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*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

New name but same great fare

Loyal followers of the Mandarin Chinese restaurant had to be a little puzzled a couple of years ago when the name changed to Qui’s and Vietnamese cuisine joined Chinese on the marquee.

But, to their relief, the only change was to the name and the Vietnamese cuisine was simply added to what was already a fantastic Chinese menu. You see, the owner of Mandarin, Qui Phan, just kind of got tired of living under the Mandarin umbrella – and of the franchise fee that came with it – and, given the rise in popularity of Vietnamese cuisine, the time was just right to make the change.

According to an employee manning the register during one of my visits to the eatery off of Dupont Road near Pine Valley Shopping Center, Phan has Chinese and Vietnamese roots, and his wife is Vietnamese, so she is the one who handles that part of the menu.

Not only was the addition of that fare a good one, it transformed what was already a good place into a great one.

There are two types of rolls on the Vietnamese appetizer menu; the Cha Gio – a fried roll with ground pork, shrimp, carrot, taro, rice noodles, wood ear mushrooms and lettuce – and the Goi Cuon – a raw rice paper roll with roasted pork, shrimp, noodles, sprouts and fresh mint. And both were delicious.

The fried rolls, which came with a tasty sweet-spicy fish sauce, were crisp and had a lot of meat inside. The raw rolls really benefited from the mint, which brightened the cold noodles and accentuated the sweet, dark peanut dipping sauce nicely.

Qui’s regular egg rolls were also great and were a must-have with lunch. For just 95 cents, any lunch entrée can be made into a “Lunch Special,” which includes the egg roll, hot and sour or egg drop soup, a chicken wing, a piece of crab Rangoon and a soft drink or hot tea.

The sweet, garlic-soy flavored wing made me want more; the Rangoon was on point; and the soups were surprisingly well prepared.

I am used to these soups being watered-down throwaways at most Asian restaurants, but at Qui’s the egg drop was silky and rich with more egg than stock, and the hot and sour was truly hot and sour and was bursting with mushrooms, egg and crispy batter bits.

The clear soup I received with one of my Vietnamese dishes was also better than many Japanese restaurants where it is a staple. It contained a little Chinese cabbage, a lot of scallions, mushrooms, crunchy onions and a little cilantro, which separated it from the norm.

The first Vietnamese dish I tried was the one most common in the U.S. – pho. There are several versions of this rice noodle soup on Qui’s menu, but a daily off-menu special sounded too good to pass up. The Pho Ga was your basic chicken noodle soup done Vietnamese-style. It had chunks of tender chicken breast floating in the giant bowl along with the standard mung bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos to add some heat, fresh basil and cilantro, which give the salty chicken broth a wonderful floral aroma and flavor. The noodles were perfect and it was the kind of chicken soup that would make any Vietnamese grandmother – heck, any grandmother – proud.

The other noodle dish I tried, the Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot – stir-fried beef in spicy lemon grass – was also a winner. It was sort of a cold noodle salad with rice vermicelli, lemon grass, chopped lettuce, scallions, sprouts, carrots and peanuts nestled in the bowl with the noodles. The warm beef was placed on top, along with a few peanuts and crispy fried garlic.

The meat was a little dry, but it was served with a clear sweet-spicy sauce – the dressing for the salad, if you will – and there was enough moisture coming off the noodles to draw attention away from the meat. The combination of lemon grass and garlic was wonderful and made it just a unique and tasty dish.

Dryness was a problem with the pork in the Com Bi Bo Nuong – beef short ribs and shredded pork. The pork, which came atop rice with shredded daikon radish and cilantro, was crumbly and the spicy-sweet sauce did not do enough here to help it.

But the short ribs were perfection. I love Korean-style short ribs, but these Vietnamese versions were the best I have had in this area. The tender ribs were grilled and had little bits of crunchy char around the edges that formed when the sweet marinade on them caramelized.

After trying all of these new dishes, I had to make sure Qui’s could still do Chinese well and found out it definitely could after ordering the Pork Egg Foo Young during my lunch visit. The chunks of pork were tender, moist and flavorful and accompanied by broccoli, pea pods, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, baby corn and mushrooms.

But it was the egg that separated this Foo Young from others. The vegetable-laden omelet was light and so fluffy it just melted in your mouth and sort of became creamy when combined with the sauce from the other ingredients. It was a winner.

The looks of Qui’s and its service were satisfactory. It has the same three-dimensional murals and a smattering of Asian artwork throughout, a giant fountain in the middle of the main dining room and a nifty little glass-covered indoor patio area of sorts along one wall. It is nice without being cheesy.

The service was rather unnoticeable except for a few examples of how the folks there make things run smoothly, such as serving children’s meals with appetizers so as not to keep the young ones waiting.

Those parts of the former Mandarin haven’t changed one bit.

The changes that were made, however, are what will keep me going back.

Restaurant: Qui’s Chinese & Vietnamese Cuisine

Address: 1026 Woodland Plaza Run

Phone: 497-0353

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Cha Gio ($2.95), Coi Guon ($3.95), Pork Egg Foo Young ($5.75 lunch), short ribs and shredded pork ($8.50), beef in spicy lemongrass ($7.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.