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Staff photo by REID SILVERMANOwner, cook and hostess Pong Kempf prepares bulgogi at Emily's Oriental Express in Lexington Park.
Before you read this and rush to Emily's Oriental Express, please take note of the following announcement: Pong Kempf, the friendly owner, cook and hostess, is on vacation through July 11. Her restaurant will resume pumping out awesome lumpia and beyond-affordable Asian fare on July 12.
Of course, in St. Mary's County, Emily's Oriental Express is hardly a secret. The restaurant and carryout spot, a one-room house with four tables, has been open for about 20 years, and remains popular since Kempf bought the business in 2006.
The very fact that you don't find lumpia very often must be at least one reason the slender, crispy, tightly wrapped, meat-filled fried rolls have something of a cult following. No one seems to know exactly how to classify them: Descriptions range from a snack to a pastry to a Filipino spring roll to, as The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema once put it, "the slender cousin of the egg roll." Lumpia, either way, is popularly associated with the Philippines, and Emily's Oriental Express' original owner was indeed Filipino. So it goes, Kempf admitted that she soon might have to raise her prices — mind you, by 25 or 50 cents.
Fried rice meals are $4 to $7, while combination plates go for $6.25. The combo includes a choice of beef bulgogi, kalbi (short ribs), beef on a stick or Korean barbecued chicken. With that, you will receive a big side of better-than-the-usual fried rice and two spice-dusted lumpia served with a sweet dipping sauce.
After taking your order, Kempf will prepare your food and, should you choose to dine in, deliver it to your table — lumpia first.
Lumpia here is popular enough to warrant its own special — the "lumpia lovers" — which gets you six of them plus a drink for less than six bucks. The previous Weekend editor wrote in her profile of Emily's Oriental Express, "I can't speak for other branches of the military, but I can assure you that whenever there was a Navy command picnic, holiday celebration or reason to eat, one of the most popular groups of people was the ones who brought the lumpia." Incidentally, orders for 100 lumpia sometimes come to Kempf from Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Big lumpia orders, in fact, are filled daily by Kempf, who says she prepares them from scratch every other day. While I ate a generous serving of authentic Korean barbecued chicken, for instance, a couple finished their meal and casually placed an order for a dozen. No problem!
The price? $11.44. (They start at $1 for one, as it happens, and decrease in price as you buy more.)
Emily's Oriental Express is a true gem, its charm derived from a personable setup and casual accommodations. Plates are Styrofoam, utensils are plastic. Want to know what's in your food? Just take a look around you — at the sacks of rice near the door ... or the packages of noodles on a shelf.
You will usually find some daily specials, like two chicken skewers, crab rangoon (deep-fried dumplings stuffed with crab) or pancit bihon (Filipino noodles with meat). Kempf did not even charge me (she did not know I was a reporter) for a side of kimchi, the ubiquitous Korean side dish consisting of cabbage soaked with oil and seasoning. Her rationale? There was no need to charge for it … since she makes it herself.
I guess that means, then, that kimchi is free for those who dine in (as Kempf has a set price to fill small and large carryout containers). Her recipe is a great one, too. Although it's thoroughly covered in chili pepper, the sight of which might worry someone with a low tolerance for it, the kind Kempf uses is only of medium spiciness.
Which is to say this: After what amounts to an appetizer of lumpia, you then can experience that cleansing chili pepper feeling without ordering an extra bottle of water. Your palate fresh, please proceed to your entree and rice.
Emily's Oriental Express
21009 Great Mills Road, Lexington Park
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-6 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday
Entree prices: less than $10
Credit cards: cash only