmered in a thick, spicy sauce, Egg Roll Chen serves a very lightened version The soft tofu and strips of pork aren’t huge standouts on their own, but the light chili sauce Egg Roll Chen provides marries them together well and brings it alive with warming heat and some light acidity. Served with plain rice, it’s one of those options that’s best consumed at home where you can profusely sweat and suffer in silence while still eating more because of how hard it is to put down after just one bite.
On paper, Egg Roll Chen way undersells this dish as basically tofu with vegetables. The whole thing should read “surprisingly craveable deep-fried tofu tossed in a brown sauce with perfectly cooked vegetables.” The tofu here is splendidly fried, which importantly doesn’t mean crispy, but textured with a lovely bite and chew. The light brown sauce gives off wisps of garlic that perfume the whole dish. The vegetables are completely different from most dishes on the menu, all quickly cooked on the wok so that they are just barely warmed through in the sauce, helping provide some varying texture throughout. This is a quiet winner and one I’d easily suggest to meat eaters and vegetarians alike.
Yen Su Jee
If there were a dish that Egg Roll Chen was synonymous with besides its egg rolls, it’s Yen Su Jee. It features chunks of dark meat chicken that’s lightly battered and fried until golden. The dish comes into its own when the freshly deep fried chicken hits the wok and is quickly tossed in a chili and green onion mixture. The result is this deeply crunchy, deeply flavored street food dish that’s got a little heat, a lot of crunch, and is a salt-bomb in the best way. So delicious.