The Big Cantonese-y
An old strip mall with a gun range, a temp agency, and an iffy convenience store isn't the stuff of travel posters or exotic tales. But the Oakland Shopping Center (4101-4351 N. State Road 7, Lauderdale Lakes) has enough Chinese and Vietnamese-oriented businesses to make it a focal point for the loose Asian commercial district along that stretch of 441. Drive in here, and you'll feel like you left the country. Or at least your stomach will.
Under one long, zig-zagging roof, you can get fish maw soup and intestines cooked several ways, fresh dim sum to serve at home, salty lemonade and lychee milkshakes, and a big lunch of perfect roast duck for under $6.
Which brings us to the Zhang family's Gou Lou Cheung Chinese BBQ (954-739-7377, closed Wednesdays), purveyors of the best Chinese roast meats in Broward. The tiny takeout shop's traditional red honey-roasted pork is buttery soft inside and wonderfully charred and chewy on the edges. It's nothing like the factory-made stuff most Chinese restaurants throw into stir-fries. The classic roast duck is meaty and tender, the skin perfectly crisp. Fans of pork rinds will understand the terrific crispy pork, each slice capped by a puffy, crunchy layer of fat. The chicken and spareribs are pretty good, too. Point out what you want, and the woman stationed at the tree stump of a cutting board will go at it expertly with the cleaver. Don't want the same-old same-old? There are also trays of pig intestine, gizzards, whole braised cuttlefish, and duck feet to choose from. Items are available by the pound or by the bird, or as a self-contained, meal-sized portion over rice and maybe some soft boiled cabbage on the side ($5.25 for one meat, $5.95 for a combination of three). Make sure they give you not just the sweet hoisin-based barbecue sauce but also some of the minced pickled ginger to dab on the meat.
Broward's Asian food lovers already know about Saigon City and Silver Pond (954-486-8885, closed Tuesdays). Saigon City (954-731-6488, closed Thursdays) has the most comprehensive Vietnamese menu in town, and even their pho -- the ubiquitous beef noodle soup -- has a complexity that sets it above noodle shops in the area. Silver Pond specializes in authentic Hong Kong and Cantonese cooking; from beds of crispy-edged pan-fried noodles ladled with vegetables and seafood to pungent salted-fish and bean curd casseroles, the menu has virtually nothing in common with the ubiquitous takeout places.
Even if you're not going for a meal, pop into Saigon City for one of the bubble teas to go. It's a sweet, refreshing drink spiked with a pile of chewy, gelatinous tapioca balls that zip up a wide straw. Though the past decade has seen it break out of Chinatowns and into the mainstream in a few cities, in South Florida bubble tea is still largely unknown outside Asian communities. Nonetheless, the Taiwanese genius who invented it should be on postage stamps and dollar bills. Saigon City doesn't have a wide selection of bubble drinks, but the ones they make are done right, including a lightly creamy Thai iced tea version and thicker blended bubble shakes in flavors like honeydew, taro, and guanabana.
You can get some of bubble tea's precursors, like Southeast Asian jelly desserts, when you stock up on East Asian groceries at Cho A Dong Market (954-485-9450, open daily). One of the larger Asian markets in Broward, its selection skews toward Vietnamese and Chinese, but there's a solid selection of Thai, Japanese, Filipino, and other products, too. Grab some condiments and vegetables and your favorite Asian candy and snacks, including licorice-flavored dried fruit and an array of shrimp chips.
Pick up a steamer from the housewares section, but don't stock up on the bags of frozen dim sum just yet! You can walk a couple of doors down to the descriptively named Asian Prepared Foods (954-484-4370, open to the public Monday, Wednesday, and on weekends), where the gregarious Paul Lam manages the family's wholesale dim sum factory, which supplies stores and restaurants all over Florida. If you can get in the door during their odd hours, sidle past the rows of makeshift counters, where workers who couldn't squeeze into the busy kitchen roll up sticks of shrimp and scallion noodles ($1.40-$2.30 a package). Stock up on red bean and turnip cakes, fresh steamed buns, and bean-filled sesame balls while you're at it.
Grab a jug of the freshly made soymilk ($3) for the fridge and a cup of lightly sweet tofu pudding ($1.50) to fortify you for the short walk to the strip's newcomer, the Maxim Oriental Bakery (954-335-1388, open seven days). It offers a variety of cakes (most $.80-$1.25 a slice). Chinese bakeries usually don't deal in rich, fudgey desserts but rather light, refreshingly simple confections. Most are built around a basic pound cake or similarly straightforward pastries and cheesecake. There are little egg tarts, cheesecakes, and more than a dozen kinds of buns filled with everything from custard and butter cream to curry pork and hot dogs. Their tweaked European and American cakes with a global array of fillings are about cross-cultural riffs, but even so, Maxim has something unexpected: Greek pastries, including a straightforward baklava and a scrambled-in-translation peanut-butter filled bird's-nest. Sit down and enjoy a slice of fruit-filled cake with a cup of coffee. Now if only they had Ovaltine...
Finally, if you're feeling out of sorts from sensory (and stomach-y) overload, have no fear. Help is just a short walk away at Dr. Chen's Herbs & Acupuncture Center (954-733-8232), where you can get traditional Chinese medicines for what ails you or make an appointment for more intensive treatments including acupressure and bodywork.
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