Thursday, January 22, 2004

Big eating in Little China

Authentic Chinese fare for the New Year

Posted on Thu, Jan 22, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2004-01-22

According to the lunar calendar, the Year of the Monkey begins on January 22, which means millions of Chinese people are celebrating the New Year with magnificent feasts and parties on the other side of the world. In San Antonio, we can celebrate by dining at our favorite Chinese restaurant.

Sampling some of San Antonio's more popular Chinese eateries in the hopes of finding food that resembles the real thing is hardly a grueling task. But an authentic dining experience cannot be easily replicated in San Antonio for reasons cultural and legal. In China, if you order chicken, you may be asked to point out your favorite from the flock clucking in the restaurant's front yard. If the kitchen is out of the vegetables you want, a waitress may run across the street and buy some from the sidewalk vendors.

If you don't carry a pack of tissues, you may be forced to use a community roll of toilet paper for napkins. And of course, chopsticks are the only utensil, as eating with your hands is considered foul. When the food arrives it is eaten family-style: Everyone shares the main courses in the middle of the table, and eats from a small bowl of steamed rice held close to the mouth to avoid spillage. Hot tea is served throughout the meal (except at lunchtime, when soup is the only beverage), and it is everyone's job to keep the cups brimmed.

The American version of Chinese cooking is a bit different. We don't label our foods "hot" and "cold" to balance our bodies with the weather. We make meat the focus of our menus, whereas vegetables are more common in true Chinese meals. We tend to overdue it on the sweet sauces instead of sticking to traditional spices. And, of course, we've added our own ingredients to the cuisine, including those tiny corncobs, eggrolls, crispy noodles, and fortune cookies. Despite these differences, there are still many excellent Chinese meals in our city. We can't possibly list them all, but here is a small survey of some of the best offerings.

Golden Star

The owners and many of the cooks at Golden Star come from the Guangdong province of China, which is evident in their food. Although they also serve Mexican and American dishes, Golden Star prepares most of their Chinese dishes with bona fide Cantonese sauces. Their stir-fried rice is incomparable, served fresh off the wok with minced meats and vegetables, bean sprouts, and just the right amount of oil. The Egg Foo Young plate is much thicker than the traditional thin omelet, but equally tasty. Their listed special is the fried fish with gravy, which might be a distant relative of coastal China's popular dish of whole, braised fish with a thick sauce poured on while it's still hot. On their breaks, staff usually enjoy more traditional dishes, such as rice noodles with bamboo shoots and lotus root, which they were kind enough to offer our table one night.

Golden Star is not a quiet, dimly lit Chinese restaurant, but rather more of a Chinese diner, with a lunch counter and stools, mini jukeboxes at each booth, and kitschy décor. Unless you catch it on a lull, the place is usually bustling, even in the wee morning hours on weekends. The service was fast and serious - they have to be to keep up with the large lunch crowd and endless take-out orders. The waitresses will amaze you with their abilities to memorize 10 tables' requests in one round across the floor.

Mencius' Gourmet Hunan

Rumored to be David Robinson's favorite restaurant, Mencius' Gourmet Hunan offers a delightful array of spicy dishes, including the traditional eggplant in garlic sauce, and a contemporary jalapeño chicken. The Hunan-style shrimp and scallops included sizable, fresh morsels prepared in a light peppercorn sauce. The menu offers several attractive options, including Hunan-style lobster or crispy whole fish, Peking duck, and mooshu wraps, but their choice specialty is the Mencius' Beef. It is touch fried with dried red chiles and orange rinds, then sautéed in a slightly sweet sauce. This is the authentic version of those sticky yellow "sweet & sour" sauces Americans are used to.

Mencius' features possibly the most charming staff we've ever encountered. The waiters were on top of everything, yet hardly noticeable. The attentive manager even brought over a pair of "Austinite" chopsticks - rigged with rubberbands and a napkin for easier handling - for a dining companion who was having trouble using hers. The ambience is not what you would expect from its location in a strip mall. Beautiful, framed paper cuts adorn the walls, depicting colorful scenes of festivals, fables, and traditions from the owners' hometown of Taipei, Taiwan. Opt for a quiet dinner and avoid the heavy lunch crowd from nearby USAA.

Golden Wok

Golden Wok is in a league of its own since it is the only restaurant in San Antonio serving dim sum. In China, these small samplings are typically served only in the mornings, or as late night snacks, but Golden Wok offers the dishes everyday, all day, though a larger variety - up to 55! - is available on weekends. That is when they roll out the carts stacked high with steaming bamboo baskets full of traditional treats like Har Gau (shrimp dumplings), Fung Jou (steamed chicken feet in black bean sauce), and Nor Mai Gai (lotus leaves stuffed with sweet rice and Chinese sausage). But don't let the beef tripe and pork-filled pastries scare you; Golden Wok offers less adventurous dim sum for the tamer American palate, including taro root cake and Hong Kong-style spring rolls. Additionally, there is a menu full of regular fare, including an excellent Peking duck and a build-it-yourself stir fry bar complete with Chinese vegetables. The service is courteous, quick, and knowledgeable. Watch as the cooks prepare your stir-fry in an open kitchen area.

Despite its traditional menu, the restaurant itself could be mistaken for any average American eatery. Golden Wok will, however, kick up the cultural flavor on Sunday, January 25 with a Chinese New Year party that will feature a special set dinner menu (including shark fin soup, wildly popular in Hong Kong), and a performance by the S.A. Lion Dance Association. ($54 per person, call for details) •




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