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REVERSAL OF FORTUNE COOKIE

I think I've spotted a new trend. Lately I've been hearing a lot of people waxing nostalgic about "good old Cantonese-style" Chinese food. After years of experimenting with exotica like duck's feet and taro root, people seem to be developing a taste for less challenging Chinese fare. Is this a simple case of homesickness for one's youth and the foods associated with it? Or do people really miss egg foo yung, chop suey and fried rice? Because I certainly don't. I have about as much wistful sentiment for these foods as I have for crawling. It was a nice way to start out, but I don't want to return to it.

When most people speak of "Cantonese-style," they are not, for the most part, referring to the Southeastern school of Chinese cooking revered for its ability to coax enhanced flavor from fresh ingredients. They're talking about what I call Chinatown food--recipes modified to appeal to American tastes.

Years ago, when I began poking around various urban Chinatowns looking for good things to eat, this so-called "Cantonese-style" cooking predominated. I cut my teeth on it. When my love affair with food from the spicier Hunan and Szechuan provinces commenced, I didn't look back.

Except for the purposes of this review.
If Phoenix had a Chinatown, I would have visited it. But, as you may know, our urban planners obliterated it sometime during the first half of this century. So, I visit two of the oldest Chinese restaurants in town, where I'm sure to get "Cantonese-style" cooking filtered through generations of American tastes.

The man in the short-order cook's hat looks melancholy. He flips the "Closed" sign to "Open," unlocks the front door and lets us in. "Sorry," he says. "Got busy."

According to my watch, Mandarin Restaurant, owned and operated by the same family in several locations since the 1940s, should have opened twenty minutes ago. "We weren't sure you were open anymore," I joke. "Well," he says, "Way things are going, maybe . . . "

We select a booth and sit down. He brings us menus and water. We ask for hot tea. "Two?" he asks. We nod. We are the only customers in the restaurant. No one else enters the entire time we are there.

Despite the aristocratic overtones to its name, Mandarin is a plain place. The exterior has a fast-food, convenience-store look to it. The inside is simple and unadorned. Red vinyl has been stretched to cover our table. Our booth is made of white vinyl. The place settings at each table are identical. Fork and spoon. Salt and pepper. Sugar, ashtray, soy sauce. The man in the short-order hat brings us a dish full of pink packets of diet sweetener. Our teacups have handles and sit on saucers.

We give him our order. I request chopsticks and hot oil. "We use crushed red pepper," he says. "It's what they get the hot oil from." He asks if we want the special soup before the rest of our meal. We say yes. In a few minutes, it arrives. Cubes of tofu, shrimp, shredded bok choy, scallions and strips of nori (seaweed) are suspended in a lackluster chicken broth. We eat the soup with metal spoons instead of the Chinese ceramic utensils supplied elsewhere. The soup is oversalted, but the subtle flavors and textures are pleasing. I sprinkle a little crushed red pepper on it. He's right; it does the trick.

In the kitchen we can hear the clank of metal against metal as the chef stir-fries the rest of our meal. The radio plays Seventies schmaltz: Barry Manilow, Frankie Valli, England Dan and John Ford Coley. It turns out to be appropriate--this is the same music that accompanied my initial encounters with Cantonese cooking. I amaze myself by knowing almost every song and artist.

The first dish out of the kitchen is pepper steak with black bean sauce. It is quite good. Green bell peppers and onion perfectly complement the strips of stir-fried beef in piquant black bean sauce. My only complaint is the inclusion of bamboo shoots. By attempting to be exotic, the dish actually becomes more mundane. Question: Does anybody really like bamboo shoots? Stand up and be counted.

Rather than the vat of steamed rice usually provided in Chinese restaurants, we receive just one small soup-bowl portion. Knowing my dining accomplice, this will not be enough. Shrimp with ginger sauce is out next. The portion isn't the hugest, a fact emphasized by the dish it's served in, a small soup bowl. But the shrimp are very good: exceedingly fresh and firm, with ample snow peas and a great ginger flavor. In fact, I'd probably rave about it if it were hotter than lukewarm and presented on a regular platter. Our third dish is a mistake. Ordering from a section titled "large bowl of noodles," I don't realize I am ordering yet another soup. Worse yet, I do not understand when our waiter tries to warn me. So we end up with a large bowl of wor mein noodle soup, which wouldn't be bad except the noodles are pale, mushy and unappealing. They remind me a little too much of the kind you find in canned chicken noodle soup. Too bad, too, because with a different noodle, I'd really like this soup. It's topped with chicken, slices of barbecued pork, shrimp, onions and a hard-boiled egg.

 

As we eat our late Saturday lunch, the man in the short-order cook's hat begins to open up. "Do you know Elin Jeffords?" he asks, dropping the name of the Arizona Republic's restaurant critic. "Seems like a lot of people who read her order the black bean and ginger dishes."

Not wishing to reveal my identity, I slurp noodles in silence and let my dining accomplice handle this. "Do you know Elin?" he asks.

"Oh, yeah." Our host grows positively expansive. "I know her, like, twelve years or so."

I continue eating and let him talk. I am fascinated. Fascinated enough to call Ms. Jeffords and check out his story. "I've never clapped eyes on this gentleman," says she.

His boasting soon turns into a tale of woe. "This is the worst location we've ever been in. We used to do okay at lunch with a lot of lawyers around here. But with this recession, they've all run for cover." He leaves the counter where he's been standing and comes over to our table. "Do you want more broth in your noodles?"

We tell him no, but ask for more rice. He brings us another soup-bowl portion. Later, on the bill, I see that he charges us $1.00 for it.

Mandarin Restaurant seems to have hit a slump in spirit. Lack of pride in presentation. Opting to handwrite price changes on menus rather than reprinting them. Not opening the front doors on time. If Mandarin were a person, I would say he or she was depressed.

Which is a shame, because the food is good. And with a little effort, could be really good.

Sing High, open since 1928, is the granddaddy of Phoenix Chinese restaurants. Chinatown all the way, this restaurant calls itself a "chop suey house" without any embarrassment. And, judging from the crowd on the night we visit, no one here is complaining.

Again the decor is simple. The dining room is big, plain and, in some sections, poorly lit. As at Mandarin, place settings feature forks and soup spoons. But here, the waitresses and bus boys bustle. The customers come and go with alacrity; significantly, none of them is Chinese.

After placing our order, we settle into our booth. Tea is brought along with tea spoons--for sugar, I guess--then our individual bowls of soup.

I do not like the egg flower soup. Far from the delicate soup I've had in the past, this is more like scrambled eggs in salty chicken stock. At the least, it could use more scallions and less egg. Though gray colored, hot and sour soup is better, mildly spiced and crunchy with slivered water chestnuts.

Our waitress murmurs, "Boy, that looks good!" when she brings us the rest of our dinner. She is, in particular, talking about the shrimp with black bean sauce. She's right. They're gorgeous. Ten lovely shrimp curl in a sauce dotted with black beans, fragrant with wine and ginger. I'm pleased that it tastes as good as it looks.

To my surprise, I also like the mushroom and chicken chop suey. Composed of slivered onion, carrots, bean sprouts, chicken, mushrooms and snow peas tossed together in a corn starch-based sauce, it seems fresh and not as overcooked as some I remember from the bad old days.

I feel foolish for having ordered Happy Family. Except for the addition of more meat, broccoli and miniature corn ears, it reprises the chop suey--though the vegetables are cut differently. I prefer the original. Smoky Sing High fried rice elevates the old standard to an art form. This is a meal in itself, laden as it is with barbecued pork, chicken, shrimp and vegetables. I really like it, though the fried rice, like all of our dishes here, is on the salty side.

We eat until we're full, but still have enough left over to pack four cartons to take home. Portions, obviously, are quite ample here. Sing High is a busy, efficiently run restaurant serving good old-fashioned "Cantonese." If I had a craving for Chinatown food, this is where I'd come to satisfy it. But I probably won't. This is one retrotrend I can easily resist.

 

Mandarin Restaurant, 1515 North 15th Avenue, Phoenix, 252-4217. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday, 2:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday. Closed Sundays and holidays.

Sing High, 27 West Madison, Phoenix, 253-7848. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday; noon to 11 p.m., Saturday; noon to 9 p.m., Sunday.

mandarin Question: Does anybody really like bamboo shoots? Stand up and be counted.

We ask for more rice. He brings us another portion. Later, on the bill, I see that he charges us $1.00 for it.

sing high

The customers come and go with alacrity; significantly, none of them is Chinese.

If I had a craving for Chinatown food, this is where I'd come. But I probably won't. This is one retrotrend I can easily resist.


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