Thirteen years and still hot in Asian cuisine
Little room at the Inn
By Ron Russ 05/09/2013
3327 Kimber Drive, Suite E
Chinese food should really be judged in two parts. First, when it’s hot and freshly prepared, and then again when you’re standing in front of the open refrigerator in the middle of the night wearing your bathrobe.
I was looking forward to exercising my two-part critique of the Sesame Inn in Newbury Park after seeing the 4½-star reviews on multiple “foodie sites.” Located in a very unassuming strip mall off of Kimber Drive in Newbury Park, the Sesame Inn has been privately owned by Jennifer and Paul for 13 years and running. Tasting the attention to detail and quality ingredients they put in their mostly authentic menu, I’m not surprised that locals speak so highly of this joint. What I was curious about was how they could possibly turn a profit given the size of the restaurant.
Sesame Inn is no larger than a living room inside. Calculator in hand, I came to a total of 12 tables — 10 inside and two outside. How can you sustain a business for 13 years with cheap prices, large portions and that tiny dining room? Well, my question was answered within five minutes. They’re doing gangbuster business on takeout orders.
I called ahead for a Friday night reservation and was met with the hedge-your-bet reply of “We don’t take reservations, but I can put your name down and then the wait shouldn’t be too long.” Bold strategy; let’s see if it pays off for them. We only had to wait for about 12 minutes. During that time, though, people were picking up their perfectly packed to-go orders with such consistency, I don’t think that the door ever closed. Midway through our meal, I asked my wife, “How many to-go orders have they processed since we’ve been here?” “I lost count after about 25,” she replied, while sipping her jasmine green tea.
I marveled at the efficiency with which the staff at Sesame Inn operates. Like a fine dining restaurant, the staff moves without any wasted motion. They handled the dining room and the massive number of takeout orders with perfect ease as they scurried about with smiles on their faces.
As for the menu, the first thing that stood out like a stubbed toe was not a food item, but rather the frightening fact that they don’t serve any alcohol! Do you mean to tell me that this place has 4½-star reviews online and everyone was (presumably) sober while eating there? I took a sip from my flask in utter disbelief as we contemplated what to order. Just then, we were served a complimentary starter of crispy noodles and sweet and sour dipping sauce. I liked this “Chinese amuse-bouche,” and our decision to hold on to the sauce proved to be a very wise choice that really paid off later … (stay tuned!)
Next came the hot and sour soup, which was packed with personality. It had a rich and thick broth that had the precise level of spicy punch it needed, with tofu, mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrot, green onion and egg. Simply put, it was an awesome soup. We moved forward with entrees based on our server’s recommendations and ordered the vegetable soft noodles, orange shrimp and salt and pepper fish.
The orange shrimp was probably the best orange anything I’ve had in years. The shrimp is lightly battered and tossed with orange peels, green onions and chili peppers. It was sweet, spicy, tangy and zesty. Yeah, I said the z-word! The highlight came when I bit into the still-crispy shrimp and caught a chili pepper and piece of caramelized orange peel in my mouth at the same time. The big-bang that was occurring in my mouth was brought to a halt when I noticed the shrimp was served alongside raw cabbage with a cherry on top. Is this for real? Did I miss something? That’s like putting a strawberry on mashed potatoes.
Perplexing garnish aside, we moved on to the vegetable soft noodles, which were adequate. The flavor was mild and not heavy on soy sauce, which I appreciated, but it wasn’t special enough to order again. That said, with some very slight alterations, it did score pretty high marks in the middle of the night during part two of my bathrobe review.
The salt and pepper fish is what I am already craving. The chef used such a light, crispy batter on the white fish — not airy like tempura batter, and not floury like typical fried fish. The fish was so moist on the inside and salty and crispy on the outside. Be warned — it is served dry with sliced jalapeños and it begs for a dipping sauce. This is when holding on to the sweet and sour sauce from the beginning of the meal proved to be a genius decision on our part. Go us!
From there, we were promptly given the check with some fortune and almond cookies. Despite never feeling rushed and loving the service, I think I’ll do what more than 25 people did within the hour and order the food to go. You’ll still get the opportunity to exchange a smile with the owner Jennifer, who was as sweet and classy as an owner can be.