Lately it seems like there's a Chinese restaurant on every street corner in the Valley. Even a recent National Restaurant Association study concludes that Chinese cuisine is so prevalent "it's no longer considered ethnic."
Every neighborhood seems to have its own favorite Chinese gathering spot, pleasing its regulars with sweet-and-sour this or Kung Pao that.
But just try to name one. There may be dozens of places to fill up on hot and sour soup, spring rolls, chow mein and moo shu pork, but is any really that great that you can remember it?
Tsing-Wa Chinese Restaurant
7670 South Priest Drive, Tempe
Wor Won Ton Soup: $3.50
Pan-fried dumplings: $3.95
Singapore chicken rolls: $5.25
Grandma Salad: $6.50
Tsing-Wa Pork Delight:$7.95
Three Seasons in a Bird's Nest: $10.50
Hot and spicy sole: $9.95
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tsing-Wa Chinese Restaurant is the answer. This is one of those family-friendly, casual Chinese eateries. Most of the familiar favorites are on its menu, geared to please neighborhood tastes and the many youngsters careening around the restaurant's tables. But even if dishes are standbys, all the meals here are treated with exquisite care. To a plate, they celebrate brightly colored fresh vegetables, white-meat chicken, fat-free meats, a light hand with the deep fryer and little of that heavy, overly cornstarch-thickened sauce that seems to affect so many Americanized Chinese eateries.
It also helps that buried among Tsing-Wa's standard choices are a few competently presented treats for easily bored diners, too -- items like Grandma Salad, a cleverly named combination of cabbage and pork in a spicy sauce; and hot and spicy sole.
It's certainly easy to be cheerful, settling for a meal in Tsing-Wa's upbeat atmosphere. I like the highly polished concrete floors; the contemporary, dusky purple and yellow decor; the chic black window blinds; and the two centerpiece planters spilling over with greenery. Servers wear uniforms of black shorts and logo-embroidered polo shirts. I love the service -- lightning quick, polite and sure to never let our water glasses go dry.
Tsing-Wa may also be the only Asian dining experience in the Valley to include Ovaltine on its drink list. And paired with lemon chicken? Better-bet beverages include milkshakes (try the strong-flavored coconut or lychee) or a selection from the quite serviceable wine and beer list -- Moët et Chandon White Star champagne, sake or Tsing Tao beer add a delicious touch to plum sauce duck.
Tsing-Wa means "little frog," the menu informs us, but there's no cutesy theme pushed upon us, just a single lonely frog statue in one corner of the room. And I'm perversely delighted to see that smokers are relegated to a back hallway, to share supper with stacks of extra chairs and a floor fan blowing their toxic fumes right back at them.
The strategically placed fan means that on one visit, when my dining companion and I have the choice of one remaining booth next to the cigarette section, there's nothing to pollute Tsing-Wa's finely crafted Wor Won Ton soup. Thank goodness. Because to interfere with this dish's elegant tranquility in the slightest way would be terribly wrong. This version is as good as they come, the clear chicken broth perfectly salted and more than enough for two hungry guests. It's adrift with still-crisp carrot and snow peas, tender zucchini and Napa cabbage, plus meticulously cleaned shrimp, chunks of beef and chicken and silky won tons.
Wor Won Ton is better than the sizzling rice soup, which substitutes pork for beef, and rice cake for won tons. While I enjoy the egg white floating in the broth quite a bit, there's simply too much of the crispy rice, added tableside and crackling like Rice Krispies. How nice if diners could add their own portions -- then the rice wouldn't suck up all the gorgeous broth and turn sodden before we can get to it.
I've got no suggestions for the pan-fried dumplings, however. The four masterpieces of tender pork, scallion and Napa are tucked into homemade dough and fried until the edges are just crispy, the tops a pretty golden brown.
The little critters are similar to siu mai, but lighter -- the siu mai weighs me down with thick wads of ground beef and indiscernible black mushroom. Heaviness also stupefies the Singapore chicken rolls, lovely to read about on the menu and beautiful to behold, but actually clogged with too much ground chicken breast. The four rolls are the size of small baking potatoes, dotted with pineapple and jacketed in a glorious panko-like breading, yet they waddle in tasting of nothing but poultry.
There aren't many flavors missing in Tsing-Wa's entrees, though. I feel like I'm celebrating Christmas when I'm given the gift that is the restaurant's signature Pork Delight. The dish is crammed with whole black mushrooms, trailing their heady, dusky aroma as the plate leaves the kitchen. Keeping the mushrooms whole releases the fungi's rich earthiness and chewy goodness. Fresh, thin-sliced pork and zucchini stir-fried in a light, flavorful oyster sauce don't hurt, either.
Paying homage to fresh veggies puts a dish called "three seasons in a bird's nest" over the top, too. Despite the intriguing name, this is an uncomplicated blend of shrimp, scallops and chicken stir-fried with snow peas, cauliflower, mushrooms, carrot, broccoli and zucchini in a mild white wine sauce. Except these are obviously garden-fresh vegetables, cooked just to tooth-tender and served proudly in huge chunks. The whole thing is tossed in a basket of fried, woven potato.
The folks at Tsing-Wa like to have fun with their menu names, including Diamondback chicken. The spices I'm craving -- and that the menu promises -- aren't as strong as I'd prefer, but there's no discounting the excellent chicken breast, stir-fried with wet, soft bell peppers, tomatoes and whole domestic mushrooms in an orange-colored, chili-spiked sauce.
The sauce that comes with the prawns in "special orange sauce" isn't just colored orange, though -- it sings vividly of the sweet fruit. The deep-fried prawns are dressed in an already sweet batter, and rise to almost dessert status with this appealingly thick, pale, custardlike dip.
So it's a surprise that sesame beef is disappointing. I'm used to seeing -- and greatly prefer -- sautéed beef slices, and have trouble appreciating the batter-dipped, deep-fried morsels I get here. Once I dig past the sugary breading, there's little meat to reward my efforts. And where's the sesame that makes this dish scamper? A miserly handful of seeds tossed on top doesn't cut it.
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No matter, the hot and spicy sole soothes any sesame sorrows I may have. This fish kicks. Dig in -- it's a fabulous plateful of tender fillet chunks, lightly breaded and stir-fried with big, squishy tomatoes and onion. It rests in a thin, slightly sweet brown sauce with just enough of a red pepper bite to keep me fully alert.
Still, for real spice, nothing beats Tsing-Wa's Grandma Salad. This is a take-no-prisoners tumble of shredded cabbage and pork tossed in homemade "Grandma dressing" -- a wildly pleasing concoction of red wine vinegar, soy and lots of red pepper. A few bites do nothing to alarm, but stick with the dish and before you know it, you'll be in a headlock of heat.
A side of fried rice cools the burn nicely, and besides, what's a homespun, USA-style Chinese meal without fried rice? Highly aromatic curry fried rice does the trick, artfully dusting huge chunks of chicken breast with well-controlled curry powder, peas and scallions, and it's even more wonderful when splashed with soy. Another calming mouthful comes with stir-fried string beans, sautéed in garlic. No surprises here, just more fresh veggies treated with respect.
Are we turning Chinese? I really think so. And as long as it's Chinese food Tsing-Wa style, I'm quite happy to join the revolution.