SECOND HELPINGS

Chinese Class: When I want the kind of Chinese food I used to get on New York's Mott Street and San Francisco's Grant Street, I don't spend much time mulling over the options. It's clear to me that C-Fu Gourmet is the closest thing we have in the Valley to an East or West Coast Chinatown restaurant. A recent visit left me stuffed with admiration. C-Fu specializes, believe it or not, in seafood, a chancy proposition for an ethnic restaurant in the middle of the desert. Not just any kind of seafood, either, but fresh seafood. And not just fresh seafood, but seafood so fresh, it's still swimming. The back of the room is filled with holding tanks, where, depending on the season and availability, lobsters, crab, tilapia, shrimp, oysters, clams, scallops and other finny creatures cavort. A waitress gave us a tour, and then pointed out the daily specials written in Chinese and English on the walls. We didn't even bother opening the menu. First up, seafood vegetable soup ($8.95). It was extraordinarily good. And why shouldn't it have been? It was filled with shrimp, scallops, crab, clams, oyster mushrooms and expensive shreds of shark's fin. For a brief moment, I thought I was in Hong Kong, and not a Tempe shopping strip. The House of C-Fu special ($14.95) blew me away. It's amazing, a beautifully designed platter with sculpted turnips and artfully peeled cucumbers and oranges. But eating is even better than looking. Luscious lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops and clams will remind you just how good fresh, expertly prepared seafood can taste. And the dish came with an appealing blend of vegetables, including asparagus and oyster mushrooms. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column bemoaning the impossibility of finding fresh shrimp in the Valley. Everyone agreed it was simply much too expensive to stock, despite its luxurious taste. So imagine my shock when I saw scores of shrimp paddling around C-Fu's aquarium. The restaurant had a special on them that night: one pound, prepared any way you like, for $16.95. The waitress's serving suggestion made sense to us. After scooping out about a dozen critters, the kitchen slit open the backs and poured in garlic and butter. Then they were steamed, head on and all, and served in more garlic and butter over a mound of shredded green onions. This platter could ruin your capacity to enjoy just about any other shrimp dish in the Valley. C-Fu Gourmet is at 6438 South McClintock in Tempe. Call 831-8899. Another excellent Chinese-food option is Great Wall's daily dim sum meal. Dim sum are bite-size morsels, served in the late morning and early afternoon. They come fried, steamed, stir-fried and boiled, under metal lids, in bamboo baskets and wrapped in leaves. They come to the table in traditional fashion, food-laden carts wheeled around the room by an endless merry-go-round of servers. And they come cheap--you'll stagger out at less than $10 per person.

 
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