Won Ton Abandon

Flo's, 14850 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale, 661-8883. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

Most things in life are routinely predictable, aren't they?
You expect your blind date to be ugly. You can always count on some Bible-thumping East Valley legislator who has gone through five husbands to make a speech condemning the morality of others. And you know you'll never see any part of that $100 you lent your deadbeat brother-in-law in 1987.

Well, I used to think most things in life were routinely predictable, too. But after making my way through the menus at two new Chinese restaurants, I may have to reassess my position. Who knows? In the future, maybe all blind dates will look like Claudia Schiffer. Maybe Representative Karen Johnson will discover the Golden Rule. And maybe your brother-in-law will hand over $160, announcing that the extra 60 bucks represents 12 years of accrued interest, at 5 percent per annum.

Unlikely? Sure. But no more unlikely than my experiences at Flo's, a knife-and-fork Chinese restaurant aimed at unadventurous north Scottsdale palates, and Lao Ching Hing, a showcase restaurant featuring Shanghai cuisine at the snazzy Chinese Cultural Center.

The brains behind Flo's is Florence Chan, ex-wife of Eddie Chan, who has operated his own Scottsdale Chinese restaurant for years. She has a keen business sense: As far as I'm aware, Flo's is the only Chinese restaurant in this part of the won-ton-soup-starved northeast Valley. Every time I've come here--weeknights, weekends, early, late, it doesn't seem to matter--people eager to dispose of their disposable incomes have been lined up out the door.

Flo's territorial monopoly probably won't last very long. No doubt savvy Chinese-restaurant entrepreneurs are already making plans to move in. But the restaurant should be able to handle the competition. That's because Flo's puts out the kind of Chinese fare that's perfectly calibrated to neighborhood tastes.

I don't know what the Chinese word for "gringo" is, but Flo does. The only patrons here from the mysterious East live in gated communities east of Pima Road. But either through instinct or experience, Flo knows that her customers aren't looking for the old favorites in their traditional forms. So she has goosed up her platters a bit--this dish with wild mushrooms, that dish with pine nuts. And except for a few seafood dishes, nothing goes for more than 10 bucks. Right now, she's taking that formula to the bank.

It's all served in a sleek, vaguely sterile setting. There are virtually no signs here, aural or visual, that you're in a Chinese restaurant. The light-wood tables are set with western cutlery and colorful plates that look like Fiestaware. A big picture window in the back looks out on a new red-tile-roof development. And the high-tech lights, covered by cobalt-blue shades, are kept so trendily dim that you may want to bring a miner's lamp.

The appetizer list gives you some insight into Flo's low-risk culinary philosophy. Unremarkable spring rolls are crunchy and fresh enough, but that's about the limit of my enthusiasm. The greenery-deprived summer roll--a bit of shrimp and noodles wrapped in rice paper--can't match the models you find in Vietnamese restaurants. For some reason, pot stickers are deep-fried, not steamed or pan-fried. And sliced barbecued pork is as basic as it gets, although the meat is reasonably moist and not fatty.

I got a great kick, though, out of a munchie called "Chips and Salsa." The "chips" are fried won ton skins that resemble the crunchy Chinese "noodles" I used to get as a kid in Brooklyn. In those days, they came with "duck sauce" for dipping, and they were free. These days, at Flo's, they come with a "Chinese salsa" fashioned from minced chicken, tomato and scallion, seasoned with cilantro and lemongrass. And while they're not free, the $3.95 tag doesn't inflict major wallet damage.

Hot-and-sour soup is usually a good barometer of a Chinese restaurant's quality. By that standard, I'd say Flo's has potential. The soup is wonderfully stocked with big shrimp, pork and veggies, swimming in a snappy, spicy broth. But the "sour" part of the equation, the vinegary tang that gets your mouth puckering with pleasure, isn't quite there. Instead, there's salt.

In contrast, the won ton soup not only isn't there, it also shows no signs of ever getting there. The bland broth supports a thimbleful of mushrooms, carrots and bok choy, along with some lackluster won tons. This soup cries out for a redesign.

If you've wandered around Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco, the main dishes will not seem like a particularly exciting group. But what they lack in ethnic intensity, they often make up for in quality.

That's certainly the case with the scallops and mushrooms, the single best dish I had here. There's no stinting on the lovely sea scallops, stir-fried with a variety of wild mushrooms. The subtlety of the scallops works nicely with the earthiness of the mushrooms. The texture contrast--soft and firm--is just as fetching. This is what is meant by "yin" and "yang."

Pine-nut shrimp doesn't have quite the same energy. The name says it all--an ample portion of firm, medium-size shrimp stir-fried with a bucket of pine nuts, in a faintly spicy sauce that is probably just as spicy as the neighborhood can handle.

I'd guess the nutritionally sound two-pepper chicken is a best seller. But it's not the lack of fat grams that won me over. Flo grills two whole, skinless breasts, juicy and tender, then tosses on black pepper and sharp Szechuan peppercorns and adds a brown gravy. The result is surprisingly tasty.

So, too, in its own way, is the honey beef. The meat, like just about all the ingredients here, is good quality, not chewy or gristly. It's battered, fried and coated in a sweet/tangy honey citrus sauce. Sure, it's pretty one-dimensional, but Flo isn't cooking for people who are searching for exotic Asian complexity.

But even this crowd will probably agree that the noodle dishes have a case of the blahs. Chow fun, starchy rice noodles, can't compete with the town's best versions. The plate of Hokkien-style noodles, flecked with veggies in a dormant curry sauce, is dull from the first bite. But Flo does get yu xiang eggplant right, big chunks teamed with pork in a sauce with more flavor notes than anything else I had here.

My Chinese-restaurant dessert philosophy has always been Just Say No. Flo's sweets, however, have shown me the advantages of keeping an open mind. White chocolate cheesecake may not be very Chinese, but it is smashingly rich. And though chocolate won tons--crispy fried dumplings filled with creamy chocolate--lack authenticity, who cares when they taste so good?

Are you part of Flo's targeted neighborhood demographic? If so, this place hits the mark: It's the right restaurant in the right place at the right time.

Lao Ching Hing, 668 North 44th Street (COFCO Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix, 286-6168. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.

I expected great things from Lao Ching Hing, the first Chinese restaurant to open at the Chinese Cultural Center. No doubt the Chinese government, which owns the center, wants its tenants to make a good impression. Lao Ching Hing's chef, I hear, was imported from Shanghai to prepare local delicacies.

More likely, he was deported. There's no getting around it--this place is a major disappointment.

It looks like the proprietors spared no expense on the decor. Lao Ching Hing is gorgeous. Feast your eyes on the burnished mahogany furniture, the open shelfwork supporting teapots and vases, vintage photos of old Shanghai and the heavy wooden tables inlaid with marble.

It's the only feasting you'll do here. Certainly nothing from the kitchen merits your attention. For a place that calls itself a Shanghai restaurant, there's precious little regional bounty on the menu--unless, of course, you believe egg rolls, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork, sweet and sour chicken, Mongolian beef, shrimp fried rice and chow mein are native delights. What on earth are these hackneyed dishes doing in a showcase Chinese restaurant in a showcase Chinese center? What kind of hicks does Lao Ching Hing think we are?

The Shanghai dishes are not only few, they're nondescript. If you've never had the good stuff, you might wonder why there's such a thing as Shanghai cuisine at all.

Steamed pork dumplings don't taste fresh. Sweet rice cake is an acquired taste I haven't acquired. It's a spongy, gelatinous, quivering mass, made from rice flour flecked with nuts. Rice noodles tossed with assorted veggies have no energy. A little of the fluffy braised meatballs goes a very long way. Pork with preserved vegetables is smoky and intense, but very fatty. Pan-fried pomfret, two small, whole fish coated with a one-dimensional ginger sauce, is a snooze.

The kitchen seems to be just going through the motions with everything else on the menu, too. Take the "shrimp in special pancake." What's special about a plain omelet studded with a few shrimp--no veggies, no seasoning--is beyond me. Shredded potato with green pepper is exactly that. One bite and you've plumbed its depths. Seafood soup with tofu has precious little seafood and even less flavor.

As for the egg roll, kung pao chicken, shrimp in black-bean sauce, chicken chow mein, Mongolian beef and twice-cooked pork, just thank your lucky stars that I had to eat them, and you didn't. Fortunately, I was spared the "Vermicelli with grounded vegetable meat." When I ordered it, the server steered me away. "Is it only for the Chinese?" I asked. She shook her head. "No, not good for Chinese people, too," she replied.

The Asian community, and everybody else, seems to be staying away from Lao Ching Hing. On all three of my visits, the place was almost deserted. I took heart when I saw a Chinese gentleman come in one evening, but it turned out he had locked his keys in the car and needed a Yellow Pages to find a locksmith. Lao Ching Hing should consider using the directory, too: Look under "C," for chef.

Hot and sour soup
Scallops with mushroom
Chocolate won tons

Lao Ching Hing:
Seafood soup
Mongolian beef
Braised meatballs



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