By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Jun 02, 2003 at 5:47 AM

As a writer, sometimes the most obvious topics for a story are also the most elusive. In our effort to increase the number of restaurant reviews in this magazine, it occurred to me recently that we left out perhaps the most instrumental restaurant in the history of Emperor of China, 1010 E. Brady St.

The Emperor, as we call it around here, is where I shared my idea of starting with my business partners nearly five years ago. Back then, we had lunch there regularly because the portions were large, and the prices were cheap. Fortunately, not much has changed, and now at least a few people from our office of 11 can be found eating lunch at the Emperor several times a month. It's where we take our new employees on their first day. You could say it's the unofficial restaurant of

Tradition aside, the Emperor serves good, healthy Chinese without much hoopla. Their lunch specials, priced around $5, are among the best in town. Dishes come with fried rice (or white, if you prefer), a cup of steaming hot egg drop soup and free tea, if you ask for it.

The atmosphere can best be described as '70s Asian-themed, which was the reason I first set foot into the Emperor almost seven years ago. With a look like this, I thought at the time, the food can't be half bad.

Wood paneling on one wall, painted brick on the other, large urns, bamboo and prints of ancient Chinese emperors make up most of the décor. The ceilings sport large white, circular installations. Could they be clouds? Maybe Lilly pads? Who knows, and who cares? The restaurant is always clean, and the wait staff is exceedingly courteous and fast. And like every good '70s Chinese restaurant, the Emperor has a loungy bar in the front of the restaurant (I've never actually seen anyone in the bar, but who's counting?).

But the Emperor is so much more than a little East Side kitsch. Their food speaks for itself, and of course, all of us at OMC have our favorite dishes. Mine are the chicken in garlic sauce and the cashew chicken.

The garlic chicken, which can be spicy on occasion, is sliced in brown sauce with green pepper, onions and bamboo shoots.

Nothing fancy about the cashew chicken, but it's still quite good. It's sliced meat with assorted vegetables and cashews in a brown sauce. The vegetarian fried rice that comes with every lunch is great, too, made with the standard bean sprouts, egg and green onion. The egg drop soup is top notch -- hot and flavorful -- and among the best I've tried. The chocolate fortune cookies at the end are a nice touch, too, though not as good as the little cups of ice cream they used to serve at the end of a meal.

Other office favorites are the Buddah's Delight, Kung Pao beef and the sweet and sour chicken or pork (with a side of that day-glo orange sauce, of course). The restaurant uses 100% vegetable oil, so vegetarians can feel safe to eat here, too.

I consider myself a bit of a Chinese food snob, and I can honestly say that while very good, the Emperor isn't the best in town. That accolade goes to Yen Ching on the corner of 76th St. and Good Hope. But it's a bit of a schlep to head to the northwest side, and their lunch specials don't compare to the Emperor.

For a quick and inexpensive lunch, Emperor of China simply can't be beat. For a little restaurant on Brady, it's got a lot of character. It's tasty, inviting and close to our East Side office. And you can't overstate the history and tradition of the place -- at least for us.

The fine folks at the Emperor also deliver and are open seven days a week starting at 11:30 a.m. For takeout or delivery, give them a call at (414) 271-8889.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.