The large table next to us sat empty save for bags of fresh snow peas, half of them neatly trimmed of their dangling tendrils, the others abandoned. Little World, Salt Lake City's beloved Chinese mainstay was busy for a Monday night. The servers -- who are also the take-out handlers and snow pea trimmers -- moved in such a frenetic way you'd think the kitchen was on fire.
Plates of fried rice ($5.95-$7.95), orange chicken ($7.55) and lo mein ($5.30-$7.50) sizzled their way out of the kitchen as patrons sipped weak tea. After a short wait, our plates arrived, piquing the interest of the waiting take-out crowd who were curious about the hot pots and intensely green stems of Chinese broccoli ($7.50).
This sort of energy epitomizes Little World, one of the city's most beloved holes-in-the-wall. It inspires such loyalty among chefs and civilians that it's been heartily recommended to me several times, each time with an individual soliloquy on Little World's flavors and convenience. I've developed a spiel of my own: Skip the sweet and sour chicken and stick to the back page of the menu, be a bit adventurous, expect a bit of grease and, if you can, eat in.
Case in point: The folks who wander in for take-out tend to not peruse the three-fold paper menu and instead gaze directly at the menu marquis above the counter. This marquis highlights maybe 10 dishes out of Little World's 250-plus offerings. So instead of ordering ground pork with green beans (No. 260, $7.95), which is much more forgiving after a 15-minute car ride home, they order soon-to-be mushy deep-fried nuggets of glazed General Tso's ($7.55).
In general, half of the menu does nothing to distinguish Little World from the sea of Chinese restaurants in the city. It isn't until you reach the barbecue section and beyond that where dishes become unique and better tasting.
The chill in the air prompted us to try the roast duck, wonton and egg noodle soup ($6.80). Little World is stocked daily with a few whole-roasted ducks. They're not decorative touches for the dining room; they're the meaty flourishes on top of a stout bowl filled with a light broth, a tangle of egg noodles and leaves of baby bok choy. Purists, who point out that the broth-to-noodle ratio is skewed and it's difficult to properly slurp the abundant noodles, should take note that the flavors and texture are still good.
Under the "chef's specialties" -- on the menu's back page -- is where you'll find the good stuff, whether it's deep-fried intestines ($9.30) or luscious hot pots.
Everyone at the table wanted squid and when it arrived, a few of my dining buddies thought the tender salt-baked squid ($8.50) was overly salty, but I figure an extra bit of seasoning doesn't hurt when it comes to a mild but crunchy batter and the cephalopod's tame flavors. As we ate the curious-sounding but uniquely delicious anchovy and chicken fried rice ($7.30), one of the ladies wandered over to our table.
"You like it?" she asked. Lovers of mackerel, sardines and yes, anchovy, we replied emphatically -- yes!
"Americans, they don't like the smell," she informed us. "They tell me it's like Chinese cheese," she said walking away, laughing to herself. And she's right. The vapors coming off the tender pieces of reconstituted anchovy, chicken and well-prepared rice reminded me of a good cheese like Époisse or Taleggio.
More universal items include sautéed green onions with beef ($7.25), with tender meat and onions so crisp, you remember that they're a vegetable and not merely a garnish. The vibrant and invigorating flavor of ginger pierces the whole dish. Likewise, Little World makes wonderful hot pots. Think of them as one of the original slow cookers and you get an idea of how wonderfully tender pork or chunks of Chinese bacon (pork belly) can be. Add the licorice-cinnamon notes of star anise and a judicious touch of soy and you get an idea of the whole effect of No. 289 with pieces of luscious, velvety eggplant ($7.55).
We devoured the hot pot. Most of us loved the textures and flavors though a few friends, between bites, insisted there was better Chinese food to be had. The debate continues.
But, for its convenience and dive appeal, people will come to Little World, as one fellow did, waiting for his take-out order. He eyed us as we dug into our dishes and fought over which direction the Lazy Susan would travel. After a while, he approached the counter, pointed to us, and asked what we were having.
"Anchovy and chicken fried rice," the lady said.
"I love anchovies," he said. "Fine, I'll take that instead of the shrimp fried rice."
E-mail Vanessa Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bottom line » This ultimate hole-in-the-wall does an average job on the ubiquitous items like orange chicken, but excels in chef's specialties like shredded pork and eggplant hot pot and roast duck and wonton noodle soup.
Location » 1356 S. State St., Salt Lake City; 801-467-5213 or 801-487-8115
Hours » Sunday to Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » None
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » No
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major