Strip malls and tumbleweeds. Colorado Springs is full of them. You never know where a little line of stores is going to spring up. Just like you never know when a horde of rambunctious Russian thistle is going to bound across your lane of traffic.
In one of the malls on the north edge of town is a little Chinese restaurant called Ivy's Chinese Cafe. It's so new, you can still pick up a ghostly whiff of fresh paint as you cross the threshold. Spanking new and sparkling clean, this little cafe serves up generous portions of all the standard American Chinese favorites, with a heaping helping of good cheer and excellent service.
The lunch menu is hefty, ranging from seafood, chicken, pork and beef through vegetable entrees and pad Thai. Every entree comes with soup and an egg roll and rice. And the soups are really good. The egg drop has a nice chicken base that only needs a drop of soy sauce to enliven it. The Hot and Sour is a nice balance between sour and savory, although it needed a shake or two of black pepper to liven it up. Even the small and elegant egg rolls are tasty, filled with peppery pork and slivers of cabbage and carrot.
After sampling the combo pad Thai ($6.95), you won't give up on your favorite Thai restaurant, but you won't be broken hearted, either. The beef, chicken and shrimp are all tender and juicy. The sauce errs on the sweet side, but not too heavily. The topping of crushed peanuts is a little too generous, but the bean sprouts and carrots strips retain a fresh crunch.
Unlike Thai curries, the curry chicken ($5.95) comes with a thick, amber sauce based on curry powder instead of coconut milk, where a touch of sweetness is a welcome contrast. Loads of fresh, al dente carrots, zucchini, green peppers and onion round out the succulent chicken.
If you're in a tofu state of mind, the sesame tofu ($5.55), is great. The kitchen shows off skill in subtlety and balance. The golden cubes of tofu retain a creamy interior against the golden exterior. Meanwhile, the sauce has flair from the red pepper flakes and a nutty bit of crunch from the sesame seeds.
Two details to note about lunch. One, the portions are generous without being obscene. Two, you have a choice between fried rice, steamed white rice or steamed brown rice. I love the option of brown rice, because I think the slightly earthier flavor stands up to the sauces better.
Dinner time portions also run large. Ordering the combo udon noodles ($8.95) gets you a platter full of tender-but-chewy noodles and the same succulent meats that came in the pad Thai. Slivers of carrot, green onion and white onion add texture and a note of freshness.
The mu shu vegetables ($8.55) presented me with a conundrum. While the combination of carrots, broccoli, onion, mushrooms, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots was nicely seasoned with garlic, ginger and soy sauce, the pancakes were a disappointment. First, the bundles were served already assembled, which takes some of the fun out of ordering mu shu. Second, and most egregious, was the fact that the pancakes were ordinary flour tortillas instead of the thin and supple pancakes you might expect.
The Hunan shrimp ($9.95) was another dish with mixed results. The shrimp are large, firm and perfectly sauteed, nestled with sliced carrots and barely tender broccoli. But while the sauce had the typical Hunan chili pepper heat, it lacked the subtle complexities of shallots and garlic. The dish wasn't bad, but the preparation let the single note of heat dominate the flavor.
If you want something refreshing and light, Buddha Delight ($7.95) might be right up your alley. The platter is loaded with vivid green snow peas, bright orange carrots, crunchy broccoli, sweet baby corn, bias-sliced celery, bamboo shoots, slivers of onion, bits of bok choy, half moons of zucchini and earthy mushrooms. The soy-based sauce is supremely light and simple, letting the beauty of the vegetables shine through.
As long as strip malls keep making space for little independent restaurants like Ivy's, I'll take the strip malls over the tumbleweeds any day.
Restaurant character: A small cafe serving generous portions of traditional American Chinese dishes at a family-friendly price.
Rating total: 3.75 out of 5 stars
Food: 4 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Service: 4 out of 5 stars
Address: 11550 Ridgeline Drive, Suite 120, 80921
Contact: 487-8088, 487-8099, ivyschinesecafe.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday
Entrees: $5.55-$6.75 lunch; $7.95-$13.95 dinner
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: Yes, several
what's online As of Feb. 26:
- 93 percent of 44 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- 4.5 out of 5 stars based on 32 reviews on Yelp
- Not on Facebook
- No violations were noted during a November inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.