Myriads Of Options At This Still-Standing If Easy-To-Miss Chinese Spot
Of advanced age, Benny Der's Golden Dragon Inn (8109 Liberty Road, Randallstown,  922-7800) gives its customers fair warning. The foyer is a sight. The front service counter is piled with what looks to be decades of unfiled orders and receipts. A display case's shelves are crammed with gum and classic candy bars, still in boxes with their tops torn off. The glass front door slams when customers come and go, with a slap. Twilight helps.
There's plenty of time to turn back--the proprietress, whom nothing would trouble or surprise, is for many minutes absorbed by phone calls and carry-out orders. But it's beginning to feel like an adventure. Hungry diners cool their heels until they're seated at last.
Couples are here, the kind that sit on the same side of the booth, holding hands, and a few large parties, too. Done up in gold and jade, with ruby booths and curly topped ornamental screens, the dining room is movie-set glamorous, or was once, or is again in its decay. It's gone grimy now, and there are grease splatters over the kitchen door and bits of food clinging to the glass on the framed paintings.
The waitress who brought over the menus and complimentary crispy noodles disappears for a quarter hour--looks like it's a busier night at Benny Der's than usual. The Hong Kong-style menu, which documents a half-century's worth of America's fascination with Chinese cuisine, does need some study time. Huge, it comprises not only dozens of Szechwan and Cantonese items but an American food section, too--strip steak, pork chops, lobster tail, and omelets. The owner now comes over to take the order--and she's brisk, funny, and classy, expertly smoothing over the evening's rough edges. This is a dining-experience 180, the moment when fortunes change, and the diners' sympathies align with the restaurant.
The food has its moments. The won ton soup ($1.90) looks terrific even from three tables away. Three oversized won tons extend over the rim of the soup cup in a pinwheel arrangement, a pretty presentation that has probably engaged thousands of Benny Der's patrons. The broth is strong, too, and laden with strips of roast pork. The Mongolian beef here ($10.95) is something like a pot roast--the marinated beef tastes as though it's been slow-cooked, and the gravylike sauce has a red-pepper kick. General Tso's chicken ($9.95) has been rethought here, trimmed of its excess Cap'n Crunchiness, so that only a fine crispy layer coats the chunks of all white-meat chicken.
But most of the food is not magic. Rumaki ($3.95) is a chore to eat, the chicken livers have been overcooked to a dry, chewy state, and the bacon that wraps it tastes tired. Spare ribs ($6.45) are much too fatty and don't taste as though they've been treated with any spices or sauce. Dumplings ($3.60) are better, their ground pork fillings are warm and salty, and the wrappings are thick and doughy like a knish.
Ming shrimp ($14.25) are overcooked and served with what the menu describes as a ginger-flavored hot sauce but which has the cloying qualities of a classic sweet sauce. A dish of boneless duck ($10.75) works better. The duck pieces have been braised and fried and then sautéed with bok choy, celery, and mushrooms in a classic white sauce, though it's all a bit slimy, and the duck should be crispier. It tasted better the next day when the flavors settled together.
Benny Der's appears to be a family-owned restaurant that the younger generation has not taken over. It does feel neglected. Peeling back its layers discloses the evolution, over time, of various dining trends (the "Diet Workshop" selections), and the cocktail menu (golden Cadillacs, sombreros) speaks of jazzier times. After all these years, Cantonese is probably the route to take here--a typical combination platter ($9.50-$15.50) would have brought us that wonderful won ton soup, a mammoth egg roll, and roast pork fried rice with our choice of entrée, which would have been, natch, roast pork egg foo young.
One discovery: There is nothing on earth that tastes better with--and gives more pleasure to--the kind of food that Benny Der's serves than a Diet Coke out of a plastic bottle.