Well, it´s all China all the time in the news these days, isn´t it? Between filthy tea, carcinogenic dried apples, and bacteria-laden swordfish imports turned back at our own squeaky-clean borders; the brouhaha over whether Americans should be eating (avian-flu-carrying?) Chinese chickens; the lethal pet-food scandal; and the no-quotas Climate Change report issued from Beijing, our Silk Road trading buddies are taking some hits on the old P.R.-o-meter. But scary food news always brings out the curmudgeon in me -- if I´m gonna die from eating, I want to go out with egg foo yong on my face.
In a personal effort to stem this tsunami of anti-China sentiment, I´ve been chowing down a lot of Cantonese takeout in the same vein as I guzzled French Bordeaux during the Freedom Fries hysteria a few years back. My tongue may have been stained purple as a chow dog´s, but I was one happy drunk while restaurateurs all over town were patriotically pouring their expensive Burgundies into the gutters. Who´s sorry now?
Unfortunately, most Chinese takeout in Palm Beach County is hardly worth the effort of rummaging through your drawerful of paper menus. Making a pass through Boynton Beach on the recommendation of a friend who raved about Fon Shan (4735 N. Congress Ave., Boynton Beach, 561-641-0500), I can report no particular pleasure in the stale noodles, sickly sweet and dry pork ribs, soggy egg rolls, and ultra-bland fried rice we carried home, about 15 pounds of food in total, for $25. Almost everything was underseasoned, probably as a sop to the dullsville palates of Fon´s geriatric clientele. I did like the special house wonton soup ($5.25 for a quart) a whole bunch: crunchy, bright green broccoli, carrots and bok choy, slices of roast pork, and gigantic minced pork-stuffed wontons. Another plus: Fon´s has a full liquor lounge with TVs permanently tuned to ESPN, so you can down a couple while you wait on your moo goo gai pan. When in Boynton, though, I´d as soon go to China Dumpling (1899 N. Congress Ave., 561-737-2782) for its cheapo dim sum luncheons; the dumplings are scrumptious; the rest of the menu is only so-so.
Christina Wan's Mandarin House
664 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10:30 p.m., Sunday 1 till 10 p.m. Call 954-527-0228.
Lauderdale is another matter. We´ve got a pretty big range of noodle shacks and dumpling houses here and a couple of serious Hong Kong-style restaurants (Silver Pond, in Lauderdale Lakes, is my favorite). Last year, the much-beloved Christina Wan´s Mandarin House moved up to Lauderdale from Hollywood, leaving South County folk gnashing their teeth and Lauderdalians high-fiving one another. The Wans have been running Chinese restaurants around South Florida for more than 40 years, and they´ve pretty much cornered the market on Szechwan/Cantonese/Mandarin that´s just exotic enough to satisfy cravings for fermented black beans or Peking duck without inducing any Fear Factor-type gag reflexes -- no jellyfish or clotted pig´s blood. Today, Christina Wan´s menu includes an occasional foray beyond the Chinese border with Asian ingredients like miso and lemongrass or a hot-and-sour Vietnamese soup. But mostly, this is Chinese streamlined over four decades to middlebrow American tastes the kind of restaurant you might remember from the 1960s, when we were just discovering the entirely scrutable pleasures of wood-ear mushrooms and noodles tossed with ground pork and kids were going wild for General Tso´s chicken, the closest thing to a heaping, steaming plateful of candy we were ever likely to be allowed to eat for dinner.
Ms. Wan is a presence at her new place -- she´s chic and sharp-eyed, working the room with a phone hooked to her belt and hobnobbing with longtime customers whose names, professions, life histories, and dietary restrictions she knows backward. Wan is likely responsible for the quality of the service; it´s efficient and friendly and keeps the tables turning without ever seeming to rush. As always, the restaurant purveys a decent selection of vegetarian dishes: Chinese greens and string beans in garlic sauce, spicy tofu, Buddha delight, chow fun noodles with vegetables, a nutty vegetable fried rice (you can get this made with brown rice), and a couple of meat substitutes like garlic wheat ¨sausage¨ or soy ¨chicken.¨ On an earlyish Sunday evening recently, the place was about three-quarters full, and we slipped in without a reservation, taking the corner booth by the window and tuning in to the secrets and lies being bandied around us. A guy on a first date with a local actress was spinning out his oh-so-impressive acquaintance with Wellington socialites; a couple of big Chinese families were arguing over soup tureens at the round tables; some guy was yakking with his lawyer on his cell; a few straggling snowbirds were too busy slurping Singapore noodles to even bother with talk. When we went back on a Tuesday night, things were more serene, and the place, with its low-wattage lighting and white tablecloths, was eminently relaxing.
OK, recommendations. First, while you can certainly eat alone or as a duo, Wan´s is ideal for sharing food at large tables. There are some dishes, like the house specialty orange beef ($16), that you´d have to be a little crazed to try to plow through alone. Of the eight dishes we tried, our clear favorites included a complex and spicy Vietnamese hot-and-sour soup ($8 for a large tureen, to comfortably serve three or four), as perfectly balanced as yin and yang, its fiery broth packed with slippery mushrooms, dense, chewy scallops, bean sprouts, and shrimp -- utterly delicious. We also loved the big steamed pork dumplings ($7) for their terrific texture -- an extra thick wonton packed with gingery minced meat, served with the traditional soy/rice vinegar/sesame oil sauce. For main dishes, I recommend without reservation both the Chinese eggplant with pork ($12) and the butterflied shrimp foo yong ($15). The eggplant was particularly beautiful with its jewel-tone mix of colors, a range of lavenders in the thickly sliced eggplant, bright green scallions and string beans, a strip of red pepper now and then, and the julienned pork pieces (it looks at first like noodles) tossed in a silky oyster sauce. An interesting take on egg foo yong is made with big butterflied shrimp wrapped in bacon, tossed in egg and fried like an omelet, and set over a mound of grilled onions, gleaming with oil. A not particularly memorable brown gravy comes on the side. But if you don´t fancy a mouthful of shrimp shell, watch out for the tails!
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Second-tier dishes included our spring rolls ($3), pretty gold bars stuffed with noodles and diced shrimp, piping hot, tasty but not particularly unique; salt and pepper soft shell crab, deep-fried in batter to a bumpy, warty goodness -- crisp outside and with an intense, melting flavor within -- and served with a little dish of salt (sea salt, rather than plain table salt, would have been an improvement) and a creamy garlic sauce; and clams with preserved black bean sauce ($14), earthy and exotic, a smell of old leather and salt fish. The bean sauce was superb, but the clams weren´t of best quality maybe they´d sat too long before they got to our table. As for the special house orange beef ($16), it´s quite an experience. Superthin wedges of beef are carefully washed down with water, coated with flour and crisply deep fried, and served with a sauce made from preserved tangerine peel and wedges of orange. It´s mega-sweet and floral with a taffylike texture, and if you didn´t know, you´d never guess there was real beef under all that heady citrus. One or two pieces makes a lovely counterpoint in a full meal, but if you can eat a whole plate of this stuff, you´re a bigger pig than I.
Eight little dishes -- this lineup doesn´t, of course, make a dent in the array of Ja Cheung mein noodles and mu shu chicken, the Saigon steak or the ginger duck, much less Wan´s low-carb options or the family-style bean curd. But it goes a long way in my book to polishing up China´s beleaguered reputation -- a culture that invented mu shu pork with pancakes can´t be so bad.
On a much sadder note, you´ve probably heard by now that the 28-year-old owner of Hong Kong City BBQ in Tamarac, Ray Ng, was shot dead on Mother´s Day last month during a robbery. I understand that the restaurant, a longtime favorite of ours that has taken New Times Best Of awards three years in a row -- for Best Dim Sum and Best Chinese -- has closed and won´t reopen.