The Little World Chinese Restaurant

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General Tso's Chicken at Little World Cafe. Photo: Bryan Mayrose

10:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sun - Thurs
10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fri & Sat
1356 South State, Salt Lake City

Located right at the racy hip of State Street, Little World sits like an old buckle on the belt of the city’s tenderloin.  Dependable, delicious, and so defiantly small that they even keep the entrance to the wash closets outside.

For more than a decade, Little World’s run-down atmosphere and unpretentious, dependably homey Chinese food has attracted big city refugees from both coasts. Recently given a makeover, the cafe’s signature ambiance has been replaced with a newly painted and spiffy atmosphere.  My inner Oscar Madison felt a twinge of disappointment at the change, but my girlfriend, who usually notices these things, took to the change like a goldfish to clean water.

The joint is always packed.  Even when it’s not, it’s bustling.  For a vampire like me, the drive-through, though open and useful during the day, would be my second driveway if it were open in the wee hours. Salt Lake could use an all-night noodle house, and this should be it.  When you’re seated you might wonder why half the folks in the dining room seem to be standing around––they are waiting for the take-out, which is as generous and affordable as the dine-in. As far as price goes, no restaurant on my list of eateries is so conveniently undervalued.

The starters are fine and tasty. The Egg-Drop Soup ($.99), not vegetarian, is delicious and warming and a variation, the Eight Treasure Tofu soup ($1.25), is a hot-rodded take on egg-drop with tofu and kitchen odds and ends: tomato, beef and ham.  The Hot and Sour Soup ($1.25) is rich, very spicy and full of mysterious ingredients––it none the less prevails in being a refreshing, complex palm warmer. Your experience may vary on some of these items, as the homey nature of the cooking makes its way into the ingredients on some parts of the menu.  Take this in stride. It is part of the joy. The Pot-Stickers ($5.60) are a must, pork filled and delightfully spiced and sauced, they are slightly bready, like a dumpling.

Here is the secret many who eat here know, but which until this assignment I did not: You cannot go wrong with the Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp ($11.90). This dish of eggplant filled with shrimp-cake in black bean sauce is simply the most satisfying and surprising mouth experience I’ve ever had.  It’s on the same shelf in my food life with the first Spider Roll, the first very good Miso and the first French Silk Pie. The flavors of eggplant and shrimp transform from hot food to real emotion in the first bite: a transforming moment––time-stopping.  The last three times I had this it wasn’t perfect, but it was still really good. Unlike some great foods that are best enjoyed in the moment, this one is just as good reheated, turning your otherwise cold kitchen into a warm nook of eating pleasure.

At the front counter’s south end is a great glass meat warmer where there are always several birds (chicken and duck), ribs and Char Su on display. For sale whole, they or their peers also go into the plated meats: Soy Sauce Chicken ($6.50), Ginger and Green Onion Chicken ($8.30) and the two or three Barbecued Meat Plates ($6.80 & $7.50). All are served sparely with rice and some braised greens.  For me, this is yet another style of comfort food.

The fish is surprisingly good and subtle in some of the dishes. Served with rice or flat noodles, the white fish, in particular, seems fresher than that served at other fish markets in town.  The sesame oil hinted House Special Flat Noodle ($8.50) (dry, much superior to the wet, a choice you will be asked to make when you order) is a big plate of mixed meats, fish, noodles and beansprouts, which never fails to please with its savory and encouraging flavors.  It’s a big sweater on a cold day.  The Fish and Fresh Vegetable ($8.95) is a subtle color-field of flavor.  Deliciously mild and not at all coastal in its sensibility, it’s a minor miracle, the flavors that are missing are exactly right. It’s a plate of food sure to reassure and cheer, but without mocking or bombast.  The Carl Sagan of fish dishes.  The Shrimp Balls and Sea Cucumber Pot ($14.95) is a fun sidelight that you won’t find many other places.  Sea Cucumber, which is not a cucumber but a kind of fish (like a starfish) is a delicacy in both Chinese and French cooking.  A Cuban Sushi Chef told me I should try it wherever it’s available, because it is a delicacy and a seasonal speciality. Chewy and yielding like few other things, it is a little on the tame side for my palate.

The Two Kinds of Mushroom and Vegetable ($7.90) is like a vegetarian’s meat dish.  Using large straw and medium sized shiitake mushrooms, it’s a hybrid service of the Little World’s braised vegetables.  It is a nice change to see the mushroom presented as the unabashed star of a dish and not as the flavor “also ran.”  The hearty, tart earthiness of the shiitake holds up to some closed eye consideration.  It isn’t hard to enjoy a meal of just vegetables at this great little diner. The different types of leafy greens are wonderful in all their iterations. The Chinese Broccoli in Oyster Sauce ($7.90) is simply adorable, earnestly attempting to please but not offend. And the stir-fried vegetables slurp up with the same uncouth pleasure as a piping bowl of udon.

Perhaps the best thing about Little World is the last thing: The always affordable bill presented with the best fortune cookie in town. My wall, my wallet and my computer at work all have one or more of the oddly aggressive little koans that come in these otherwise common little cookies. It’s a no-brainer for the active diner: a chance to eat your share (or more) of beautiful and interesting food and then to go home happy that you are such a smart cheapskate.

General Tso's Chicken at Little World Cafe. Photo: Bryan Mayrose