China Gate, 3033 West Peoria Avenue, Phoenix, 944-1982. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
When I plunk down six bucks to see a new Woody Allen movie, I do it with a sense of anticipation I don't bring to other flicks. I don't fret about wasting my money because the film might not be amusing; I know I'll have some chuckles. But part of me hopes it will be side-splittingly, laugh-out-loud funny.
I tingle with that same kind of eager thrill when I check out a Chinese restaurant. Experience suggests that at the very least I'll be getting a reasonably tasty meal. I just hope that maybe I'll run into extraordinary fare that will take my breath away.
Maybe it's unfair to burden both Woody and Chinese food with such demanding expectations. But it's their own fault--they've created a high standard, one I can't help wishing they could always meet, and occasionally even exceed.
Unfortunately, neither Woody nor too many Valley Chinese restaurants have been bowling me over these days. For the most part, the two Chinese places I recently visited served dependably reliable food. But when you're ready to fall in love, as I always am, it's a bit disappointing to end the evening as merely very good friends.
China Gate's branch near Metrocenter is a serene oasis of tranquility in an area whose traffic generally boosts my blood-pressure numbers into the dangerous range. The rose-and-blue color scheme has a soothing effect, as does the piped-in, new-age-style piano music.
This is no ethnic shack, a place to get a Chinatown experience. Management expects you to eat with forks and spoons, not chopsticks. Don't look for specialties written in Chinese taped to the wall. And don't expect your fellow diners to be homesick Asians desperate for a taste of the old country, either. They're west-siders interested in unthreatening fare that generally balances at a level somewhere north of routine and south of riveting.
If I had to pick out a single flaw in China Gate's culinary philosophy, it would be flavor timidity. For some reason, the kitchen refuses to let loose the vivid tastes Chinese food is famous for sending out. Instead, perhaps in deference to local preferences, the flavor meter here stays turned down low.
The soup furnishes the first indication. Commendably, China Gate offers individual servings, which kept my group's hot-and-sour and won ton factions from engaging in their usual hostilities.
But neither broth was worth fighting over. The hot-and-sour had a barely detectable spicy, vinegary smack. A proper model should clear out your sinuses and temporarily give you the nasal sensitivity of a bloodhound. The won ton soup also needs more oomph. It featured a lackluster assortment of veggies and a bit of meat in a dull broth that seemed to be seasoned principally with air.
Instead of soup, try a preprandial nibble of su mai, a dumpling filled with ground pork and shrimp. Or go for the whole shrimp dumpling. Both of these steamed treats generally show up only on dim sum carts, not appetizer lists. Four small, bite-size morsels will set you back $2.50.
At the front of China Gate's menu is a section titled "Royal Dynasty Selection." Presumably, this is where the chef lists his most interesting dishes, so this is where we made our first stop. But the three specialties we ordered, though pleasant enough, never took us to Chinese gastronomic heights.
The Szechuan combination certainly sounded as if it could. The menu described it as "jumbo shrimp, scallops, clam, beef and chicken in a hot, tangy sauce blended from rich tomatoes." But everything came battered and fried, which significantly reduced the dish's charm. And the sauce was more innocuous than hot and spicy.
Beef l'orange is fashioned from good quality beef, and comes crisply breaded. But the menu's "spicy hot," "highly flavorful" characterization was way off the mark. We detected only the faintest citrusy punch, and almost no pepper heat.
Same for the General Tzu's chicken. Except, this time, diminished flavor was not the only shortcoming. This dish also suffered from chunks of fowl whose fried coating had turned unappetizingly soggy.
Oddly enough, we had a lot more success once we moved on to the regular part of the menu.
Even Peoria Avenue traffic won't keep me from coming back for the Volcano beef, the best of the dozen platters we sampled. Here, the ingredients worked harmoniously to produce a highly tasty effect: lean, tender beef, broccoli, baby corn and straw mushrooms in a piquant sauce with just enough bite to hold our interest.
Dancing mushrooms are equally appealing, especially if you're into fungus, as I am. This vegetarian-friendly plate comes thickly stocked with four kinds of mushrooms, with just a few snow peas and bamboo shoots along to provide a bit of color and crunch.
Mandarin pork also furnishes the contrasting tastes and textures that Chinese cooking is noted for. Strips of roast pork and whole shrimp are tossed with a mound of snow peas in a sauce that somehow avoided the deflavoring process. Make sure you don't confuse this fine dish with the off-putting Princess pork, whose every ingredient--pork, carrots, zucchini--disturbingly appears in the shape of a cube. This looks like the kind of dish that escaped from a lunchtime $2.99 Chinese buffet.
Two other platters merit praise, if not cartwheels of joy. Kwong Jow chow mein is your basic, crowd-pleasing noodle dish, heaped with mildly peppery shrimp, chicken, beef and veggies. And pung wok lamb, heavy on garlic and onions, gives you the opportunity to try a meat that's rarely served in Chinese restaurants. (Except for people in northern China, Mongolia and Korea, most Asians can't abide the powerful taste, or even the scent, of lamb.)
China Gate isn't on a mission of culinary adventure. It's after neighborhood customers, who come for the basics, reliably prepared. I'd call it Mission: Possible.
Cafe de Chine, 7575 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 678-5327. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Cafe de Chine is another neighborhood spot that doesn't shoot for the gastronomic moon. It's been open about six months, taking over the location that used to be occupied by another Chinese place, the ironically named Long Life.
The new proprietors haven't fiddled much with the decor. They obviously want to avoid the Formica, ethnic look. The long, plum-colored room, whose walls feature framed embroidered art, has an upscale air. Metal cutlery and white linen tablecloths contribute to the genteel effect.
If you've got urges to munch on appetizers or fill up on soup, suppress them. If the nondescript egg rolls and weak hot-and-sour soup are any indications, your enthusiasm to follow through on the rest of the meal might flag.
The menu, like China Gate's, features a page of "Chef's Special Recommendations." None is remotely exotic. Several are reliably pleasant. Some will put you to sleep. And all seem just a bit light on zest.
Best things first. That would probably be the orange chicken, battered, deep-fried fowl in a tart orange sauce with just the right amount of compensating sweetness. It's served on a bed of broccoli, an appealing blend of fat and nutrition.
Another fried dish hits all the right buttons. That's Nan-King beef, crisply battered and fried, served in a thick sauce lightly tinged with garlic and the world's mildest chile. Forget about the asterisks you see indicating hot and spicy in this or any other dish: Cafe de Chine's fare has about the same heat level as Gerber baby food.
Crispy plum duck has several virtues. Vitamins and minerals aren't among them. But portion size is. You get about half a duck (though our piece oddly came with two legs) that's first steamed and then deep-fried. The duck itself is meaty and tasty, and much of the grease disappears in the steaming. The kitchen applies the finishing touch with a coating of sweetly one-dimensional plum sauce.
Yui-shan eggplant is a common restaurant dish, one that usually doesn't merit a chef's special recommendation. This one does, because the chef uses big, pulpy pieces of skin-on eggplant, not eggplant minced and cooked down to the consistency of mush. A reasonably flavorful garlic sauce helps make up for the lack of pepper bite.
We also ran into several platters that were outright snoozers. Seafood imperial, Cafe de Chine's most expensive dish at $10.95, somehow turns a mix of lobster, scallops and shrimp into a bore. The principal culprit: dull Chinese veggies and a sauce whose main flavor component seemed to be salt.
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Among the regular menu items, moo goo gai pan is just about as deadly. It's an instantly forgettable yawn of chicken breast and vegetables in the world's sleepiest sauce. (The menu calls it "delicate.") Someone in the kitchen ought to be tasting this before it's sent out. The House Special chow mein, a thoroughly predictable blend of soft noodles and meat, won't turn any heads, either.
Neither will Szechuan pork, a dish that would have to be considerably goosed up before it could even be called bland. I don't know how marinated roast pork can be made so uninteresting, but the kitchen somehow pulls off this dubious feat.
At this point, Cafe de Chine still hasn't distinguished itself from other Valley Chinese restaurants, either in quality or novelty. Until it does, I see no particular reason to rush over and check it out.