Without it, much of the assorted Asian cuisines would be little more than slightly undercooked vegetables and thin slivers of stir-fried meat. The right sauce, though, can transform straightforward ingredients into such delightful dishes as orange beef and curry shrimp. Yes, the secret's in the sauce. Problem is, too few Asian eateries in this country are in on that secret.
But Kay Shang, a four-year-old eatery wedged into a Lakewood strip mall, clearly has broken the code. The kitchen prepares excellent sauces, pairs them with the right fresh ingredients and then dishes them up in abundant portions at a very low price. This is Chinese food (and a sampling of Vietnamese) done right, with the traditional American favorites--kung pao beef, Szechuan pork, sesame chicken--boasting a wealth of flavor and none of that gooey cornstarch sheen.
Son Kim Le, who is Chinese but was born and raised in Vietnam, runs the front of the house; her Chinese husband, Kay Shang Yuan, handles the cooking duties. Their children help out--I caught Le good-naturedly scolding her son one day for being late from school for his job as cashier--and the family affair makes both the setting and service seem unusually warm and welcoming. The neighborhood has certainly embraced Kay Shang's presence: At about 5 p.m. each day, a line starts to form at the counter as people stop by to pick up their to-go orders on the way home from work.
Once I tasted Kay Shang's food, I wished I lived in the area myself. Although there's nothing particularly unusual on the menu, every dish I tried was prepared with the perfect mix of ingredients and deftly executed. The egg rolls ($1.95) actually contained something other than the usual vermicelli/cabbage filler; each large, delightfully deep-fried log was packed with ground pork and mushrooms, as well as shredded scallions, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. In a nod to Kay Shang's Vietnamese influence, the rolls came with two dipping sauces: the standard duck and the fish-sauce-based nuoc cham. An order of steamed dumplings ($3.25) brought six squishy-soft parcels stuffed with seasoned pork; the barbecued spare ribs ($4.70) were four bones that had been coated in a thin sauce that was less sticky and sweet than customary but also more pleasantly peppery. The beef on a stick ($4.50) was delectable: six skewers of melt-in-your-mouth meat that had been marinated in a sugary soy concoction, then grilled until it caramelized around the edges.
The appetizers gave me high hopes for the entrees to follow, and Kay Shang didn't let me down. The beef with garlic sauce ($6.50) mixed tender beef (judging from its tenderness, it hadn't been tortured over high heat) with carrots, celery, bean sprouts, onions and mushrooms, all coated--not swimming, not trapped--with a garlic-pungent mixture that was more like a reduction of the beef's juices than an artificially thickened sauce. It wasn't soy-salty either, like so many sauces at Chinese restaurants that rely on soy sauce for flavor. The subgum Cantonese chow mein ($7.95) was another simple beauty: our choice of pork, soft, well-trimmed of fat, and flavored with the seasonings favored by that southern Chinese region: five-spice powder, annatto, peppercorns.
More savvy saucing was displayed in the lemon chicken ($6.50), where big blobs of velvety bird were awash in a simple lemon concoction that had obviously been made fresh. The hot-and-spicy shrimp ($7.95) used chile and pepper heat--but not too much of either--to augment a fish-based broth that swam with medium-sized crustaceans. Spicier still, but not overpowering, was the Szechuan chicken ($6.50), with its intense sauce of sesame paste and garlic.
The fried crispy duck ($8.50) was without sauce, but it didn't require adornment: The meat was so succulent and fatty-edged that it was like duck bacon. All of the entrees came with a side of attractively cut vegetables (nice to see some presentation again in Chinese cooking) and steamed rice; we supplemented that with combination fried rice ($6.80) that had just the right amount of oiliness and plenty of shrimp, ham, beef, pork, chicken and eggs.
The Vietnamese portion of Kay Shang's menu is short but sweet: simple noodle bowls served with spring rolls--we tried the satisfying grilled-pork version ($6.70)--and a few starters. The spring rolls ($5.95 for four) were standard; the soft-shell crabs ($8.50) weren't too greasy and were definitely better than standard. Still, the Vietnamese fare is no match for the skillfully crafted Chinese offerings at Kay Shang. With a boost from those sauces, the Chinese dishes range from fine to sublime.
For more elaborate Vietnamese food with well-developed sauces, I'd head to Saigon Kim's. "Welcome to Saigon, Kim's," says the jovial if mispunctuated neon sign on the coral-colored walls. "We offer good food and good times."
Seeing--and then tasting--is believing. The large eatery takes up most of the Westminster strip mall in which it sits--but chef/owner Kim Zeba needs a big space to fit her 319-item menu. Zeba moved to the States from Vietnam in 1975; she opened this restaurant seven months ago.
To arrive at her 319 dishes, she offers myriad sauce variations on every meat or meatlike product in the universe, including Dungeness crab, clams and tofu. The menu's two-word sauce descriptions aren't overly helpful, but you can get the gist of most of them--except for those items listed as "sauteed in a saute sauce." When we asked our waitress for more information, she kept repeating those words back to us. "You know," she said. "It's a saute sauce."
When our entrees arrived, we finally learned that the saute sauce is a very, very potent black-pepper sauce. But before we got there, we worked our way through a few appetizers. The egg rolls ($4.50) came three to an order and were cut into chunks, which exposed their seasoned pork filling and also made it easier to wrap them in lettuce and vermicelli, then dip them into a well-made nuoc cham. The other dipping sauce, a thinned-out peanut, was one of the better versions of this sauce I've tried, with less sugar and more chile punch. It worked particularly well with the spring rolls ($2.50), two soft-wrapped rolls filled with vermicelli and shrimp sparked by fresh basil and mint.
We couldn't make it all the way through the three soft-shell crabs ($12.50), which were excessively greasy. Too bad, because under all that grease, the crab was juicy and delicious. Instead, we concentrated on the saute sauce, which we'd ordered with the seafood combination ($12.95). A mix of cod, shrimp, crab, squid, scallops, mussels and assorted vegetables arrived swimming in the peppery sauce, sinus-clearing and tasty, with a concentrated seafood base and smooth texture. The ginger sauce on beef ($7.95) boasted another clean-tasting sauce, this one featuring balanced amounts of ginger and garlic.
Four dishes down, 315 to go. On a return trip, we finally settled on the chicken in "sweet basil leaf sauce" ($7.95). Fresh basil did indeed cling to the bird, while ginger and onion provided the rest of the flavor. For the tofu in a black-mushroom sauce ($7.95), mounds of tofu had been pan-fried until crispy on the outside, then tossed with a deeply earthy, garlic-infused sauce of curly fungus.
Saigon Kim's portions were very generous and the service efficient--even if our servers were nearly impossible to understand because of the language barrier. We might have picked up a few pointers if we'd stuck around for the Vietnamese karaoke, which turned the place into a mini-disco at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. Carloads of teens started arriving, the disco ball began turning, and the walls were suddenly showing a video of wistful Vietnamese women singing heaven-knows-what. We could hardly tear ourselves away.
Still, when I return, it won't be to sing "My Way" in Vietnamese. Saigon Kim's already makes it my way, with quality ingredients, attention to detail--and those sauces!
The secret's out.
Kay Shang, 92 South Sheridan Boulevard, Lakewood, 303-238-2223. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Saigon Kim's Restaurant, 7286 Federal Boulevard, Westminster, 303-428-2700. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.