Cafe Society

Paradise Asian Cafe may not take you to paradise, but close enough

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There are no silver domes at Paradise, just plates — loaded down with meats and vegetables mixed in the kinds of sauces that haven't been seen since Dr. Atkins got the bright idea of becoming a millionaire. I quickly abandoned the dull, cabbage-stuffed egg rolls for chicken and pork dumplings dipped in straight soy and a whole bowl of those little fried noodles, dipped in hot mustard, that were once de rigueur at just about every Chinese restaurant but now tend to mark, like boundary flags, only those that hew to that certain brand of stubborn historical authenticity. I ate the shrimp in lobster sauce, then used my fingers to dig into Laura's kung pao beef with peanuts and red chiles whenever she wasn't looking.

There's the requisite Buddha at Paradise, as well as tables and chairs and silverware, but no chopsticks — a dead giveaway that Paradise exists in a time before everyone learned how to use chopsticks and even French restaurants started placing them alongside the salad forks and demitasse spoons. The service is very much of the present, though, friendly and eager to please, with smiling girls speeding between kitchen and tables, and Allen Loo, Giang's floor manager, either standing, elbow up on the bar, overseeing the ballet, or pitching in to answer phones, pour drinks and serve tables when it seems like there might be the littlest thing going wrong or too slow, then darting for the door and telling everyone to have a beautiful day even when it's nine o'clock at night.

When I returned to Paradise, I ordered the sweet-and-sour chicken, because the state of any restaurant's sweet-and-sour chicken (like the inclusion or lack of beef and broccoli and certain dishes named after generals of some renown) is indicative of the modernization of an already generationally multicultural jumbled cuisine. Paradise's deep-fried chicken in ubiquity sauce tasted of honey and hot red chiles and, over rice, brought me back to the suburban strip mall I was in rather than taking me to the suburban strip malls where I'd been brought up. But that was a short-lived detour into mundane reality, because the cup of wonton soup that came with the chicken was touched with cabbage (no pork, no napa, no tofu or any other modern contrivance) so finely shredded as to be almost translucent in the broth, floating around a few handmade baby dumplings.

By now, I was hooked (read: obsessed). So I went back to Paradise for pork fried rice (made with big pieces of breaded and fried pork, not the more common, cheap-jack bits of chopped or shredded barbecued pork); for hot-and-sour soup crafted with care (rather than being made with weird leftovers on Monday and served until Friday) out of nothing but egg-thickened broth and threads of tofu; for breaded, tender pork cutlet in black bean sauce that was sweetened by a bare handful of beans, tossed with fresh asparagus and poured over eggy rice. And finally, I ordered a to-go order of salt-and-pepper prawns — like shrimp in lobster sauce, a benchmark dish.

In this dish's best iteration, the prawns are served with the head and shell on, coated in a plastery batter of salt-and-pepper paste, like some kind of manhood test for white teenagers trying to live on filched plum wine and staff meals at the Chinese restaurant that employs them. In its next-best iteration, when served to actual customers, it's a careful, delicate preparation of salt-and-pepper-rubbed crustaceans, pan-fried and served in the shell with a side of plum sauce. But in these modern and health-conscious times, salt-and-pepper prawns are not often served at all outside of crowded dim sum parlors. And even at Paradise, they were shelled and de-tailed, deep-fried in a light batter and tossed in a thin, red-pepper-spiked sauce that tasted only dimly of anything and barely of salt or pepper at all.

It was good; it just wasn't what I like. Still, there was a Michael Bay movie on TV that I hadn't seen in a while, so I sat on the couch and ate my shrimp and watched shit blow up and was happy enough, for the moment, with my simple, loud and deep-fried life.

To see more of Paradise Asian Cafe, go to westword.com/slideshow.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan