Best of Rockford: Classic Chinese restaurants–just plain fun!

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906798914189.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sara Harrilchak’, ‘For more than 30 years, Chen’s Cantonese Chef, 4772 N. Second St., Loves Park, has offered time-tested favorites such as Kows and Chow Meins, outstanding appetizers and exotic drinks. ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906800114189.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sara Harrilchak’, ”);

Last fall, I was attending the River District Mixer at the new loft space being developed by the Furneys on State Street, next to the East Side Inn. I was incensed by the Rockford Register Star’s “What Rocks in the Rock River Valley,” and I had written an article about it in The Rock River Times. At the mixer, I talked to Frank Schier about doing a real “Best of Rockford,” one that actually had something to do with Rockford and didn’t include the chain places on the east side. I scheduled a meeting at the Irish Rose, and a group of folks showed up. We planned, and out of that plan came the following.

The Rock River Times/Irish Rose “Best of Rockford” Committee is so far composed of the following people: Steve Vaughan, Andrew Kellogg, Jim Thacker, Bryan Mulligan, Michael Whyte, Doug Halberstadt, Lori Beach, Kerry Knodle and Sonja Beach. We are looking for more participants. You can contact me at

Michael Whyte is going to kick off the first segment, “Chinese Restaurants.” The résumé he sent states “he is the lead singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Blind Robins, who are currently working on their third album. In the past, he has written about music, film, literature and food for the Prairie Sun, Lively Times, Take One and RAM. He lives in Rockford with his wife Kathleen.” What it did not say is that his band’s last album is the most highly internationally critically acclaimed album to come out of Rockford in the last 10 years, something that was totally ignored by the daily.

Classic Chinese restaurants: Just plain fun!

By Michael Whyte

These days, with Chinese fast food shops turning out Moo Goo Gai Pan like Big Macs and “all you can eat” buffets serving up food by the gallon, and with diners exposed to other Asian cuisines, dinner at an “old school” Chinese restaurant can seem like a quaint proposition.

But one person’s “quaint” is another’s “classic,” and to that end, Chen’s Cantonese Chef in Loves Park fits the bill nicely. Doing business for more than 30 years, Chen’s offers time-tested favorites like Kows and Chow Meins, but I zero in on the dark, delicious House Special Pressed Duck or the wonderful Cantonese Sautéed Fish, while my wife loves their Shrimp in Lobster Sauce. We both are mad about Chen’s appetizers—great with one of their exotic drinks (the pineapple-tinged Bolo is a favorite). The Bar-B-Q Sliced Pork and Crab Rangoons are both winners, but the real star in my estimation is Chen’s Cantonese Fried Shrimp—light, crispy and succulent!

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was a frequent diner at Royal Dragon on East State. I remember many meals with friends, and it was always a fun night out. Of course, I say I remember, but much of it is actually a blur, thanks to Royal Dragon’s powerful “tiki-style” drinks. The fruity-but-treacherous Mai Tai and the strange and amusing Volcano-for-two (with its flaming “eruption” in the center) had me handing over my car keys more than once.

A recent visit assured me the food hadn’t changed a bit…and neither has the potent Mai Tais (did I really once drink five of these?). I was always a fan of the Kows at Royal Dragon, and the Beef Kow I had recently for lunch reminded me why: the brown sauce was rich and complex, the slices of beef tender and the large-cut vegetables fresh and crunchy. Another old favorite didn’t disappoint: Royal Dragon’s Hot and Sour Soup boasts a very unique flavor…and take the terms “hot” and “sour” seriously!

If there is one place in Rockford where I can walk in and immediately feel at home, it’s The Great Wall on East State. I fell in love with the food the first time I encountered their spicy Szechwan fare in the early ’80s, and I’ve been a regular ever since. When owner Gene Wang passed away a couple years ago, his wife Suzy sold the business, but agreed to stay on as consultant/hostess under the condition that Gene’s recipes not be tampered with. Happily, they have not. The Great Wall’s fiery Xiao Ping Chicken and Pork dishes are as much comfort food to me these days as my mom’s own spaghetti, but that’s just the beginning. It’s a very diverse and exciting menu. Start out with an order of chewy Barbecued Spareribs or their delicate Sizzling Rice Soup. If you like your food hot and spicy, definitely give the Pork and Green Beans, Lou Zi Chicken or Twice Cooked Pork (with loads of sliced cabbage) a try. The Princess Prawns are deep fried, tender and served in a very rich, very peppery brown sauce. It’s one of our favorites. To us, The Great Wall is a treasure.

A night out at a classic Chinese restaurant is just plain fun! Always has been and still is. It’s time to get reacquainted with some old friends!

Where to go and more info

Chen’s Cantonese Chef is at 4772 N. Second St., Loves Park. Info/reservations/carry-out: 877-9221.

Royal Dragon is at 6001 E. State St., Rockford. Info/reservations/carry-out: 398-1279.

The Great Wall Restaurant is at 4228 E. State St., Rockford. Info/reservations/carry-out: 226-0982.

Mike Leifheit’s “Best of Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. The column will appear the third week of every month in the “Real Rockford” section of Vibe Entertainment. Anyone with suggestions for this column should send them to Leifheit at or The Rock River Times at or 964-9767.

From the Jan. 17-23, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!