GEARHART - It's a common sight, afternoon or evening: numerous vehicles parked in front of and alongside the Great Wall Restaurant. Often, the lot's full.

What gastronomic pleasures are these Great Wall patrons enjoying? Do they know something we don't?

More than likely. They know that the sizzling Dragon Meet Phoenix, for instance, surely is one of the region's most dramatically named, and attractively presented, Chinese meals. Or that the Szechwan pickle soup may be one of the more unusual. Some particularly vocal Great Wall fans proudly proclaim this eatery on Gearhart's north end to be the area's finest purveyor of Chinese cuisine, impressive kudos considering the competition numbers more than a half dozen restaurants.

What we appreciate about the food here is the kitchen's penchant for specifying fresh fixings. That procedure sounds self-evident probably only to those who've never forked through a passel of canned mushrooms or bitten into a stale egg roll.

How those fixings are prepared, however, can be either a plus or a minus. Ample amounts of chicken and prawns are blunted by a bland sauce in Dragon Meet Phoenix, while that hot and sassy pickle soup - the broth reminded us of the Korean condiment kimchee, which left us perplexed about the name - is bursting with lusty chunks of pork, long thin slices of Chinese celery and other goodies. The Great Wall appetizer plate is disappointing: Fried shrimp is soggy, barbecued pork is tough and nondescript and egg rolls are too crunchy. Pot stickers, conversely, showcase tender midsections and crispy edges; an assertive dipping sauce helps compensate for the garden-variety innards.

Menu selections prefaced with chili peppers are advertised as hot and spicy. To most American diners, they probably are; yet we found Kung Po chicken, to name one, to be disappointingly mild. Sure, spices are in evidence ... along with an abundance of salt and mass quantities of chopped celery and zucchini. But this preparation, while pretty, lacks punch - that blend of flavor and heat that characterizes much Chinese cuisine.

Garlic, onions, salt, pepper, soy sauce and such are apparent in many dishes; other ingredients representative of Chinese food - ginger, curry spices, mustard, dried orange peel, to name a few - were less in evidence in our Great Wall experiences.

Gastronomes estimate the number of Chinese recipes at 80,000; Great Wall's kitchen prepares upwards of 140, including a lineup of chef's specialties such as the carnivores' dream Great Wall beef, Mandarin chicken wings and the winning Cantonese style calamari sprinkled with onions. Diners not insistent on ordering any of these can choose from the sundry seafood, meat, moo shu, chow mein, low mein and soft noodle dishes. Many feature subtle differences: moo goo gai pan (chicken with vegetables) versus chicken with vegetables in garlic sauce, for example. Szechwan beef, Hunan beef, Mongolian beef and Kung Po beef are all designated hot and spicy. What secret sauce or uncovered tidbit might distinguish these, we wondered? Our server provided some clues.

Perplexed patrons can head straight for the menu's "make your own combination" section, a selection of 15 standard Chinese dishes - think barbecued pork, egg rolls, fried won tons, chicken chow mein and other options. Along with the lineup of regular combo plates, these offer Great Wall's most bang for the buck - an emperor-sized meal consisting of four items costs $7.75.

Service is friendly and attentive, and seating overflows to three dining areas affording a mix of tables and booths. Tiffany-style lamps, attractive art and an aquarium stocked with fish that aren't on the menu add atmosphere. The best tables are adjacent to the sizable windows up front, which lend a bright and airy fishbowl feel, hardly the norm for Chinese eateries.

Like 18th-century mariners searching in vain for the fabled Northwest Passage or water route to Asia, many contemporary travelers navigate our coast hoping to locate a favored Chinese restaurant. A good portion return home disappointed. Not Great Wall regulars - these diners have discovered their personal version of Chinese gastro-nirvana.

Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103, phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail mouth@dailyastorian.com

Great Wall Restaurant

Two stars (out of four)

4340 Highway 101 N., Gearhart

(503) 738-4108

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Inexpensive to moderate. Two could dine handsomely for less than $30, beverages and tip included.

Superior selections: Szechwan pickle soup, moo shu vegetables, Cantonese-style calamari, Great Wall beef.

Atmosphere: With all the windows, it's like eating in a well-lighted fish bowl.

Service: Attentive.

Kid-friendly: If your children like typical Chinese food, they'll enjoy eating here.

Vegetarian options:Many - everything from moo shu vegetables to fried tofu in garlic sauce.

Alcohol: A few bottled beers, Delicato house wine, plum wine and cocktails.

Access: The entrance is accessible to people in wheelchairs; the restrooms (currently only one in service) may present problems.

Credit cards: Discover, Mastercard, Visa.

Personal checks: Local only, with check guarantee card.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Smoking: Not permitted.

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