FIT TO BE TIDE

C-Fu Gourmet, 6438 South McClintock, Tempe, 831-8899. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The car needs a $500 engine repair. It's September and still beastly hot. I've just received the 20-month payment schedule from my kid's orthodontist.

Six months of intensive exercise at the health club have transformed me from a flabby weakling into a flabby weakling with athlete's foot. And my hair is falling out so fast aerial photographs confuse the top of my head with a golf-course sand trap.

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So how come I'm in such a great mood?
Because I stumbled across a terrific Chinese restaurant, not yet a year old, specializing in seafood, at a Tempe shopping mall.

C-Fu Gourmet has an authentic Chinatown air, and it's not because of a team of restaurant interior designers, either. On a stormy, blustery Wednesday night, the place was almost filled by several Chinese groups sitting around large, family-style tables.

You run smack into decorative aquariums as soon as you enter: one by the door, one by the bar and a striking cylindrical model tucked in the dining area. These house some bizarre-looking creatures. Most of them look like throwbacks to the Paleozoic era, except for one fearsome specimen that eerily resembled my Aunt Minnie.

But most of the ocean life here is for eating, not admiring. And a lot of it is still alive, frolicking in functional tanks at the back of the room. Huge crabs and lobsters scuttle blissfully across one, oblivious to the orange price tags on their claws and the hungry gaze of patrons.

Other fish, like tilapia, cavort in a second tank. When you order, a guy with a net scoops out your selection and wrestles it into the kitchen. You get both a vivid understanding of the food chain and absolutely fresh fish.

Other elements of authenticity are equally appealing: the bustling, friendly Chinese staff; the half-dozen daily specials written on the walls in English and Chinese; the affordable prices for the mostly Cantonese fare; and the 2 a.m. weekend closing. As a lone concession to Western tastes, they'll leave out the MSG if you insist.

The menu comes in two parts. One offers traditional dishes listed under headings of chicken, pork and beef. But everyone here was ordering from the Chinese specialty section, with its dozens of choices.

We didn't want to fill up on appetizers, but common sense is no match for hunger. It all turned out for the best, anyway, because we got two first-rate starters. Six outstanding, plump pot stickers came with a lip-searing dipping sauce. And barbecued pork arrived in a refreshingly simple way: unadorned thin slices of meat, lightly dressed with soy sauce and its own juices. But the stars here are the seafood main dishes. We started by ordering flounder from the wall menu. It came in three sizes, and we got the smallest, which was plenty for four. (The large one must have been caught with a harpoon.) Like the pork, it was simply cooked, steamed whole in a light soy-and-ginger sauce with lots of green onions. It's meaty, with a delicate flavor, expertly prepared.

Back in my New York days, I had a Chinese friend write a card for me that I would hand to Chinatown waiters. It said, "Please prepare dishes as you would for Chinese customers." Then I'd order clams in black-bean sauce, a true Chinese seafood test.

C-Fu's version comes with the best black-bean sauce I've had, thick with a smoky, pungent taste, great with clams and rice. If bivalves turn you on, you'll have to be hosed down after eating this treat.

The seafood hot pot brought an arkful of fish, apparently housing two of every known species. Among the recognizable inhabitants were shrimp, scallops and squid bubbling next to lots of Chinese vegetables. Not a fancy dish, but a lovely one.

I spied my favorite noodle dish, chow fun, on the wall menu. They're thick rice noodles, and C-Fu had a plentiful seafood version. Like the hot pot, it was filled with all sorts of fish, and gave off the sharp aroma of the sea.

The only fish dish that failed to excite us was the saut‚ed seafood in a bird's nest of crunchy noodles. For some reason, it came oversalted and lacking the flavor and zip of the other specialties.

Most of the seafood dishes here are not for visiting Midwestern relatives who flirt with adventure every time they order sweet-and-sour pork. From presentation to ingredients, nothing is done to appease Occidental sensibilities.

But they can still get their beef. The Hong Kong steak on a sizzling plate is a carnivore's delight, a big platter heaped with breaded, tender, thin-sliced steak, smothered with onions and swimming in a sweet, smoky, barbecue-style sauce.

We tried one dish from the regular menu, just to see how C-Fu dealt with the old favorites. Not surprisingly, the Hunan chicken showed the kitchen was on the ball. As we hoped, the dish came well-stocked with hot peppers, not at all toned down for American palates. Chunks of chicken were nestled in a powerful black-bean sauce, surrounded by lots of crunchy baby corn, sliced carrots and the usual Chinese vegetables. And at $5.95, the price was certainly right.

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