David’s Mai Lai Wah Noodle House

David’s Mai Lai Wah Noodle House
1001 Race St.
Credit cards accepted
Wheelchair-accessible (tables are close together)
Open daily for lunch and dinner

"It’s so good to see a restaurant packed with happy people who are really enjoying their dinner."

As soon as I said these words, my husband Edward declared, "That’s your lede."

You know how rare it is when the dishes arrive fresh and hot, service is friendly and professional, no one is complaining, the staff is never harried or in a bad mood and newcomers are treated like regulars. But that’s the way it’s always been at David’s Mai Lai Wah Noodle House in Chinatown. I’ve enjoyed lunch and dinner here many times and the experience is deliciously consistent.

Christmas Day was no exception. Snow never stops us. Edward and I went to the movies and looked forward to a warming meal on a bitterly cold night. People of all ages had the same idea. Chinatown is a family destination where kids usually get their first taste of restaurant food other than a burger and fries.

The dining room is bright so you can read the menu and see the chef’s creations on the plate. Christmas songs such as the nostalgic Frosty the Snowman sung by Jimmy Durante filled the room, and patrons were chattering away yet the noise level was low. Perhaps the pretty high ceiling, painted gold with a little red, had something to do with it.

Edward and I settled into a table for four set with white linen napkins. A Johnny Walker Red neat and a martini served in a Gibson glass were just $3.75 each. At David’s Mai Lai Wah, we often like to order as we go. We finish a dish, decide how hungry we are and match an appetizer of succulent barbecued roast pork ($5.50) or an entrée of my favorite "mei fun," thin rice noodles with shrimp ($6.95).

Although there are Cantonese and Szechuan dishes on the large menu, David’s Mai Lai Wah is known for its Hong Kong-style cuisine. This is evident in house special soup for two ($6.50). We received a large tureen filled with many delicious things. The wontons are not prepared with thick commercial dough and filled with nondescript meat. These beauties are fat and round, fashioned from homemade egg dough so transparent you could read a newspaper through them. They are filled with a lightly spiced mixture of minced pork and shrimp. And shrimp, thinly sliced breast of chicken, tasty pork, straw mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, bok choy and water chestnuts filled the tureen of not-at-all-salty chicken broth. I could eat a dozen wontons here because they are so uncommonly good. You won’t get soggy overcooked vegetables in the soup. Each vegetable retained a bit of crunch. A bowl of wide crispy noodles came with the soup, but be careful — they are as addictive as potato chips.

Six steamed dumplings ($4.95) were large and plump, filled with minced pork and made with a slightly thicker version of dough used in the wontons. Many places give you puny little dumplings, but these were good-sized. Instead of the usual soy and vinegar sauces, we received a garlic sauce that was outrageously delicious. I knew it would enhance any number of dishes, particularly steamed shrimp or fish. It was made with fresh, finely minced garlic that was on the mild side. The garlic was ground into a paste with a bit of peanut oil and a hint of finely minced scallion. It looked like a Chinese pesto and was a perfect topping for the dumplings.

Another famous Hong Kong style of cooking uses salt and pepper. Scallops, shrimp and squid are usually the fish of choice. Salt and pepper shrimp and squid ($9.95) was a large mound of fresh baby squid with tentacles and shrimp that were first coated in a light batter — similar to tempura but a bit richer — that has been blended with salt and pepper. The squid and shrimp were quickly fried and arrived piping-hot and free of grease. The delicious combination of fish was not on the menu, but our waitress told us we could have any mix of fish we wanted. The red dietary light may go off in some health-conscious minds by the mere mention of salt, but seafood prepared in this manner is not salty at all.

Since we followed the order as we went, we had some room for something light. A whole steamed striped bass ($18) was the perfect way to end our meal. It arrived head-to-tail on a hot plate. Our waitress whisked out the long center bone with one stroke, smiled and said, "Enjoy." Enjoy we did. The fish weighed about 2 pounds, its flesh sweet, succulent and cooked just right. A sauce of light soy, julienne of scallion and minced ginger enhanced the light flavor of the fish. Remember the Chinese pesto? Well, it was dreamy on the fish as well. I placed a mound of fluffy hot steamed rice on my plate and topped it with the sauce from the fish and the minced garlic, blended the ingredients with my chopsticks and wound up with a delicious treat.

Some friends and I have been lamenting the lack of moderately priced, really good Chinese restaurants in town. Some are too fancy and expensive. Many places oversauce the ingredients or use inferior-quality products. Yet we have not found this to be the case in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown or Center City.

We have not found it to be the case at David’s Mai Lai Wah Noodle House either. It might just be the best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.

Three tips of the toque to David’s Mai Lai Wah Noodle House.