Steve's Gastronomic Home Page

Red Lantern

1841 N. Zaragoza Rd.
El Paso, TX
(915) 855-7888

Red Lantern

Red Lantern in far east El Paso is a demonstration that the Chinese food scene in the city is complex and subject to change. While I consider Red Lantern to be one of the handful of restaurants that serves authentic Chinese food, the food here is not new. Bob and Sharon, two of the owners of Red Lantern, were part of the original group who started Sam's Restaurant in central El Paso. When they opened the first "branch" of Sam's, Moon Star in west El Paso, they partnered with chef Michael who brought upscale Hong Kong style cooking by way of New York City where he had a number of years of experience cooking in Chinatown restaurants.

Mike was then the chef at China Star Bistro on Dyer Street before moving to Red Lantern when it opened in 2009. I have been following Mike from restaurant to restaurant, always asking him to prepare the traditional Hong Kong style food in which he specializes. My previous high ratings of Moon Star and China Star were based on Mike's cooking, although I thought Moon Star continued to serve authentic Cantonese style food when I requested it after Mike's departure. I do not know everything that is going on with all of the Sam's group of restaurants, but I can be assured that Red Lantern will continue to be a consistent source of authentic Chinese food as long as Mike is cooking.

Much of the food I order at Red Lantern (and previously at China Star) is not on the menu. Mike either cooks special requests or I ask the owners or Mike to suggest something that is "authentic." I know the struggles the Chinese restaurants in El Paso have in finding reliable sources of Chinese vegetables and ingredients at the Asian markets, so traditional Cantonese or Hong Kong style food is usually based on what is in season and available from the stores.

Daily specials
Daily specials

A hand written board of daily specials is Red Lantern's first step in letting customers know that traditional Hong Kong style food is available. Some of the ones I observed (ribs, oysters, and mussels) are what I consider to be "banquet" or special occasion food, one of the definite strengths of Red Lantern. These give an opportunity to showcase Mike's inventive and flavorful food that frankly is not found very much in El Paso

Even the regular menu, though, most of which consists of items found on Chinese menus throughout suburban restaurants of America, is better then the typical Chinese food. Many of the items are based on Sam's Restaurant's concept of serving familiar items, but always freshly made with a lighter and less salty sauce than is usually found. Red Lantern, like Sam's, does not use MSG, and a large section of vegetarian items is available. In fact, many of my favorite sauces are available on vegetarian items (eggplant with spicy basil sauce, salt and pepper tofu, and eggplant with kung pao sauce).

I always knew Sam's and China Star to serve good quality meat, but I have not had enough opportunity at Red Lantern to try very many of the meat dishes.

Bob and Sharon say the prices at Red Lantern are lower than at Moon Star or China Star, but I think it is sometimes hard to compare because Red Lantern has developed its own menu with quite a few "Chef's Specials" that may not be served at the other restaurants. I know that some of these specials are not traditional Hong Kong style dishes because the menu includes a chile next to the item, indiciating that they are spicy (Hong Kong cuisine is not usually spicy). This does not mean it is not traditional Chinese food, though, since Mike is very comfortable branching out to cook Sichuan style or food from other regions of China.

Egg drop soup
Egg drop soup from China Star, also offered at Red Lantern

The Egg Drop Soup has been the same at Sam's, Moon Star, and China Star, and is light without too much salt or the yellow food coloring that seems to be used by some restaurants. This is usually served automatically at lunch.

Tofu with basil and shrimp with barbecue sauce
Tofu with basil and shrimp with barbecue sauce

Eggplant with Spicy Basil Sauce was one of the more upscale dishes I enjoyed at China Star (and is also available here) that showcases the chef's ability to blend complex spices and flavors into an enjoyable and unusual Chinese dish. It worked well in disguising the fact that eggplant was used as the main vegetable, something I always hope will happen when I order an eggplant dish. I will have to say that this was a truly enjoyable dish, and something that I would expect to be served in a large city Chinese restaurant.

One alternative to the eggplant, though, is Tofu with Spicy Basil Sauce (shown in the photo). This is not on the menu, but the chef prepared a combination order for me along with Shrimp with Spicy BBQ Sauce. The barbecue sauce was somewhat like the more traditional (not American style) sweet and sour sauces I have tried, and is available on several menu items. This is a sauce made with mint and peppers, and used to top the crispy shrimp. I think it is probably something Mike used to cook in New York.

The spicy basil sauce used on the tofu contained jalapeños, and was really the "spicy" part of the dish.

Pan fried noodles with shrimp
Pan fried noodles from China Star, also served at Red Lantern

Pan Fried Noodles are served representing one of the more popular dishes around Hong Kong and the southern area of China, providing a filling meal with meat, vegetables, and noodles. The trick to serving pan fried noodles is for them to be crispy at the ends but soft in the middle as sauce is poured over the top. The noodles at China Star (and also served at Red Lantern) were crispy at the ends without being burned (a common practice I have seen in restaurants), making them one of the better versions I have seen. The chef includes whole red chiles that make the dish spicy, a modification to the traditional Hong Kong style dish. The shrimp I tried was quite good, but other types of meat can be ordered. The dish is usually made with a combination of beef, chicken, and shrimp.

Red Lantern Mix
Red Lantern Mix

The Red Lantern Mix was actually called "Red Lantern Mex Crew" on the menu, so I am not sure of its real name (but due to other misspellings on the menu I believe that "Mex" is not its real name). I did not order this dish, but only sampled it. This "spicy, crispy chicken, shrimp, or beef stir fried with assorted vegetable," though, came very close to the Americanized versions of sweet and sour I have had in countless Chinese restaurants. This was not an example of the type of authentic Cantonese (Hong Kong) style food in which Red Lantern excels.

Valentine special
Valentine special

The Valentine Special was a special dish being served for Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year (and probably other special occasions) that included a very good (but sweet) shrimp with coconut sauce. I do not know what sauce was on the chicken, but it looked very much like the sauce from the Red Lantern Mix. The fresh tomatoes in the middle were a very nice touch.

Red Lantern has a large number of dishes on the menu that are spicy Hunan and Szechuan style, but based on my experiences on the west coast I would not call most of it "traditional" Hunan or Sichuan food. Red Lantern serves a large variety of food styles and flavors, but only the Cantonese style (and mostly not on the menu) dishes are what I would say is free from an Americanized influence (actually I think this is a conscious attempt to create a "fusion" style of food). To me, though, even the "fusion" dishes are better than at most of the city's other Chinese restaurants because of lighter sauces, less oil, quality ingredients, and a lack of MSG.

SPECIAL DISHES

The previous section makes mention of the fact that some traditional Cantonese style dishes are not listed on the menu, but can be prepared if the customer asks for them. In addition, though, there are usually some items that are not available all the time either because of the difficulty in finding the ingredients or because of the preparation time involved (the latter can usually be ordered in advance by calling before you go in). For this type of food I usually ask the restaurant what they have rather than requesting a specific dish which they may or may not be able to preapare.

Ginseng soup
Ginseng soup is only available by special order

Even though the menu consists largely of Hunan style dishes, the traditional style "special" food will be mainly Cantonese or Hong Kong style, with most of it being non-spicy. Cantonese style soups are particularly good, with one example being Ginseng Soup that is a special medicinal soup that is only prepared when the staff eats it for their own meals (or when a customer places a special order).

There is usually something unusual available, if customers are willing to let the staff make a recommendation. Even if a order is not all that unusual, I think there is a good chance it will be quite good.

CHINESE NEW YEAR SPECIAL DISHES

In the past I have ordered special Chinese New Year dishes at Sam's Restaurant, and the philosophy of the Sam's Restaurant group is to bring in quality ingredients for traditional Chinese meals (such as ordering a special "small" chicken for New Year). Red Lantern, though, prepares a larger menu than Sam's, so that a family or group wishing to order a traditional meal can have a wide range of choices. Many of these could also fall under the "special dishes" category, but the beauty of Chinese New Year is that they can all be served together in one meal, of which the following are examples.

Pork soup
Pork soup

Pork Soup is similar to the ginseng soup, but with large chunks of meat. Traditional Chinese soup is always (to my knowledge) cooked slowly with bones providing flavor and nutrition (the bones are removed before serving). The pork soup pictured was called "medicine soup," meaning that it was full of Chinese roots and plants considered to have medicinal properties. It was also very delicious.

Beef chow fun
Beef chow fun

Beef Chow Fun is probably available any time, but is considered a traditional New Year dish. The sauce used at Red Lantern was especially good compared to some others I have tried.

Steamed fish
Steamed fish

Steamed Fish is a traditional food served at all the Chinese New Year dinners I have attended. While most are served with ginger and scallions, I thought the black bean sauce used here was quite good. Red Lantern also makes a special effort to bring in the best fish possible for the New Year meal, although I am sure the same is true if you order fish at other times.

Snow pea leaves
Snow pea leaves

This dinner was my first time to try Snow Pea Leaves, and this was quite delicious. While many stir fry and Chinese lunch plates combine meat with vegetables, the New Year meal always serves each item on a separate plate. There seems to be an almost endless variety of Chinese vegetables that are similar to the more familiar American ones, but with slightly different flavors, and the snow pea leaves are just the latest one that I can add to my "favorites" list.

Roast chicken
Roast chicken

New Year's dinner many times includes both steamed chicken and roast chicken, but in this case I had to choose one or the other. The Roast Chicken was excellent, and I can say this is not the normal chicken served in many restaurants. Like most of the other dishes, I think this can be prepared other times besides New Year, but it would have to be special ordered.

Red Lantern has very good food if you walk in and order off the menu, but it has many more possibilities than first meet the eye. I may not have known about the variety of "special food" served if I had not tried many of them at Sam's, Moon Star, and China Star. The staff is eager to answer questions, though, and to give all customers what they like, and what fits their "comfort level" with traditional Chinese food. All I can say, though, is that the people who tried the most traditional of all Chinese food with me, the New Year dinner, thought it was some of the best Chinese food they had ever eaten. On this point I have to agree.

RESTAURANT DETAILS

RATING: 24

Cuisine: Chinese Hong Kong
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Tea: Jasmine (brewed)
MSG: No
Smoking: No Smoking

Most Recent Visit
Feb. 13, 2010

Number of Visits: 2

Best Items
Eggplant with Basil, Beef Chow Fun, Pan Fried Noodles, Special Dishes

Special Ratings
Eggplant with Basil:
Tofu with Basil:
Shrimp with Barbecue Sauce:
Shrimp with Coconut Sauce:
Pan Fried Noodles:
Beef Chow Fun:
Red Lantern Mix:
Egg Drop Soup:



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