Cafe Society

Everyday China

It sounds like some kind of ethnic joke: How many Chinese restaurants do you have to visit in order to find a keeper?

By my count, the answer is seven. That's how many allegedly authentic Chinese eateries I've eaten at in the last two months (see Mouthing Off). And I came up with just one I'd return to--and then only if I were already in the neighborhood.

Since that neighborhood is just north of Cherry Creek North, Fu Lin gets plenty of business on its own without needing me. The faithful who go to this decade-old eatery know they will find comfortable surroundings and serviceable versions of the old standbys--the usual roster of orange-sesame-moo-shu-pu-pu in lobster sauce. From what I understand, the food has vastly improved since Jane Wang took over the restaurant a year ago (I'm glad I didn't try it earlier), with an emphasis on concentrated sauces that aren't thickened to death.

Now Wang needs to turn her attention to the appetizers. The pu-pu platter ($4.50 per person) was the dullest assortment of egg rolls (all cabbage), sesame chicken wings (no sesame), crabmeat cheese wontons (no crabmeat), fried shrimp (shrimp, but no flavor) and fried wontons (what was that hard little hunk of meat in there?) I've ever attempted to eat. The well-marinated beef on a skewer was the only thing that made it worthwhile to fire up the cast-iron pot, so we grilled it with the pineapple and maraschino-cherry garnishes and gnawed every last bit of flesh from the stick.

After that, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the entrees were not only flavorful but sometimes boasted remarkable seasonings. The orange beef ($8.95), for instance, included not just the usual shards of orange peel and slightly sticky-sweet sauce, but also an ample amount of ginger, which gave it a less cheap-tasting quality. (I wouldn't get the orange beef for takeout unless I lived very close, though, because the delicious thin batter that coated the beef slivers had turned into wet cardboard by the time we got to the leftovers.)

The batter on the sesame shrimp ($10.95) was delectable, crispy and chewy, laminated with a mildly sweet sauce that had just the right amount of chile spark (the whole chiles nestled among the crustaceans helped, too); the shrimp had been pelted with all of the sesame seeds withheld from the chicken wings, adding nuttiness to every bite. The shrimp in lobster sauce ($8.50) featured more still-springy shrimp in a sauce that wasn't cornstarch-gooey or overwhelmingly lobstery in flavor--a good thing, I've learned, because it means the kitchen actually made the sauce from scratch rather than a commercial lobster base. And while I've found most crispy ducks ($8.95) excessively salty, Fu Lin's had a pungent tea-smoked taste that let the sweet duck meat speak for itself.

On a second stop, we skipped the starters and went right to the soups: a respectable hot-and-sour ($1.25) and a satisfying, chicken-heavy egg drop ($1). The entrees were even better. The crispy whole fish ($12.95) was a beautiful sea bass that had been lightly battered and deep-fried, then blanketed with scallions and chiles and draped in a chile-walloped fish-based sauce. An order of pepper shrimp with shell ($10.95) brought a dozen large shrimp that had been liberally sprinkled with black and white peppers before being wok-tossed and stirred, still hot, with fresh parsley, so that the herb wilted and released its flavor. And I've rarely been so happy with lemon chicken ($7.95): Fu Lin's subtle dish featured two boneless breasts that had been marinated in lemon long enough for the citrus to really permeate the meat, so that after the chicken was deep-fried, it still had enough lemon flavor to render any tacky, too-lemony sauce irrelevant.

If I lived in Fu Lin's neighborhood, I'd know what's for dinner.
Neighborhood drop-ins can't begin to explain the draw of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, however. This Arizona-based chain has two metro locations--one in LoDo, the other at Park Meadows--both of which have been doing unbelievably big business. Although company founder Paul Fleming has said he doesn't consider mom-and-pop Chinese spots to be his competition (Chang's pits itself against upscale dinner houses, he claims), most of the people I've heard from said they tried Chang's because they thought it offered better Chinese food than the average neighborhood spot.

Well, yes and no.
Chang's certainly offers more upscale ambience than the average neighborhood spot. While the LoDo decor is chic and subtle, you can't miss the enormous stone horses flanking the Park Meadows entrance, replicas of sculptures from the Tang Dynasty. The interior is appealing in that big, clean way (like Il Fornaio or the Cheesecake Factory), and the exhibition kitchen is fun, since you just don't get to see woks fired up very often unless you watch Yan Can Cook regularly on PBS.

But the food is more California than Canton. There's an easy explanation for this: The closest that Fleming, a Louisiana oilman, came to China was Philip Chiang, the owner of Beverly Hills's popular Mandarin Restaurant. When Fleming, who already owned a Ruth's Chris in that town, decided he wanted to open a Far-East-meets-West eatery, he consulted with Chiang, who lent his name to the venture, and Fleming went on from there. (Today Fleming also owns three other Ruth's Chrises outside of Colorado, as well as five Z-Tejas Grills, including the one at Park Meadows.)

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a table, we started our meal with the Peking raviolis ($4.95), sloppy, pan-fried (you can also get them steamed), crescent-shaped dumplings filled with ground pork and vegetables. These were more dumpling than filling, though, and had dry centers. Even drier were the Cantonese pork medallions ($4.95), with a useless barbecue sauce shriveled into the exterior of each slice; eating them was like chewing shoe leather. But the red-sauced wontons ($5.75) were quite good, stuffed with tasty shrimp and pork and served with a strong, addictive chile-speckled soy sauce.

The hot-and-sour soup ($2.95 a cup), described on the menu as a "seductive blend" of chicken and bean curd, was nothing more sensual than a mundane take on the standard sprinkled with white pepper and doused with vinegar. The salad we sampled, the warm duck ($8.95), was no prize, either, with a "soy vinaigrette" that was actually soy sauce mixed with sugar and enough red cabbage to upset the digestive systems of one of those stone horses. The duck itself, however, was crisp-edged and delicious.

The kitchen had whacked Philip's Better Lemon Chicken ($10.75) over the head with citrus; we dubbed it "Philip's Bitter Lemon Chicken," because the lemon tasted like it was all pith with none of the promised sweetness. And although the orange flavor in Chang's signature orange-peel beef ($10.25) was right on, the meat was dry and chewy. The double-pan-fried noodles ($8.95) were so simple, we could have steamed some vegetables and tossed them with noodles at home and gotten the same blah result--for a lot less cash, and a lot quicker.

Two items were real standouts, though. While most American diners don't go for those shriveled, preserved things the Chinese favor, Chang's still offers Szechwan-style long beans ($5.95). They were wonderful, with a snacking-type texture and plenty of garlic. And I'd take Chang's crispy honey shrimp ($12.95) over the usual sesame stuff any day. This dish had the ideal sweetness, was nicely fried and came topped with crispy rice-noodle bits that soaked up more of that wonderful honey sauce.

But Chang's can keep the sweet-and-sour pork ($8.95) I tried on a return visit (does this place have a special source for dried-out meats?). Paul's catfish ($12.95) was dry, too, and there was nothing the accompanying thinned-out black-bean sauce could do to help.

Although I didn't think Chang's food was anything to brag about, the restaurants are right when they boast about their "American-style hospitality"--even if it got them in trouble at one point with some Chinese Denverites who thought Chang's was insulting the usually quite solicitous employees of authentic Chinese eateries. The staffers I encountered at Chang's were very, very good at their jobs: friendly, helpful and efficient.

But then, they need to be, since they have to cater to diners who may have waited up to ninety minutes for a table--at either location. A wait that long for quasi-Chinese food cooked up by an Arizona chain would seem like a joke--if so many authentic Chinese eateries around this town weren't a joke to begin with.

Fu Lin Cafe, 575 St. Paul Street, 303-355-3541. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 8325 Park Meadows Drive, Littleton, 303-790-7744; 1415 15th St., 303-260-7222. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.