Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year) is just a couple of days away, so the time is definitely right to order dishes that represent good fortune and longevity. Whole fish and long, green vegetables fit that description, and both items are easy to find on the encyclopedic menus at JJ Chinese Seafood. Yes, that's multiple menus: the regular dinner menu, the special menu, the Chef's special menu, and the hotpot menu. And under the glass on top of each table, you'll find a few extra options in case you can't decide.
The glowing yellow sign above Alameda Avenue has been advertising JJ's presence there since 2007, but the restaurant had already been on South Federal Boulevard for five years before it made the move to this location. But even if you total all thirteen years, JJ looks older than that, with a color scheme that would have suited a late-'80s motel ballroom: hazy tanks of live seafood that are actually in pretty good shape considering the volume of fish and crustaceans (lobster, crab and enormous, translucent shrimp) that pass through them, and wood paneling that's seen many a chair back graze against it over the years. But while the dining room may be a little more time-worn than its actual age indicates, it shows the kind of wear you'd find in an old family home, which has been scrubbed and vacuumed and rearranged a thousand times over for gatherings and through the comings and goings of parents, kids and grandkids.
That's because JJ is always busy, with most of the tables packed with generations of Chinese families who know the food so well that they barely scan the menus before ordering up a feast of simmering pots, mounds of sauce-slicked crabs and platters of steaming vegetables.
And then there's our group: My friends and I spend the first half hour of our visit flipping back and forth between pages, talking about portion sizes, how well things might go together and what kinds of spices we might encounter. I have it in my head to order the whole deep-fried fish and some sort of sauteed greens, but everything else is up for discussion. To give ourselves more time, we start with crispy duck with steamed buns and a tureen of congee (rice porridge) with shredded duck and preserved eggs. The flavors of both are simple and warming, enlivened by sweet hoisin served with the buns and table condiments — soy sauce, chile oil — for the congee.
Our server is patient with us and repeats everything back at least twice to make sure we know what we're getting. Finally, dinner is ordered and we sit back and watch as plate after plate arrives, the server playing a horizontal game of Tetris with the tea pot, bowls and dishes until everything fits. There's a mound of golden-fried cubes of tofu dressed in an aromatic slurry of fine-minced ginger and garlic, a glistening plate of lobster and mushrooms, and a tall heap of lightly breaded orange beef, mahogany dark with a sauce that's just sweet enough.
The long-cut, vivid green Chinese broccoli arrives, studded with slivers and half-moons of garlic, the aroma of which instantly dominates the table. And then the fish, a flounder of some sort by the look of it (the menu didn't specify, but the flat body and two eyes topside are a giveaway), which the server jockeys onto the table, asking which of us ordered it. I raise my hand and he turns the platter just enough that the fish's head points toward me.
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It looks like far too much food for four people, but variety and bounty seem like a good theme for the evening and we sample a little of everything — the sweetness of the orange sauce balancing the bitter greens, the silken interior of the tofu cubes counterbalancing the crunchy skin of the fish.
The unusual combinations and presentations create reminiscences of past meals and travels. My friends mention breakfasts of congee while on a business trip to China and a vacation to Singapore where they downed two dozen soup dumplings in one sitting so as not to offend a restaurant proprietor after accidentally over-ordering. There's other news too — life changing news — but nothing that precludes the possibility of more of these shared meals in the future.
Of course, there's still plenty of food after we're done eating. Heading out the door with a groaning back of leftovers, I'm already looking forward to a morning snack. I may have been a little early with my New Year's meal, the bountiful food and great company seem the perfect prelude to a year of prosperity, health and longevity.