SOY MEETS GRILL
New Hunan Restaurant, 1575 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-9484. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
A couple of years ago, my younger daughter had an epiphany at a Chinese restaurant. She was happily consuming a noodle dish when she suddenly dropped her chopsticks, struck by the force of revelation. "If I lived in China," she exclaimed, "I'd get to eat Chinese food every day!" Visions of a lifetime feasting on Asian specialties danced across her mind. Then she looked over at me and my wife. "How come you had to be my parents?" she asked, a question we've asked ourselves more than once, too. No doubt this kid has inherited my Chinese-food gene. Those of us afflicted can no more resist the urge to wander the city in search of Chinese food than salmon can fight the impulse to swim upstream toward their spawning grounds. That's how we've been programmed. But our journey rarely ends in unqualified dinner success. While the Valley has very few truly bad Chinese restaurants, it has got scores of truly mediocre ones. The New Hunan Restaurant seemed like a promising place to look for above-average fare. It's got new ownership, a new chef and a new menu. The place has been spiffed up, too, in an understated way. Vinyl booths, vases filled with silk flowers and ornate Asian ceiling lights are the principal decorating motifs.
The restaurant might have considered a new name, as well, because most dishes have a distinctly Cantonese pedigree. (It used to be called Hunan Restaurant.) The human scenery was promising: About two dozen customers came for dinner the night we visited, and we were just about the only ones who weren't Chinese.
The place has two menus. One comes in a black, hardbound volume. It contains the chop-suey-parlor staples: sweet-and-sour pork, egg foo yung. "For Americans, they like," explained our waiter. The other is pink, listing more adventurous fare. It offers lots of seafood, clay pot dishes and authentic-sounding options like beef tendon in oyster sauce, beef tripe with ginger and cuttlefish with sprouts. We put the Americanized menu aside and plunged into the genuine articles. Well, almost. My companions insisted on sampling the hot-and-sour soup. Big mistake. It needs to undergo considerable improvement just to reach mediocrity. The two principal drawbacks: It wasn't hot, and it wasn't sour. This broth wouldn't have raised a sweat on a newborn baby. The main-dish fare ranged from unspectacular to exceedingly tasty. But if there's a logic to ordering, I haven't yet figured it out. For example, I licked my chops over the arrival of preserved orange peel chicken. The best version of this dish I've ever had consisted of crisply fried chicken chunks fired up with hot peppers, in a tart, citrusy glaze flecked with orange peel. Here, though, we got routine bits of unbattered fowl in a bland sauce that had barely a hint of orange.
The clay pot flounder was another semidisappointment. In the first place, it came in a sizzling metal bowl, not a clay pot. So instead of slowly simmered fish, we got fried flounder, and a particularly bony one at that. I was thrilled to see chow fun, thick rice noodles, on the menu. But despite loads of thin-sliced beef, the model here didn't give off much in the way of flavor sparks. Yet some of the platters were absolutely lick-off-the-plate good. Sizzling scallops with black pepper doesn't sound like the kind of dish that could create much excitement. But the bucketful of scallops on a scorchingly hot iron skillet, drenched in a divinely pungent, wine-bathed sauce, is absolutely outstanding. It's hard to believe the same chef could be behind the orange peel chicken and the clay pot flounder. The kitchen also gets the Peking ribs in Mandarin sauce perfectly right. Again, the name gives no inkling of the taste explosion that's in store. You get lots of small, bone-in pork, battered and deep-fried, glazed with a peppy orange coating. Whatever this platter lacks in nutrition, it makes up in flavor. If Honey Bear's BBQ opened a Hong Kong branch, this is probably what it'd be serving. Shrimp dishes could also use some descriptive menu help. As it is, few folks could know that something called shrimp with maggie sauce brings 11 medium-size shrimp, stir-fried in their shells and nestled in an aromatic, smoky soy sauce. It seems to me the retail value of the shrimp alone has to be more than the $7.95 the restaurant charges. The Buddhist's Delight surpasses the run-of-the-mill Chinese-restaurant vegetarian platter. Instead of the usual blend of water chestnuts, sprouts and bamboo shoots, there's corn, broccoli, snow peas, lightly fried tofu and both straw and oyster mushrooms. A big plus here is the staff, which is genuinely eager to please. The new owner even gave us a tour of the place, which will feature two big dining areas and a banquet room. (Right now, only one dining room is in operation.) While not every dish hits the target, it's clear that this place is aiming high. Once the New Hunan Restaurant manages to hit a few more bull's eyes, its performance will match its promise.
Tsang's, 10402 North Metro Parkway East, Phoenix, 997-8281. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tsang's also seemed wonderfully promising, if one of my correspondents could be believed. A seven-year resident of the Far East, he made the food sound so good that I was even willing to brave the horrors of Metrocenter traffic to sample it. This place certainly isn't designed to scare away Americans. Don't look for Hong Kong travel posters or daily Chinese-language specials posted on the walls. Don't look for homesick natives in search of old country fare, either--no one of Asian ancestry came to dine the night we visited. What you will spot is a pretty, pink-and-green color scheme, along with lots of fake greenery mixed with plastic cactus and Southwestern pots. About the only Chinese touches are three embroidered wall hangings and the display case at the entryway, filled with porcelain and jade bric-a-brac for sale. Aurally, too, you'd be hard-pressed to know you were in a Chinese restaurant. The proprietors' music tape sends out Rossini overtures, "Amazing Grace" and Scott Joplin. Quite unexpectedly, though, the barbecued-pork appetizer roused some long-dormant Chinese-food memories. In what seems like another lifetime, my wife and I once spent some time in London, after living for five years in porkless Muslim countries. We stumbled on a Chinese restaurant with a wonderful appetizer of sliced barbecued pork. We ate it every night for a week. Tsang's version, served in a richly fashioned sweet sauce, seemed just as good. For a few happy moments, the dish enabled us to recall a once-carefree life, before mortgages, kids and worrisome cholesterol counts. The seaweed soup, however, yanked us quickly back to reality. I was hoping for something with quirky ethnic punch, but this bland broth could have been ladled out of the soup tureen at the employee cafeteria. Tsang's fare, like the New Hunan Restaurant's, suffers from some inconsistency. There are peaks, and there are valleys. Hunan beef and chicken had all the flair of a mall-court Chinese-fast-food operation. It's just pieces of meat and poultry in an insipidly flavorless sauce. Sizzling sa-ta beef also lacked oomph. While the beef was certainly tender enough, neither the mound of onions nor the salty brown sauce furnished much of a taste kick. And though both the Hunan beef and chicken and the sa-ta platter were advertised as hot and spicy, they packed all the heat of a tuna fish sandwich. The lo mein, soft Cantonese noodles, also couldn't get off the ground. It tasted like most every other noodle dish in most every Chinese restaurant in town--filling, but uninspired. But several dishes are so deftly prepared, I began to wonder if maybe two chefs patrolled the kitchen. Take the glazed walnut and shrimp, an eye-catching platter you won't find at most neighborhood chop suey parlors. It consists of a dozen shrimp, lightly battered and fried, coated with an offbeat mayonnaise sauce. The shrimp are garnished with sweet, crunchy, honey-glazed walnuts. This unlikely combination of flavors shows off the zest that imaginative Chinese food is capable of. Sesame chicken is a dish that isn't afraid to taste like sesame. It's battered chicken flecked with sesame seeds in a sesame-drenched sauce. Orange-flavored beef has the same winning quality. It's got crispy, gristle-free beef slathered in an orange sauce with a real citrusy kick. Actually, my favorite item here is the yui-shan pork. Sure, it's an old Chinese-restaurant standby, but Tsang's breathes new life into it. The version here features tender pork seasoned with wine and garlic, saut‚ed with pungent, shredded pickled cabbage. You know how Chinese restaurants use asterisks to indicate hot and spicy dishes? Well, maybe Tsang's and the New Hunan Restaurant could help us out by marking their menu highlights. That way, diners could zero in on the good stuff and avoid the mediocrities. Crossed chopsticks, I think, would be the appropriate symbol.
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