In a struggling strip mall with the remains of a dead Wal-Mart as the anchor store, there sits a moving truck with the sign pointing towards a Chinese restaurant. Thousands of people drive by the intersection of College and Harmony every day, myself included, often wondering why a Chinese restaurant advertises for their margaritas, after reading the signs by the side of the road. Just by looking at the building, you aren’t inspired to pull over and grab a bite to eat. In fact, if Chinese is on your mind, you probably stop in at Panda Express right there on the very same corner.
If by chance you do stop and decide to try South China, you may feel a bit of regret after walking through the door and noticing the sparse decor – large orange walls, very few works of art and outdated tall mauve booths; family pictures of children lovingly displayed for customers to see and a fish tank that desperately needs cleaning. But I implore you to ignore those first impressions, sit down and open the menu. What you are about to eat is delicious.
South China Restaurant is the result of years of family cooking that had been passed down from father to son. In 1995, the Fort Collins restaurant began its run with Executive Chef and Owner, Ming Lee preserving his father’s tradition and following the philosophy: “Preserve recipes in their original design from China all while using the freshest ingredients available and making everything by hand from scratch!” Specializing in Mandarin, Szechuan, and Cantonese styles, you really do get a tiny hint of authentic Chinese cuisine (as authentic as you can get in Fort Collins). This is a place where your patience is richly rewarded with dishes made to order and really from scratch. You can taste it in every bite.
While out for lunch with a friend, we started perusing the menu while munching on crispy wonton strips. They come with two sauces – sweet and sour and spicy mustard. Both are great, and the mustard is especially hot (in a good way).
My friend had mentioned how South China has the best hot and sour soup in town and that it was an absolute must to order. Completely trusting her palate, I took my first bite and was convinced. This really is the best hot and sour soup in Fort Collins. Made from scratch twice a day, it’s not especially spicy, but it is incredibly fresh and made with quality ingredients. Crisp, clean broth filled with firm vegetables – nothing bland or slimy about this bowl. It was deemed to be the only hot and sour soup I will eat in town.
My friend ordered Buddha’s Feast – a medley of vegetables stir-fried in a light garlic sauce. It was lite and savory, healthy and filling, all at the same time. The vegetable portion sizes are nice large chunks, which provide great coverage for the sauce.
I had the sweet and sour shrimp made with their hand blended sauce. I really enjoyed this dish, simply because of the quality of shrimp. Very plump, dense and butterflied – nothing like the other shrimp dishes in town. The fried breading was thick and crunchy and of course, the sauce was great, although to be truthful, I couldn’t tell the difference compared to other sweet and sour sauces in town.
On another visit with my boys, I had the egg drop soup, which was also an amazing soup to eat, just like the hot and sour I had previously. Very, very fresh with large pieces of soft cabbage that were a perfect texture. The perfect way to start a meal.
This time I chose the shrimp chow mein – noodles with shredded cabbage, green onion, white onion and bamboo shoots. The shrimp were just as plump and fantastic as before and the brown sauce was consistently delicious as well. I savored each chewy bite of the noodles (I’m a sucker for good noodles).
During each visit, our meals came with egg rolls and rice. The egg rolls were huge, especially compared to everyone else in town. These were like mini burritos, where the others were like taquitos. I loved them, and being so big and thick, they were just the right size for dipping (which I think is an important part to an egg roll). The rice was a bit underwhelming, though, and I skipped it at every visit to not waste precious stomach space (and load up on unnecessary calories).
A couple of interesting things about the menu at South China – they really do have margaritas (but I have not imbibed in one yet). Fresh mangoes are a highlighted item and used in a few selected dishes, but not all of the time. The mangoes are carefully selected for freshness, and if they can’t find any that live up to their standards, there are no mango dishes for the day. I made the mistake of ordering something else when they were available and the next time I came back, I was out of luck.
Also, at each table, you can read about suggested beer pairings, supplied by New Belgium. Being the beer lover that I am, this pretty much won me over. I did not do a pairing at either lunch, but I’m dying to go back and try it out.
Each time I’ve come to South China, I’ve had a superbly fresh Chinese experience. The service is always friendly – Ming’s wife is the server, and a mom herself, she is very sweet with the kids. Ming is in the back cooking everything himself, so things may take a bit longer than other places. It is completely worth it. Do yourself a favor and make sure you give yourself the time to enjoy it. With the years of family recipes handed down and a commitment to using fresh ingredients, you will be thrilled to have skipped Panda Express and to have sat down to a truly wonderful meal.
South China Restaurant
4613 South Mason
Kid-Friendly? Yes, even though there isn’t a kids menu
Parking: Strip mall parking lot
Healthy Options? Vegetarian, and some low-cal options
Budget-Friendly? Dinner is $12-$15, Lunch is under $10
Recent Health Inspection: Average