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Feel Good Foo Yung

I had an extremely visceral reaction when I read "Chinese modern: Traditional fare stylish again," one of the latest stories in Nation's Restaurant News -- I got really, really hungry.

I've never made a secret out of my love for familiar Chinese dishes such as egg foo yung and lemon chicken, the first to take root in our national culinary consciousness. I've never felt embarrassed about my comfort-level need for it when I've had a bad day at work, a fight with my husband, or a simple sore throat. Though I enjoy other ethnic cuisines, I've never felt the desire to replace my lingering craving for beef and broccoli with the curries and kebabs of southeastern Asian or the über-trendy sushi combinations inspired by Japan. "Honey," my husband sometimes (with a sickly if sincere amount of hope in his voice) queries on one of the few nights we're lucky enough to stay home, "you want Vietnamese delivered for dinner?" Um, nope. I'd rather dig into my standing order -- roast pork with Chinese vegetables and shrimp with lobster sauce -- from Wong's.

But restaurants have, in the past, bowed before the bon vivant disdain being displayed by my more misguided fellow food-mongers. Faced with increasingly exotic (Malaysian! Cambodian! Burmese!) competition, sometime around the mid-'90s they stopped calling themselves what they were -- wok-driven Americanized Chinese -- and became spin doctors. From then on, ask any Chinese restaurateur, no matter how humble, what kind of fare he serves and the answer would be something along the lines of "Well, I'm from a tiny village in north China, where my mother was the pre-eminent practitioner of dumplings, and our master chef, who trained in Hong Kong hotels and whose ancestors cooked for emperors, specializes in [choose one: Mandarin, Hunan, Szechuan, Pekinese, Cantonese]. And we never use MSG."

Yeah, right. Fortunately, Nation's Restaurant News is reporting that those days have ended. Both upscale and modest restaurants are coming out of the cooking closet and unabashedly declaring themselves domestic. As in, yes, we do serve crab Rangoon, egg drop soup, honey-garlic chicken wings, spare ribs, Peking duck, lo mein, and the ubiquitous Buddha's delight.

I decided to test the trade magazine's theory by ringing up one of the newest neighborhood Chinese joints in Southeast Broward, the nine-month-old China Breeze. Located in the right angle of the Park Sheridan Plaza in Hollywood, the Breeze is a nearly identical resurrection of the long-time former occupant, Wan's Mandarin House. (Wan's Sushi, a sibling, is still operating next door.) Same fish tank filled with koi, same roomy booths and banquettes, same lazy Susans and more- elegant-than-most table trappings (read: white linens and clean bathrooms). But from the eatery's nondescript appellation, I couldn't tell what kind of regional fare was in the offing. The reply to such a ridiculous question? "Oh, we're American-Chinese," the woman who picked up the phone told me. Bling-bling-bling! Sold.

In fact, China Breeze is so very "American" (that is, heavy on the Cantonese) that the very Chinese staff feels free to offer bald advice, such as, "Stop. You've ordered too much food." They're properly horrified when your bowl of crunchy fried noodles and dish of duck sauce have been emptied and not refilled immediately. The hostess is practically a standup comedian, reminiscent of Margaret Cho (when Margaret Cho was actually funny) -- she had us laughing out loud at her descriptions of her "boss," who she later admitted was her husband, confessing that she'd trade him in for a "rich dude from Boca." Then she looked my father-in-law up and down. "You got money?" she asked.

Of course, she was kidding, but the conviviality of this place is pretty serious. Even on a Monday night, the generously proportioned dining room was three-quarters filled, with both local Hollywoodites and commuters. The clientele ranged from young couples to families with multiple offspring to empty nesters. Apparently, I'm not the only one relieved that American-Chinese food is once again the fashion.

That's not to say that every item we sampled was retro perfection. A couple of dishes, including the lithe but not particularly stimulating summer special of string beans with shredded white-meat chicken, could have used a boost in the flavor department -- the vegetables tasted like oil more than anything else. But the servers are willing to accommodate and make adjustments for taste. When we felt that the velvet chicken-corn soup was wonderfully smooth and free of that telltale cornstarch stickiness but was also a little bland, we were instructed to add hot mustard from the saucer that was promptly delivered to the table. When the cold sesame noodles, long curls of egg noodles tossed with shreds of carrots, snow peas, and bean sprouts and topped with a thick peanut-sesame dressing, became dry, the waiter offered to bring us more sauce on the side. What it really needed, however, was a bit of garlic-chili spice.

What China Breeze lacks in vibrancy, it makes up for in quality. The owners used to run a Chinese buffet restaurant, and they clearly understand how important it is to provide fresh product continually. Every vegetable we tried -- from the carrots and snow peas in the house special won ton soup to the broccoli spears that provided a bed for the triangles of supple pan-fried bean curd in black bean sauce -- boasted bright colors and featured that ideal but usually somehow unmanageable compromise between raw and overcooked. The same held true for the seafood, indisputably of respectable grade down to the small, clean-tasting -- and carefully deveined, no less, despite their stature -- shrimp in the won ton soup.

On-the-spot preparation elevated platters of fried rice, particularly when it came to the yang chow version, a soy sauce-free sauté of white short-grained rice, peas, ham, roast pork, scrambled egg, and bean sprouts. Fried rice is trickier than most people think -- if the grains are too old, the rice will be dried out and hard. If they're too fresh, though, stirring them in a wok could break down the structure and make the dish more like risotto. China Breeze's version was excellent, with the rice lightly al dente but not dessicated.

Main courses such as the "dragon and phoenix," a duo of lobster tail sautéed in ginger and scallions and General Tso's chicken, also benefited from attention to detail. The lobster, still in its shell but sectioned for easy removal, was succulent and buttery, while the chicken, breaded and then coated with a garlic-chili pepper sauce that offered a satisfying zing, made for a good textural contrast. According to legend, General Tso's chicken was named for the warrior who ate this dish for strength and courage; according to philosophy, the dragon-phoenix metaphor overall symbolizes harmony and balance. I say we ship vats of the stuff to Iraq. It may not help end the war, but it will certainly be a relief from Army rations.

By even-handedly assuring quality and à la minute presentation, China Breeze already sets itself apart. But it goes one step further by listing Peking duck on its daily menu -- meaning you don't have to order this three-dish-in-one meal 24 hours in advance. If you feel like crisp duck skin, wrapped with scallions and hoisin sauce in delicate pancakes, immediately shadowed by somewhat anemic roasted drumsticks and wings, which themselves are followed by a goodly amount of the bird's dark meat sautéed with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and broccoli in a savory brown sauce, just ask, and satisfaction, like vanilla ice cream and complimentary fortune cookies, is yours. As are takeout containers, a necessity at China Breeze that is also the quintessence of American-Chinese dining in general.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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