The formula at Fulin's Asian Cuisine, designed to capture a wide audience, is exactly what its name implies: dining inspired by the fare of not one but three countries: Thailand, Japan and China.
Because Lexington has a couple of good Thai restaurants and, for a town its size, an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Japanese food, I decided to avoid those two. It became of much greater interest to discover whether this place had broken the unspoken local hex on delicious Chinese dining. You know, the one that says it should be virtually non-existent.
To better those odds, Fulin's has two menus. There is a large one with all three cuisines represented and a smaller one focusing on Szechuan-style cooking that dares to offer ears and organs in the lineup. The former is marked by the usual suspects of stir fry, brown sauces and sodium. While there are few surprises, the execution of these manages to be greaseless and light. But more about that in a moment.
My point is pick and choose from both, bearing in mind that the more authentic one has a halo effect on the cavernous interior, making it easier to imagine being in one of those giant, high-ceilinged food palaces in a U.S. Chinatown instead of in a rehabilitated Max & Erma's.
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In addition to the illusion of being elsewhere, the Sichuan menu really does offer some great dishes, many of which are spicy. Among them is an appetizer of dumplings with light won ton skins, fragrant pork filling and a bath of slurpable chili-laced sauce.
Salads rarely appear in American Chinese restaurants, so make your green course a serving of emerald string beans with heady ginger. You won't miss lettuce at all.
Also fabulous, under the section labeled "home cooking," are the skinny curlicues of shredded pork, stir-fried with finely chopped and pleasantly bitter mustard greens; salty but addictive.
The only Sichuan starter to avoid is the clunky scallion pancake that should be called "bread." It reminded me of a fried disc of Play-Doh and had very few scallions to boot.
But, as I said, it is possible to leave without glancing at the "authentic" menu.
The hot and sour soup at Fulin's is respectably hot and silky in texture, although lacking enough acidity to create a wincingly sour profile. Nevertheless, it's loaded with pork strands, lily buds and flakes of red chili, and is satisfying on a cold night.
The deep-fried chunks of meat in the spicy sesame beef, decorated with a sprinkling of seeds, were bathed in sweet and sour sauce. It's embarrassing to enjoy a protein that distantly reminds you of lollipops, but I did. The whole helping was ringed generously with broccoli florets that had exactly the right amount of crunch.
And the milder dishes are just fine, too, such as simple shrimp with asparagus. It was marred on the night I sampled it only by an economical shortcut of including the tough and fibrous stalks. Quality over quantity, please.
By contrast, the vegetable selection in the simple chicken with vegetables is a study in color and variety: not only are there carrots and broccoli, but also the higher-end green stuff, such as snow peas.
So, while I am still a little leery of the generic "Asian" concept, our food scene is really in dire need of better Chinese restaurants. If my two visits to Fulin's are any indication, Lexington might well be on its way.