Won Ton Abandon

Flo's, 14850 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale, 661-8883. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

Most things in life are routinely predictable, aren't they?
You expect your blind date to be ugly. You can always count on some Bible-thumping East Valley legislator who has gone through five husbands to make a speech condemning the morality of others. And you know you'll never see any part of that $100 you lent your deadbeat brother-in-law in 1987.

Well, I used to think most things in life were routinely predictable, too. But after making my way through the menus at two new Chinese restaurants, I may have to reassess my position. Who knows? In the future, maybe all blind dates will look like Claudia Schiffer. Maybe Representative Karen Johnson will discover the Golden Rule. And maybe your brother-in-law will hand over $160, announcing that the extra 60 bucks represents 12 years of accrued interest, at 5 percent per annum.

Unlikely? Sure. But no more unlikely than my experiences at Flo's, a knife-and-fork Chinese restaurant aimed at unadventurous north Scottsdale palates, and Lao Ching Hing, a showcase restaurant featuring Shanghai cuisine at the snazzy Chinese Cultural Center.

The brains behind Flo's is Florence Chan, ex-wife of Eddie Chan, who has operated his own Scottsdale Chinese restaurant for years. She has a keen business sense: As far as I'm aware, Flo's is the only Chinese restaurant in this part of the won-ton-soup-starved northeast Valley. Every time I've come here--weeknights, weekends, early, late, it doesn't seem to matter--people eager to dispose of their disposable incomes have been lined up out the door.

Flo's territorial monopoly probably won't last very long. No doubt savvy Chinese-restaurant entrepreneurs are already making plans to move in. But the restaurant should be able to handle the competition. That's because Flo's puts out the kind of Chinese fare that's perfectly calibrated to neighborhood tastes.

I don't know what the Chinese word for "gringo" is, but Flo does. The only patrons here from the mysterious East live in gated communities east of Pima Road. But either through instinct or experience, Flo knows that her customers aren't looking for the old favorites in their traditional forms. So she has goosed up her platters a bit--this dish with wild mushrooms, that dish with pine nuts. And except for a few seafood dishes, nothing goes for more than 10 bucks. Right now, she's taking that formula to the bank.

It's all served in a sleek, vaguely sterile setting. There are virtually no signs here, aural or visual, that you're in a Chinese restaurant. The light-wood tables are set with western cutlery and colorful plates that look like Fiestaware. A big picture window in the back looks out on a new red-tile-roof development. And the high-tech lights, covered by cobalt-blue shades, are kept so trendily dim that you may want to bring a miner's lamp.

The appetizer list gives you some insight into Flo's low-risk culinary philosophy. Unremarkable spring rolls are crunchy and fresh enough, but that's about the limit of my enthusiasm. The greenery-deprived summer roll--a bit of shrimp and noodles wrapped in rice paper--can't match the models you find in Vietnamese restaurants. For some reason, pot stickers are deep-fried, not steamed or pan-fried. And sliced barbecued pork is as basic as it gets, although the meat is reasonably moist and not fatty.

I got a great kick, though, out of a munchie called "Chips and Salsa." The "chips" are fried won ton skins that resemble the crunchy Chinese "noodles" I used to get as a kid in Brooklyn. In those days, they came with "duck sauce" for dipping, and they were free. These days, at Flo's, they come with a "Chinese salsa" fashioned from minced chicken, tomato and scallion, seasoned with cilantro and lemongrass. And while they're not free, the $3.95 tag doesn't inflict major wallet damage.

Hot-and-sour soup is usually a good barometer of a Chinese restaurant's quality. By that standard, I'd say Flo's has potential. The soup is wonderfully stocked with big shrimp, pork and veggies, swimming in a snappy, spicy broth. But the "sour" part of the equation, the vinegary tang that gets your mouth puckering with pleasure, isn't quite there. Instead, there's salt.

In contrast, the won ton soup not only isn't there, it also shows no signs of ever getting there. The bland broth supports a thimbleful of mushrooms, carrots and bok choy, along with some lackluster won tons. This soup cries out for a redesign.

If you've wandered around Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco, the main dishes will not seem like a particularly exciting group. But what they lack in ethnic intensity, they often make up for in quality.

That's certainly the case with the scallops and mushrooms, the single best dish I had here. There's no stinting on the lovely sea scallops, stir-fried with a variety of wild mushrooms. The subtlety of the scallops works nicely with the earthiness of the mushrooms. The texture contrast--soft and firm--is just as fetching. This is what is meant by "yin" and "yang."

Pine-nut shrimp doesn't have quite the same energy. The name says it all--an ample portion of firm, medium-size shrimp stir-fried with a bucket of pine nuts, in a faintly spicy sauce that is probably just as spicy as the neighborhood can handle.

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