You will not find the happy family or pu pu platter at Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen, but they do have some pretty darned good salt and pepper shrimp — crispy and crunchy from a quick flash fry ($13). The flaky golden wontons aren't dominated by cream cheese and there's a noticeable presence of crab ($8).
There are no '80s-esque illuminated photos of entrees above the counter. Instead, a dozen or so bright red bird cages hang above the bar. And you can forget about 32-inch tube TVs. There are no TVs at all.
Lee Lee's is clean and stylish. Large circus-style posters accent the red walls, and bursts of vibrant yellow provide a counterpoint. Oversize light bulbs and chandeliers light up the colorful little dining room.
It's a small space, seating only about 50, which means you'll have a good chance at spotting chef and co-owner Lily Lei roaming around, keeping her eye on the operation. And if you don't see her in the flesh, you can spot her in the many photos of her serving celebrities of such as Jimi Hendrix and Richard Nixon. OK, so they're not real, but it's a nice touch.
Lei splits her time between Seattle and Charleston to partner up with her longtime friend, Karalee Nielsen Fallert, who has opened up successful joints like Poe's Tavern, Taco Boy, Monza, and Closed for Business. The partnership takes Lei's success in the kitchen and melds it with Fallert's keen business perspective. It's no different here. There's always someone to greet patrons at the door, and the servers don't hesitate to make informed recommendations, suggesting some of their favorite items, starting with the drinks.
But don't expect to go to Lee Lee's and find a cooler filled with five flavors of Fanta though. Instead, enjoy the Shanghai Shandy ($7), where Cannonborough ginger beer makes Tsingtao worth drinking. On tap you might find a couple of local brews such as the Westbrook White Thai or Frothy Beard Zingibier. If wine's your thing, all the glasses are priced under nine bucks and bottles are $32 or less.
At Lee Lee's, you won't' find a humongous menu that requires at least four folds to manage, and Chinese horoscopes are non-existent. What you will find is a menu that features a selection of Chinese-American favorites like kung pao chicken ($11), black pepper beef ($12), and General Tso's chicken ($12).
The pork dumplings ($8), vegetable spring rolls ($5), and honey garlic ribs ($9) are standard appetizer fare, as are the lettuce wraps with finely minced chicken and veggies with a side of hoisin and house-made chili sauce, which are a good way to start a meal. The scallion pancake ($4) sounds intriguing, but it's dry, bland, and not very memorable.
The plate of Singapore rice noodles ($11) is pretty and colorful, with a yellow base from the curry, and peppers adding shades of green and red, but even with ample portions of pork, shrimp, and egg, it gets old after just a few bites. The ginger beef ($12), which the menu claims to be crispy, is anything but crispy, but the touch of heat from the ginger and a moderate sweetness make for a pleasant surprise. The Sichuan eggplant is amazingly salty, sweet, and perfectly spicy, but the eggplant is a mushy mess. On both plates the flavor is pretty darned good, but the texture leaves something to be desired.The mu shu pork ($11) is good, but not great, and the chewy pancakes that come to the side fall apart easily.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's the hong sho ro ($12), a sinful specialty consisting of caramelized pork belly in a sweet and savory five-spice sauce, which is sure to become a fan favorite. The salt and pepper shrimp, crab Rangoon, and Sichuan wings are all quite enjoyable as well
And that's the hitch. There's good and there's bad. Many of the dishes are hit or miss. If you're looking to get takeout, there are plenty of places around town, China Dragon, Peking Gourmet, China Express, and China Garden, that'll satisfy those busy nights. What Lee Lee's has to offer is an environment that's welcoming and hip. It's a neighborhood joint where it's easy to pop in for a bite and the service is as friendly as it gets. It helps that there's a bar, too. While I don't forsee any past presidents or celebrities coming by Lee Lee's anytime soon, I can tell you that anything Sichuan is pretty darned tasty.