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Laura Hahnefeld Cafe
8056 North 19th Avenue
Summer hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, excluding Thursdays. Regular hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, excluding Thursdays. Hours may vary. Call ahead first.
Beef with Chinese broccoli:$7.95
Roasted half duck: $7.95
Seafood tofu hot pot: $10.95
"Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!"
One doesn't go to Wahsun for elegantly plated Asian fare in an upscale atmosphere. One goes to Wahsun to hear someone chopping the shit out of a crispy-skin roasted pork belly before they deliver it to your table glowing like meat embers and tasting like Christmas dinner.
If you're looking for flair (with a side of the familiar), stop reading this review and go to www.pfchangs.com to find the location nearest you. If you're looking for platefuls of rustic authenticity at crazy-low prices — décor be damned — find the strip mall on the northwest corner of 19th and Northern avenues, look for the cardboard signs taped to the windows (half in Chinese characters, the other half in stenciled lettering) and open the door to one of the Valley's Chinatown-style secrets — Wahsun Restaurant.
That is, if it's open. The hours can be sketchy (hey, it's a family thing). Best to call first.
Once inside, chances are you'll be immediately greeted by Rose, who will welcome you in a state of bubbly hurriedness, seating you in a small room with sparsely decorated white walls, bright red tablecloths, gently used furniture, and fluorescent lighting. Save for a few Chinatown tchotchkes and a cracked, perspective-challenged picture of a deer standing in front of a waterfall, there isn't much to look at. And since there's no music, you'll be treated to the din of the kitchen, complete with lively exchanges in the language, and conversations among Wahsun's in-the-know diners, many of whom include Chinese regulars from the neighborhood.
As it is at many Chinese restaurants, Wahsun has two menus. Both menus, on poorly photocopied sheets of 8½-by-11 paper, stay true to the joint's no-frills style. One, presumably for Anglos with timid tastes, is in English and lists such common Chinese dishes as kung pao beef and chow mein. The other, in Chinese and English, boasts less familiar, true-to-the-culture (and, some may say, more daring) dishes like chicken with squid, shark fin soup, and subgum rice noodles. Depending on your visit, who you are, and the whims of the house, you could receive one or both menus. Either way, check your ego at the door. It's choose-your-own-adventure time.
At Wahsun, the food is hearty, homey, and, one could even go as far as to say, honest — and, like the atmosphere, unaffected by extravagances or excruciating attention to detail. Using a multitude of basic, fresh ingredients and zero garnishes, Wahsun's dishes arrive as if they were cooked in a bustling home kitchen, steaming platefuls overflowing with goodness, enough to satisfy a hungry family after a long day. And plating? Please. A spot of oil seeped from an egg roll or a lemon seed floating in a bowl of sweet-and-sour sauce just comes with the territory.
And speaking of egg rolls, they are a must-have at Wahsun. Forget the thin-wrapped, cabbage-stuffed tubes at Anybuffet Town U.S.A.; these bulky bullies were meals in and unto themselves, muscling for space on the plate and accompanied by a tasty, but not essential, citrus-y sauce made from fresh-squeezed oranges and lemons mixed with cornstarch. A forceful press of the fork on one of the thick, bumpy, fried skins released a steaming, flavor-filled creation chock-full of shrimp, chicken, cabbage, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
With more than 20 items to choose from on Wahsun's Westernized menu, there's plenty to please the palate. Two standouts were the Mongolian beef and the house chow mein. Piled with sliced beef, a good thing, along with stir-fried veggies in a savory, clingy, thick brown sauce, the Mongolian beef is mildly spicy. The house chow mein, featuring long rounded noodles, steamed and soft, and stir-fried with chunks of beef, onions, and celery mixed with soy sauce, was simple but pleasing, especially accompanied by a comforting cup of delicate egg flower (egg drop) soup and crispy crab puffs.
When it comes to the more authentic fare, don't think of Wahsun's Chinese menu as a hard-and-fast list of offerings; think of it as a general go-by. Rose is a one-woman, matter-of-fact show on the restaurant's floor, and she can guide you to the right dishes, tell you about any off-menu specials, and let you know what they've sold out of or aren't cooking that day. On one of my visits, after a friend mentioned she liked chicken, Rose simply had the kitchen prepare an off-menu plate of crispy, fried chicken chunks, with bok choy and onions in a delicious ginger sauce. Was it a variation on war su gai? Who cares? It was delicious.
Along with the crispy-skin roasted pork, the roasted half duck was another one of my favorites, and judging by the platefuls coming out from the kitchen, popular with the regulars as well. It arrived warm in large, chopped-up sections ("Thwack! Thwack!"), its crispy skin attached to moist, delicious flesh with a subtle, rich flavor I did not hesitate to strip from its bones. Did my guests and I fight over helpings? Yes, barbarically so.
Chinese broccoli is an oft-overlooked Asian vegetable, namely because so many Chinese restaurants serve their beef without it, opting instead for the more familiar, flower-headed species, resulting in a dish that's a mere shadow of the original. Not at Wahsun. Stunning green, crunchy stalks of this genuine Chinese plant wove throughout marinated beef and onions in an aromatic, ginger-heavy, thick sauce you could eat over rice, but was just as good without.
Seafood dishes were surprising standouts at Wahsun. Salty, spicy, and crunchy, the salt and pepper shrimp was simple yet satisfying, leaving granular grains of finger-lickin' goodness behind after the skins were peeled away. A steaming bowl piled high with thick slices of tender tofu, shrimp, chunks of scallops and fish, onions, and mushrooms, in a light but rich sticky broth with a hint of ginger, made up my scrumptious seafood tofu hot pot. And golden fried cubes of flounder fillet stir-fried with crunchy celery and onions in a thick sauce of light soy and sesame oil had me swooning.
If Wahsun happens to have crab on hand that day, order it immediately and watch with mouth agape as two pounds of it lands tableside as a piled-high plate of in-the-shell parts and Chinese cabbage in a slightly salty black bean sauce. Get to crackin' those shells and be rewarded with the contents inside. It's a huge, delicious, fun-to-eat mess, best enjoyed with good-natured friends who won't mind if a piece (or two) of the sweet meat flies into their tea or onto their laps. Hey, it happens.
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Like its food, payment at Wahsun is strictly old school: cash only — or, if Rose deems fit, you can write a check. One look at the "register" (a metal box on top of one of the dining tables in the back) and you'll understand why they don't take credit cards. Luckily, you won't need much of the green stuff to get an authentic, exceptional Chinese meal — and you'll leave with plenty of leftovers in tow.
On my last visit to Wahsun, I asked Rose, "What makes your food so good?"
She waved me off, "It's nothing special, just made with good ingredients. It's . . ." Her words were lost as she disappeared into the kitchen, her voice overpowered by the thwack, thwack, thwacking sounds of more glorious crispy skin pork being prepared to meet its eater.