SOYS N THE HOOD

China Gate, 3033 West Peoria Avenue, Phoenix, 944-1982. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

When I plunk down six bucks to see a new Woody Allen movie, I do it with a sense of anticipation I don't bring to other flicks. I don't fret about wasting my money because the film might not be amusing; I know I'll have some chuckles. But part of me hopes it will be side-splittingly, laugh-out-loud funny.

I tingle with that same kind of eager thrill when I check out a Chinese restaurant. Experience suggests that at the very least I'll be getting a reasonably tasty meal. I just hope that maybe I'll run into extraordinary fare that will take my breath away.

Maybe it's unfair to burden both Woody and Chinese food with such demanding expectations. But it's their own fault--they've created a high standard, one I can't help wishing they could always meet, and occasionally even exceed.

Unfortunately, neither Woody nor too many Valley Chinese restaurants have been bowling me over these days. For the most part, the two Chinese places I recently visited served dependably reliable food. But when you're ready to fall in love, as I always am, it's a bit disappointing to end the evening as merely very good friends.

China Gate's branch near Metrocenter is a serene oasis of tranquility in an area whose traffic generally boosts my blood-pressure numbers into the dangerous range. The rose-and-blue color scheme has a soothing effect, as does the piped-in, new-age-style piano music.

This is no ethnic shack, a place to get a Chinatown experience. Management expects you to eat with forks and spoons, not chopsticks. Don't look for specialties written in Chinese taped to the wall. And don't expect your fellow diners to be homesick Asians desperate for a taste of the old country, either. They're west-siders interested in unthreatening fare that generally balances at a level somewhere north of routine and south of riveting.

If I had to pick out a single flaw in China Gate's culinary philosophy, it would be flavor timidity. For some reason, the kitchen refuses to let loose the vivid tastes Chinese food is famous for sending out. Instead, perhaps in deference to local preferences, the flavor meter here stays turned down low.

The soup furnishes the first indication. Commendably, China Gate offers individual servings, which kept my group's hot-and-sour and won ton factions from engaging in their usual hostilities.

But neither broth was worth fighting over. The hot-and-sour had a barely detectable spicy, vinegary smack. A proper model should clear out your sinuses and temporarily give you the nasal sensitivity of a bloodhound. The won ton soup also needs more oomph. It featured a lackluster assortment of veggies and a bit of meat in a dull broth that seemed to be seasoned principally with air.

Instead of soup, try a preprandial nibble of su mai, a dumpling filled with ground pork and shrimp. Or go for the whole shrimp dumpling. Both of these steamed treats generally show up only on dim sum carts, not appetizer lists. Four small, bite-size morsels will set you back $2.50.

At the front of China Gate's menu is a section titled "Royal Dynasty Selection." Presumably, this is where the chef lists his most interesting dishes, so this is where we made our first stop. But the three specialties we ordered, though pleasant enough, never took us to Chinese gastronomic heights.

The Szechuan combination certainly sounded as if it could. The menu described it as "jumbo shrimp, scallops, clam, beef and chicken in a hot, tangy sauce blended from rich tomatoes." But everything came battered and fried, which significantly reduced the dish's charm. And the sauce was more innocuous than hot and spicy.

Beef l'orange is fashioned from good quality beef, and comes crisply breaded. But the menu's "spicy hot," "highly flavorful" characterization was way off the mark. We detected only the faintest citrusy punch, and almost no pepper heat.

Same for the General Tzu's chicken. Except, this time, diminished flavor was not the only shortcoming. This dish also suffered from chunks of fowl whose fried coating had turned unappetizingly soggy.

Oddly enough, we had a lot more success once we moved on to the regular part of the menu.

Even Peoria Avenue traffic won't keep me from coming back for the Volcano beef, the best of the dozen platters we sampled. Here, the ingredients worked harmoniously to produce a highly tasty effect: lean, tender beef, broccoli, baby corn and straw mushrooms in a piquant sauce with just enough bite to hold our interest.

Dancing mushrooms are equally appealing, especially if you're into fungus, as I am. This vegetarian-friendly plate comes thickly stocked with four kinds of mushrooms, with just a few snow peas and bamboo shoots along to provide a bit of color and crunch.

Mandarin pork also furnishes the contrasting tastes and textures that Chinese cooking is noted for. Strips of roast pork and whole shrimp are tossed with a mound of snow peas in a sauce that somehow avoided the deflavoring process. Make sure you don't confuse this fine dish with the off-putting Princess pork, whose every ingredient--pork, carrots, zucchini--disturbingly appears in the shape of a cube. This looks like the kind of dish that escaped from a lunchtime $2.99 Chinese buffet.

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