By David Minsky
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Would you answer this ad? Probably not. And if you did and got hired, you likely wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks. It's not that you're lazy or incapable -- just that you realize that nobody, absolutely nobody, should have to work this hard for a living wage.
Except that this is what restaurateurs do; it's a never-ending job. Proprietors of eateries need more innate skills than the average, say, computer hacker, even though the compensation hardly ever equals the labor input. You'd think that only crazy people would sign on.
Yet more and more restaurants open each year, and in most cases, it's because folks have a passion for this kind of work. Some even miss it when they're away from the business. David Chen sold Wong's, his well-known North Miami restaurant, four years ago after having operated it since 1974. (He also ran a sister Chinese eatery, Wong's II, from 1983 to 1992.) After six months of leisure, he traveled to Hong Kong and toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant there. But the developing economic problems during China's takeover turned him against the plan, and by 1998 he was back in the States hunting for restaurant space.
Hong Kong's (and Miami's) loss is Broward's gain. Chen finally found a satisfactory location in the former Pastis space on Harrison Street in Hollywood and debuted Chinatopia. He has the requisite family members to help out, but from the looks of things, Chen's going to have to be a 24-7 restaurateur. After only a couple of months, the place is humming. Soon, I predict, the dining room will be packed.
For several good reasons. Hollywood has long relied on Christina Wan's to keep it in fried rice; finally, there's some competition in the neighborhood. Chinatopia is located on Harrison Street's busier end, near Young Circle, as opposed to the near-abandoned stretch where good restaurants go to die. Its décor could be funked up a bit to match the name; blond-wood tables with inlaid borders, partnered with contemporary black dining chairs and green banquettes, are the only design elements in the room. But the place does have a modern edge -- no fish tank, no tasseled Chinese souvenir, nothing red. In short, this is not your grandmother's favorite Chinese restaurant.
At their very worst, Chinatopia's Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin dishes are pleasant, homestyle, agreeable. At their best, they're excellent. And stellar seems to happen, paradoxically, when the restaurant is in a waiting-room-only mode. The service may suffer; when you request water, only the person who does the asking gets a glass, and if you want a refill of sweet-and-sour sauce, you might get one from the next table. (Say it with me: gross.) But in this case, I'd trade the bland sesame noodles we had one quiet night, expertly portioned out by the waitperson, for the lusty, onion-rife pork chow fun that the server simply deposited on the table on another, far busier night.
I expect these uneven service glitches to smooth out, and I also anticipate the cooking to become consistent, no matter how big or small the crowd. That's partially because I, like a generous handful of Chinatopia's current clientele, dined at Wong's for years before its sale, and I know what the Chens can do. But it's also because of the high quality of the ingredients. The shrimp in the Lake Tung Ting shrimp, lightly sautéed with broccoli and water chestnuts in an aromatic white sauce, were so fresh we almost expected them to talk back. Mandarin steak proved to be a top-grade sirloin endowed with stir-fried vegetables that had been cooked to a crisp, not soggy, finish. Lobster in black bean sauce, served in the shell, provided tender lobster meat accented by a suggestive (but not overpowering) sauce made from fermented black soybeans and red and green bell peppers.
Every fan of Chinese food has one dish by which he or she judges a restaurant. If yours is duck, then the meatiness of the boneless crispy duck with vegetables and a slightly sugary sauce spiked with fragrant sesame seeds will delight you. If you're a slave to eggplant dishes, the eggplant Szechuan flavored with shredded pork will be your master. And if you set standards by spareribs, then these huge beauties, sticky with a sweet-and-sour glaze, will immediately have you making return plans.
However, if won ton soup is your benchmark, don't bother setting your speed dial for Chinatopia's takeout. The broth simply tastes like bouillon and was far too salty both times we tried it. Chicken-corn soup, in an enormous bowl, and billed on the menu for two but big enough to feed four, is a far better choice. The silky blend of roasted corn and egg whites provides a good base for pulled white-meat chicken. Here's another warning: Don't order Chinatopia's edamame, the traditional Japanese appetizer of steamed soybeans, unless you like them overcooked and mealy. For a starter, stick with classic egg rolls, stuffed with cabbage so field-fresh it was juicy.