Won Ton Abandon

I'd guess the nutritionally sound two-pepper chicken is a best seller. But it's not the lack of fat grams that won me over. Flo grills two whole, skinless breasts, juicy and tender, then tosses on black pepper and sharp Szechuan peppercorns and adds a brown gravy. The result is surprisingly tasty.

So, too, in its own way, is the honey beef. The meat, like just about all the ingredients here, is good quality, not chewy or gristly. It's battered, fried and coated in a sweet/tangy honey citrus sauce. Sure, it's pretty one-dimensional, but Flo isn't cooking for people who are searching for exotic Asian complexity.

But even this crowd will probably agree that the noodle dishes have a case of the blahs. Chow fun, starchy rice noodles, can't compete with the town's best versions. The plate of Hokkien-style noodles, flecked with veggies in a dormant curry sauce, is dull from the first bite. But Flo does get yu xiang eggplant right, big chunks teamed with pork in a sauce with more flavor notes than anything else I had here.

My Chinese-restaurant dessert philosophy has always been Just Say No. Flo's sweets, however, have shown me the advantages of keeping an open mind. White chocolate cheesecake may not be very Chinese, but it is smashingly rich. And though chocolate won tons--crispy fried dumplings filled with creamy chocolate--lack authenticity, who cares when they taste so good?

Are you part of Flo's targeted neighborhood demographic? If so, this place hits the mark: It's the right restaurant in the right place at the right time.

Lao Ching Hing, 668 North 44th Street (COFCO Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix, 286-6168. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.

I expected great things from Lao Ching Hing, the first Chinese restaurant to open at the Chinese Cultural Center. No doubt the Chinese government, which owns the center, wants its tenants to make a good impression. Lao Ching Hing's chef, I hear, was imported from Shanghai to prepare local delicacies.

More likely, he was deported. There's no getting around it--this place is a major disappointment.

It looks like the proprietors spared no expense on the decor. Lao Ching Hing is gorgeous. Feast your eyes on the burnished mahogany furniture, the open shelfwork supporting teapots and vases, vintage photos of old Shanghai and the heavy wooden tables inlaid with marble.

It's the only feasting you'll do here. Certainly nothing from the kitchen merits your attention. For a place that calls itself a Shanghai restaurant, there's precious little regional bounty on the menu--unless, of course, you believe egg rolls, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork, sweet and sour chicken, Mongolian beef, shrimp fried rice and chow mein are native delights. What on earth are these hackneyed dishes doing in a showcase Chinese restaurant in a showcase Chinese center? What kind of hicks does Lao Ching Hing think we are?

The Shanghai dishes are not only few, they're nondescript. If you've never had the good stuff, you might wonder why there's such a thing as Shanghai cuisine at all.

Steamed pork dumplings don't taste fresh. Sweet rice cake is an acquired taste I haven't acquired. It's a spongy, gelatinous, quivering mass, made from rice flour flecked with nuts. Rice noodles tossed with assorted veggies have no energy. A little of the fluffy braised meatballs goes a very long way. Pork with preserved vegetables is smoky and intense, but very fatty. Pan-fried pomfret, two small, whole fish coated with a one-dimensional ginger sauce, is a snooze.

The kitchen seems to be just going through the motions with everything else on the menu, too. Take the "shrimp in special pancake." What's special about a plain omelet studded with a few shrimp--no veggies, no seasoning--is beyond me. Shredded potato with green pepper is exactly that. One bite and you've plumbed its depths. Seafood soup with tofu has precious little seafood and even less flavor.

As for the egg roll, kung pao chicken, shrimp in black-bean sauce, chicken chow mein, Mongolian beef and twice-cooked pork, just thank your lucky stars that I had to eat them, and you didn't. Fortunately, I was spared the "Vermicelli with grounded vegetable meat." When I ordered it, the server steered me away. "Is it only for the Chinese?" I asked. She shook her head. "No, not good for Chinese people, too," she replied.

The Asian community, and everybody else, seems to be staying away from Lao Ching Hing. On all three of my visits, the place was almost deserted. I took heart when I saw a Chinese gentleman come in one evening, but it turned out he had locked his keys in the car and needed a Yellow Pages to find a locksmith. Lao Ching Hing should consider using the directory, too: Look under "C," for chef.

Flo's:
Hot and sour soup
$5.95
Scallops with mushroom
10.95
Chocolate won tons
3.95

Lao Ching Hing:
Seafood soup
$6.95
Mongolian beef
8.50
Braised meatballs
9.

50

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