Pros: Unique Chinese Islamic cuisine, well-executed, reasonably priced
Cons: Brusque service, no-frills dining room
This Chinese Muslim restaurant has a very loyal following and keeps rising from the ashes like a phoenix, despite numerous moves in the last 15-20 years around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Chinese Muslim cuisine=Beijing fare but no pork or alcohol
As a Chinese American, I grew up eating LOTS of Chinese food, primarily those common in the Northeast/Beijing region, Shanghai region, and Taiwan given my parents' origins. But I quickly came to love Chinese Islamic food, the cuisine of a distinct minority in China that is very similar to Beijing fare except that Islamic principles prohibit pork and alcohol for religious reasons. In addition, this type of cuisine favors lamb, stews, breads, dumplings, and noodles (as opposed to pork and rice, which is more commonly known due to traditional Chinese cuisine) and Chinjin Eastern House prepares all these specialties with great flair. While this restaurant was the first to introduce Chinese Islamic cuisine to me, I have since eaten at 4 others (including one in the San Gabriel Valley when I was down at UCLA) so I can honestly say that this restaurant remains the best.
Random but Interesting History
This particular restaurant has moved around the San Francisco Bay Area several times. It has been known as Peking Eastern House until the most recent move to West San Jose, when it added Chinjin (which means "halal" in Chinese according to Wikipedia). I recall frequently eating at the Campbell location 10 minutes from my childhood home more than 15 years ago and I read on-line that it was once in Milpitas as well.
About 6 years ago, I was delighted to re-discover it after I married, especially since it was just 10 minutes from our new home in Fremont, CA. When that location was torn down for a new residential development, I was so sad until I learned that it had once again re-opened and moved to a location 5 minutes from my parents' house in the same shopping plaza I've driven by countless times and where we used to take my childhood cocker spaniel to be groomed (though that shop is now gone).
Like many generic Chinese restaurants, this is a no-frills restaurant in a suburban strip mall. It sits on the border of West San Jose and Cupertino, an area with a large Chinese American community. The space is actually two units of a strip mall, with the dividing wall removed (as you can clearly see the rough edges where the wall was). It's a rather spartan interior with some Arabic script scroll paintings, fluorescent lighting, and well-worn (sometimes mismatched) china and silverware. There's also a framed certificate on the wall certifying that they use Halal meat. Note: there is also a Halah meat shop next door. You definitely don't choose to come here for the ambiance.
Added to the simple decor is the fact that the wait staff offers brusque, no-nonsense service, often with a bored look on most servers' faces. They'll seat you, offer you menus, bring a pot of tea, and deliver the food, but other than those basics, there's not much extra service. We always ask for glasses of water. We often have to ask for more napkins, too.
Still, I overlook all of this because of the glorious food!
The Food Blinds You of All Other Sensations
As I mentioned earlier, Chinjin Eastern House serves Halal meat, which is meat butchered in accordance with Islamic principles. I don't think it tastes any different, but I mention it for any Muslim readers for whom this makes a difference.
They offer large portions and fast service, though dishes do sometimes come out in random order. I'll discuss a few of my favorites from the 25-30 times I think I've eaten at this restaurant. Note: we always order in Chinese, so I don't recall the English names of all these entrees.
1) I always like to order the Chinese "Hamburgers" (which may be listed on the menu as "shian-bing"). This is a thick beef patty the size of your palm but also almost 2" high that is encased in a doughy pan-fried crust (so not on a bun). I love how these have a crispy/chewy doughy exterior, as it contrasts nicely with the juicy ground beef and green onion patty. I often eat this with chopsticks in one hand and a soup soon in the other (with the hamburger balanced vertically in the soup spoon) so I don't lose any of the "soup" inside when I take a bite. While you could technically share this by slicing it in half, you'll lose the soup so I always order my own!
2) Thin slices of lamb stir-fried with green onions is my father's favorite dish and I one I really enjoy as well. I know some folks just don't like the "aftertaste" of lamb, but I find the strong flavor of the green onions masks any hint of gamey lamb. Plus, I love lamb!
3) While it's certainly not an exotic soup, West Lake Beef Soup is one of my favorites. This is similar to a generic egg drop soup (thickened with corn starch and egg "strands" dropped into the boiling soup), but with ground beef, cilantro, mushrooms, peas, and carrots. We also always add plenty of white pepper to spice it up.
4) A specialty of Chinese Islamic cuisine is their breads. Chinjin Eastern House has a wonderfully thick round sesame seed-crusted bread whose interior is moist, chewy. and studded with green onions. We always order this as soon as we arrive, as it often takes 10-20 minutes to prepare. The sesame bread at some other Chinese Islamic restaurants have not been as moist inside, have too few green onions, or just miss some other note in the execution. Chinjin Eastern House's bread is perfectly balanced between the crispy exterior and moist chewy interior. I absolutely love this bread!
5) Another specialty of northern Beijing cuisine, which is effectively executed at many Chinese Islamic restaurants, is the slow-roasted beef noodle soup. Chinjin Eastern House offers theirs with thick knife-sliced wheat noodles, a few sprigs of bok choy (a green vegetable with a long stalk and dark green leaves), and tender chunks of beef. I like their broth, which is rich and flavorful, though I have had other restaurants' versions with stronger star anise flavoring. I also am mixed about the knife-cut noodles--I enjoy them but I much prefer hand-pulled noodles. Unfortunately, those are not offered here.
6) Eggplant in spicy garlic sauce is very strongly flavored, sometimes overly so. Yet, I think it's a nice counterpoint to some of the more subtle flavors of other dishes. The eggplant is very tender (I think they use Japanese eggplant, not the traditional Italian one) and the spicy garlic sauce is intense.
7) My parents often like to order the large clay pot stews. I think this is an acquired taste, as I've tried the lamb and pickled cabbage clay pot stew and found it a bit unappealing. The lamb tasted bland and the pickled cabbage was too sour for me. Frankly, it smelled like it had gone bad. It's not that I have anything against pickled vegetables--I love Korean kim chee and the pickled daikon and cucumbers. But pickled cabbage is another story altogether!
8) Chinjin Eastern House also stir-fries various vegetables (depending on what's in season, like pea sprouts, string beans, and a leafy vegetable like romaine lettuce but pronounced in Mandarin as "a-chai") in garlic. We always order some green vegetables as it provides a nice "palate cleanser" in between the other strongly flavored dishes.
9) On my last trip, my mother told me her friend suggested we try the fried green onion pancake noodles. Those readers who have had Chinese green onion pancakes know that this savory appetizer is a flour pancake studded with green onions and pan-fried until crispy. Apparently, Chinjin Eastern House will slice the pancake and treat it like noodles by stir-frying it with vegetables. I thought it was a very unique presentation and it was delicious!
10) Finally, though I normally avoid anything mushu (as it makes me think of leftovers thrown together), my brother and mother enjoy mushu--thin strips of meat (in this case, beef or lamb) are stir-fried with vegetables, topped with scrambled egg, and then rolled up into a thin flat wrapper with hoisin sauce.
There are also a variety of other Chinese dishes on the menu with more familiar Chinese preparation styles (i.e., chow mein, fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken) and they have weekday lunch specials like their peers. The prices for most of the items I mentioned are as low as $6.95 and average around $8.99. The most expensive items are the clay pot stews, which can go as high as $24.95 for the large family sized ones (which I imagine could feed 6 adults if that was the only item). Four adults with big appetites can have a satisfying meal and bring home leftovers for under $50.
All in all, if your priority is excellent food, and you don't care about decor, ambiance, and stellar service, you will likely enjoy this. It remains a favorite in our house and a *great* reason to visit my parents.
Another review made possible thanks to megugrrrl's help in adding this to the database! THANKS!