Cafe Reviews

Asia Vu

Silver Dragon, 8946 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 674-0151. Hours: Sunday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

Silver Dragon's employees have their marching orders: Gweilos to the right!
That's where all the non-Chinese "foreigners" are herded once they come through the door. In that room, they're seated in comfy vinyl booths. The tables are set with cutlery. The waiter hands them an English-language menu, featuring the usual assortment of mainstream Chinese snoozers: egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, almond chicken, shrimp with lobster sauce. The soothing strains of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" are piped in to aid Occidental digestion.

All in all, it's the kind of nonthreatening ethnic experience that you'd expect if you lived in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. It's aimed strictly at the Valley's white-bread-and-Jell-O crowd.

But this is a cover. Silver Dragon is not what it appears to be. How can real Chinese-food aficionados penetrate its mysteries? No, you don't have to knock three times and whisper low. You don't need to learn secret passwords or flash a sign.

Your best bet is to come here with a group of six or eight people. Demand a family-size round table in the dining area off to the left, where the tables are set with chopsticks and bowls, and nearly all the other patrons are of Asian descent. And ask for the Chinese-language menu (it has brief English translations of the dishes) that the host otherwise keeps, in a mistaken sense of culinary duty, out of Western hands.

Then get ready for some of the best Hong Kong-style food in town. This is the kind of Chinese food you'd find on Grant Street in San Francisco or Mott Street in New York.

Old-timers may recall that Silver Dragon used to do business in Scottsdale, on Thomas Road. About two years ago, the proprietor sold the place (the building now houses an English pub) and, I hear, tried to make a go of it in Southern California. That didn't work out. When he moved back, he wisely decided to resume operations on the more ethnic-restaurant-friendly west side.

In the few months he's been there, word of the kitchen's prowess seems to have gotten around. On one recent Saturday night, every big table was occupied. Waiters were bustling, chopsticks were flashing, and everyone was having a good time.

We certainly were. And why not? The food is extraordinarily tasty and priced to sell. Except for the whole duck ($12) and whole chicken ($10), most everything on the menu goes for less than eight bucks. The chef doesn't stint on the portions, either.

When the weather cools off in six months, I plan to return with nine close friends and share the shark fin soup for 10. (It's $70, and you need to order it in advance.) Right now, however, I'd recommend skipping the soups and heading straight for the glorious main dishes.

The English translations don't do the fare justice. "Crispy Hong Kong Style Chicken (Whole)," for instance, doesn't begin to describe this exceptional poultry. A plump bird gets steamed, then flash-fried and hacked into bite-size pieces. The meat is tender and juicy, the skin crisp and crunchy: This is what yin and yang are all about. Dip the chicken into the little bowl of seasoned salt for an extra flavor boost.

"Salt and Pepper Squid" also doesn't convey just how intriguing this platter is. It's a huge plateful of battered, fried calamari--not the little rings that usually appear as appetizer munchies, but thick, tender strips of calamari steak, brightened with breathtaking amounts of salt and pepper. It delivers a vibrant combination of textures and flavors.

Put "Crispy Shrimp With Glazed Walnuts" on your don't-miss list. Big, quick-fried shrimp (not battered) are lightly coated with an oddly compelling mayonnaise-type sauce and teamed with candied walnuts. This dish is guaranteed to set off dueling chopsticks at your table.

Hot pot dishes--prepared in covered clay vessels--are an important part of Cantonese cooking. The two we sampled show just how seriously Silver Dragon takes them. "Spicy Chinese Eggplant" is masterful. The eggplant is perfectly cooked--not oily, and not reduced to a mushy pulp. It's punched up with lots of five-spice and ginger. For an eggplant fanatic like myself, it's ecstasy. And good luck trying to find the remarkable hot pot of shrimp, squid and noodles, simmered in a light coconut curry sauce, at your "one from column A, one from column B" neighborhood Chinese restaurant.

Noodles are another key element of Hong Kong cuisine. Silver Dragon's models are as good as they get. Ask for the off-the-menu cha siu chow mein, barbecued pork tossed Hong Kong-style in crispy, pan-fried noodles, accompanied by gai-lan, Chinese broccoli. Beef chow fun, fashioned from starchy rice noodle, is first-rate. Get it dry, or with just a little bit of sauce. Silver Dragon also whips up thick Shanghai-style noodles, which have their own appealing taste and texture.