Cheap Eats - Worlds collide

Chai Peking combines Kosher and Chinese

Let me be honest. I know nothing about kosher food. Well, I do know a little now, but when I was informed of a kosher Chinese restaurant to check out, I thought, "The Chinese food in Atlanta is already bad enough, now we need kosher Chinese?"

But then it occurred to me that Chai Peking's attempts at kosher food with a Chinese influence make more sense than I originally thought. By the way, that's not pronounced like the herbal tea you find in a coffee shop. And it's not a Chinese word. It's the Hebrew word for life, a word nearly unpronounceable to Gentile tongues.

First, I knew my Jewish friends often enjoyed Chinese food on Christmas Day, usually the only restaurants open while Gentiles bask in ham glory. Plus, Jewish dietary laws or kashrut (to use the correct terminology) proscribe several rules: Dairy and meat are not to be mixed; meat should be slaughtered and prepared in a certain way; no pork; no shellfish. Since Chinese cuisine doesn't use dairy (Asians oftentimes being lactose intolerant) and other meat can easily be substituted for pork, the kosher and Chinese mix actually makes sense.

Owner Raymond Robbins (he's the guy with the long beard covered by a hairnet) has located the restaurant inside the Kroger in the Toco Hills shopping center, ground zero for many of the Orthodox Jews in Atlanta.

The best deal in the house is the lunch special served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For $4.95, you get a choice of one or two entrees, white or fried rice, a fortune cookie and a drink. The entrees do rotate but remain fairly consistent: chicken and green beans in black bean sauce, sweet and sour chicken, sesame chicken, beef and sauteed vegetables.

There also is a selection of wildly varying items. We were tipped off by a loyal fan that the buffalo wings were the best in the city (six for $2.95). The Fong Wan Gai ($11.95) doesn't sound very Chinese at all — a fried chicken breast stuffed with pastrami with sauteed vegetables. There's even a hamburger with grilled pastrami ($4.95) and a Chinese Hot Dog ($1.95). The kosher rules aren't being bent but what can be served at a Chinese restaurant certainly are.

We tried the Buffalo wings at super-spicy levels and were somewhat disappointed. The wait was much longer than the immediate gratification of the lunch entrees and the wings were almost soggy with sauce. But, yes, they were tongue-torchingly spicy.

The sesame chicken ($9.95 in an entree size) is deep-fried with a sweet brown sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Recently the daily menu featured a Chinese vegetable wrap. I chose the wrap with chicken ($5.95) and again had to wait a little while for it to be prepared. But to make up for it, Robbins brought the food to our table in the Kroger cafeteria area.

The tasty wrap was a simple flour tortilla with chunks of white meat and sauteed vegetables including snow peas, thinly sliced bamboo shoots, carrots and onions. A soy-based sauce made the wrap a bit cumbersome as it dripped out the bottom, but it was a great creation. The vegetables were crunchy, the chicken tender and the sauce a nice complement with its slight sweetness. Plus it's cheaper than similar wraps at gourmet burrito shops and is a hearty meal.

The strangest experiment was the All Meat Fried Rice. A bit pricier than the lunch entrees ($11.95), it also was at least three times as much food. The fried rice was prepared fresh and included cubed chunks of roast beef, pastrami and corned beef. The corned beef nearly overwhelmed any other flavor found in the rice and meats, but it was a hearty meal with plenty to pack up in a box and take home for later.

It seems that the Jewish community is already strongly supporting the restaurant. On both occasions, regulars were noticed by the servers and greeted warmly by Robbins. A man from Gibraltar dined with his two children, beaming because of the opportunity for the kosher Chinese cuisine.

"He comes all the way from Gibraltar to get this food," Robbins joked.

I don't know if it's worth that trip for Gentiles, but the high-quality service and respect for kosher living is definitely something to notice and commend.??