The Triad’s unsung Chinese food hero

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by Eric Ginsburg

Even with the help of the “extended authentic menu,” a photo-heavy guide to the bounty of options at Sampan Chinese restaurant in Winston-Salem, I still wasn’t entirely positive what came in the foo keen fried rice; I just knew it looked delicious.

And even after the massive platter arrived, I would bet money — but not my life — that one of the meats involved was chicken. The rest of the ingredients were easier to identify: mushrooms, shrimp, peas, corn, carrots, egg and chives. A few bites in, I realized there were even a few scallops hiding in there, adding periodic complexity to the dish. The surprise, and what I am confident but not certain was chicken, just added to my enjoyment.

I’m generally not the kind of person who takes home leftovers — there just aren’t any when I’m around, something I pride myself on. But looking at the foo keen fried rice I knew from the jump I’d need to surrender, given the family-size portion despite the personal-entrée price.

For those looking for a little more certainty in their meal, or for whom mystery meat sounds more terrifying than appealing, Sampan’s menu overflows with Americanized Chinese food staples like General Tso’s chicken and more vegetarian options than I think I’ve ever seen. There’s even an extensive Weight Watchers section.

The menu is stacked in general, brimming with things I’ve never heard of — Cho Cho chicken, firecracker shrimp, Singapore rice noodle, West Lake beef soup, sautéed Shanghai cabbage and willow chicken, among others. It’s brimming with other choices too, including stuffed tofu or stuffed eggplant and goo lo pork. Most meals clock in around $10, though the $15 roast duck was almost too much to resist.

Vegetarian options, particularly those with tofu, are abundant. That’s how I first heard about this place — a married couple that doesn’t eat meat sent me a photo of their dinner, encouraging me to check it out.

Sampan stands on an unglamorous stretch of Peters Creek Parkway, between the former Tomo’E Japanese steakhouse and Washington Park, joining an Asian grocery as one of the standouts in a sea of chains. It’s not like Sampan is new — the restaurant opened a year before Bill Clinton was elected president — but it’s an unsung hero in the local culinary scene.

Veggie rolls and crabmeat wontons
Veggie rolls and crabmeat wontons

Even though Chinese food is frequently the most ubiquitous international food option anywhere in this country, the Triad is home to a remarkable lack of good Chinese cuisine. My friends and I have developed a nostalgic affinity for takeout from Golden Wok in Greensboro, but for the most part, people around here seem to treat Chinese food as an easy stop-gap option rather than a viable sit-down dinner option. Sampan flies in the face of that premise.

As soft piano music played in the background, a friend and I tried the veggie rolls, which look like traditional egg rolls but are softer and stuffed with mushrooms, carrots and other vegetables. Better yet, we chowed on crabmeat cheese wontons, commonly called crab Rangoon, dipping the six fried morsels in sweet and sour sauce.

It would take about 50 dates to work through the entrées at Sampan, especially the chicken and seafood sections, even if both people ordered something different every time. But instead, it might make sense to begin with the delightful foo keen fried rice, and split it.

 Visit Sampan Chinese restaurant at 985 Peters Creek Parkway (W-S) or find it on Facebook.

  • robynfrance

    We have always loved the food at Sampan, but the interior had become so shabby and dark we have stopped going. Has there been any update to the atmosphere? Thanks for the review.

    • It is still dark in there — I cut a reference to that for space reasons (and the print and online versions are the same). I didn’t think it was shabby — certainly not an upscale restaurant, but compared to most fast-food style Chinese restaurants, it’s a level up.

  • Terry Austin

    Eric, check out Full Key restaurant in northern High Point. Really excellent Chinese food, a little pricey, from a family who used to have a restaurant in DC.