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RICE OF PASSAGE

Without Chinese takeout, the falling-in-love scenes in movies just wouldn't be the same. First, there's the montage of the couple walking around the city, her in an oversized shirt, him in high-top sneakers; they're just getting to know each other. Then they stand by whatever body of water is near whatever city they happen to live in; a bird flies by and smiles. They move along to a street vendor as falling-in-love music plays in the background; he buys her a balloon because, hey, they're just silly romantics. Then, in the final scene, you pan to candlelight, two half-drunk glasses of wine and...a pile of rubbish from Burger King.

See? Fast food just doesn't cut it. Better to stick with the ever-recognizable red-and-white containers, the ones you wish you could do something fun with later if they didn't smell so funky. There's just something about reaching into one of those boxes with a pair of chopsticks that makes life worth living.

And sharing.
In order to further the cause of true romance--and, frankly, to fuel my own love affair with food--I recently checked out highly recommended Chinese restaurants in three very different neighborhoods. I was on the lookout for the key to-go elements: convenient packaging, proper (and enough) condiments, quickness and, of course, a quality product.

The best--by far--was at Golden Plate, a wonderful Chinese restaurant in a not-so-wonderful Lakewood location. I had to call from a bar along the way, because I went to the wrong West Girton; when I finally found the restaurant, I was alarmed to see it so empty. My hopes were not high, and they dropped even lower when I learned that, despite all the time I'd been lost, my food still wasn't ready. But the wait gave me a chance to look around, and I was pleased with what I saw. Instead of offering the usual red accents and dragon cutouts hanging on the walls, Golden Plate is a classy joint with soft pink trim and a welcoming atmosphere.

The hostess was friendly, too, and apologized up and down for the delay. "We were out of something," she explained. And once my order came, I forgave everything. The kitchen had put my food in the new Micro-Pail containers--the same old boxes, but without metal handles ("So you can put in microwave," the hostess said); tucked neatly alongside were forks, spoons, duck sauce and mustard, and, without my having to ask, napkins and chopsticks.

The food was so good, though, that once I got into the car I started eating it with my hands. The egg rolls (95 cents each) had crunchy exteriors and soft, cabbage-dominated interiors; bits of pork and shrimp, along with celery and onions, provided bursts of flavor. It was more difficult slurping soup in a moving vehicle, but I managed. The egg drop ($1.25 a pint) tasted as though a whole chicken had been dropped into the broth along with the egg whites; the hot-and-sour (also $1.25 a pint) was packed with cloud-ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots and tofu. It was spicy and tart without being vinegary; like the egg drop, it seemed to be from a very fresh batch.

I had to stop the car to concentrate on the main event. An order of sliced beef with scallions ($7.95) had brought a generous portion of flank steak and strips of scallion tops swimming in a brown sauce studded with carrots. More carrots joined broccoli, large chunks of onions and snow peas fat with tiny peas inside in the sliced fish with seasonal vegetables ($8.95). The unidentifiable but obviously fresh fish came coated in a mild but thick fish-stock-based sauce. Way too much steamed rice came with the meal (usually the case with takeout), but it was handy for sopping up sauce, and dessert was the requisite fortune cookie.

No fortune cookie came with the meal from downtown's China Terrace, but everything had been lovingly packed into a bag with a handle; at the bottom of the bag was a piece of cardboard so the sack wouldn't sag--a nice touch. The food inside, though, gave new meaning to the term "mixed bag." The egg rolls ($2.50 for two) were crispy on the outside, average on the inside. The hot-and-sour soup ($1.25 a pint) was unlike any I'd tasted before. The broth was thin, light and smelled strongly of tea. Unusually large julienned bamboo shoots (instead of sliced, canned ones) hinted at fresh preparation, and the cloud-ear mushrooms were so big they could have been human ears. Tofu and small slices of pork rounded out this welcome change from typical hot-and-sour soups. The egg drop ($1.25 a pint), however, was pretty much standard issue. The bland soup needed a stronger chicken-stock base; uneven shards of bamboo shoots and button mushrooms added texture without much flavor.

There was plenty of flavor in the volcano shrimp ($12.95), a dish I wound up with because I didn't have a menu. I told the woman who answered the phone to give me something with shrimp that wasn't too spicy; I shouldn't have been surprised to find that she ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. Luckily, it was worth the money: Eight medium shrimp had been splayed and coated on one side with a pork mixture similar to sausage stuffing; the subsequent frying turned the crustaceans into juicy, slightly salty bundles that had to be sucked from the tails like savory lollipops. Keeping them company were more of those big cloud ears, baby corn and snow peas. Not as appetizing (but cheaper) was the sweet-and-sour pork ($6.95). The batter-coated meat nuggets had been packaged separately from the sweet-and-sour sauce and pineapple, presumably so the pork wouldn't become soggy. Unfortunately, when I combined the two parts of the dish, they didn't meld the way they would have had they been stir-fried together. And the presentation was far from pleasing: The viscous sauce was a garish shade of red, and with the pork pieces partially swathed in it, the whole dish resembled something from a driver's ed movie.

Shanghai Garden, another snazzy dining room with an enviable location (Southglenn Mall in Littleton), also packaged its sauce separately. This time the order was lemon scallops ($10.95). The scallops were good enough to eat by themselves: Sparsely coated with flour, they had been flash-fried, a technique that brought out their flavor without drowning them in grease. But the lemon sauce was no bonus: It was too mild, despite the inclusion of lemon slices. Another lifeless sauce, this one augmented by scallions and carrots, covered the otherwise excellent shrimp lo mein ($7.75). The noodles had a good, nonmushy consistency and contained lots of small shrimp that had been twisted before cooking so that they were easy to pick up with chopsticks.

The cabbage-ridden insides of the egg rolls ($2.25 for two) had all the mushiness missing from the lo mein, and their wrappers were like newspaper left out in the rain. The hot-and-sour ($2.50 for a small) had a chile pepper next to it on the menu, indicating that it would be spicy, but no go. And the egg drop soup ($2.50 for a small) contained so much corn that it seeemed more like a creamed version of the vegetable rather than a soup.

After those disappointments, I opened my fortune cookie with some trepidation. It read: "You will find love and happiness soon." Since he thought I already had, my husband quickly came up with plans for the next day. First, we went walking through the city, me in an oversized shirt and him in high-top sneakers...

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