Students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell need not live by ramen alone. The Eggroll Café offers an alternative that is almost as inexpensive and twice as tasty.
The restaurant is a ball toss from the school’s north campus. There is a small counter with four stools, as well as some cafe tables and seats and a few easy chairs. The atmosphere is undergraduate casual, with works by local artists on the walls, a rack of well-thumbed magazines for diners’ perusal, and a selection of board games including Scrabble, Battleship, and Zombie Dice.
The menu features, of course, the lowly eggroll, the ubiquitous appetizer in American “Chinese” restaurants, reimagined as a multi-ethnic treat. It’s really a great idea — a kind of world tapas menu rolled into little fried pastries.
The selection of rolls is impressive. In addition to the classic chicken, pork, and shrimp rolls, there are crab Rangoon, chicken basil, curry chicken, Singapore, and Southwestern varieties. There are cheeseburger, steak and cheese, steak fajita, pizza and bacon, egg and cheese; and ham, egg, and cheese rolls. Vegetarian selections include broccoli and cheese; spinach and feta; samosa and veggie.
We opted for an eggroll select platter ($21.50): 16 eggrolls with your choice of four flavors — in our case, crab Rangoon, samosa, spinach and feta, and chicken basil — served with different dipping sauces to accompany each selection.
The member of our party who is obsessed with Indian cuisine gave a big thumbs-up to the samosa eggrolls, with a crispy outside and perfectly cooked potato and peas with aromatic spices. OK, the chutney dipping sauce was on the anemic side, but the eggrolls stood up well on their own.
The spinach and feta eggroll was a nice nod to the Greek treat spanakopita — salty and savory. Our server suggested a marinara as our dipping sauce, but it did not seem to go at all — a tzatziki dipping sauce would be better — but again, it was fine without sauce.
We all loved the chicken basil eggrolls, delicate bites of perfectly cooked chicken breast and fresh basil.
There are a number of other ways to order eggrolls at the cafe: two rolls, one flavor ($3.50); four rolls, two flavors ($6); or six rolls, three flavors ($8); or you may order an eggroll standard platter ($20.50) of 16 eggrolls in four flavors: crab Rangoon, Southwestern, samosa, and spinach and feta.
While it’s totally possible here, we weren’t prepared to live on eggrolls alone.
We also tried one of the four curry soups the restaurant offers: Penang curry, ($6), chicken curry noodles ($7), Penang curry noodles ($7), and our choice, the home-style chicken curry soup ($6). The potage was served in a huge pho-sized bowl, steaming with coconut milk, amazing spices, and hefty slices of chicken breast. This amazing dish could stand as a meal in itself.
Our group also indulged in two of the super-fresh salads on the menu — Asian Caesar salad with chicken ($7.29) and Thai basil salad ($6.50) — both served in the same generous bowls as the soup. While the Caesar was very good, traditional in many ways, the Thai basil salad was stellar, with whole leaves of basil mixed in with the greens and a knockout satay-like peanut dressing.
If, like us, you have a person in your party who would rather not nosh on communal dishes, the Eggroll Café also has a large selection of bento box meals ranging in price from $5.50 for the chicken fried rice bento to $8.50 for the chicken katsu bento box, which we chose.
The menu also offers excellent drinks. You can buy a beer or wine, but where they really excel is in the non-alcoholic barista offerings, such as drop-dead iced or hot lattes ($2.69 for large) and a variety of hot and iced teas. There’s also one of the largest selections of bubble teas and slushes we’ve seen, including our favorites, Thai bubble tea, coconut bubble tea, and lemonade bubble tea ($3.49 small, $3.79 hot).
And yes, there are eggroll desserts, and they’re better than you’d imagine. We tried both the cinn’apple ($4) and banana peze rolls ($3), and loved them both. But the banana rolls are worth a trip to Lowell in themselves. They are made with sautéed green plantains drizzled with honey and black sesame seeds for crunch. The apple rolls were crispy and sprinkled with powdered sugar, served with a side of caramel dipping sauce. They were like gourmet versions of McDonald’s apple pies.
Calling the Eggroll Café a find is an understatement. It’s now officially become a destination for this foodie.
Tom Long can be reached at email@example.com.