South Florida may be an underdog when it comes to medaling in good Chinese food -- but we're in it to win it.
By Sara Liss
Tuning into the Beijing Olympics for the next few weeks will certainly have me salivating for serious Chinese eats. Good Chinese food is a sensory explosion -- an exotic melding of textures, tastes and colors. I learned that first-hand last year traveling extensively in China and producing a low-budget film in Beijing. Feeding a cast and crew cheaply and well for a month introduced me to lip-blistering chile oil and peppercorns at Sichuan taverns, cumin-seasoned lamb skewers at Mongolian sidewalk stalls and halal beef with cilantro and egg at Muslim restaurants.
The food-fiend consensus is that South Florida is Chinese-deficient, but that hasn't been my experience. You may have to drive out of your way and push out of your comfort zone, but there's fantastic, authentic Chinese food to be had in Miami-Dade and Broward. Here are some of my favorite places and dishes.DIM SUM
These Cantonese-style tapas traditionally are served early in the day with tea in Hong Kong and elsewhere in southern China.South Garden Chinese Restaurant:
This clean, cheerful spot done in standard Chinese-dining room chic (fish tank, red paper lanterns, round tables with swiveling trays) is packed on weekend mornings with Chinese families and other dim sum devotees. The classic trolley-cart service brings stacks of metal canisters to your table, each holding small plates of dim sum. Point and choose from dishes including har gau (shrimp dumplings), fried turnip cake and deep-fried chicken feet. Prices ($2-$4 a plate) encourage a tasting odyssey. The house-made congee (rice porridge) is served with wands of fried dough and chopped scallions for dipping (a typical breakfast throughout China). Other standouts include bean-curd skin stuffed with vegetables and char siu baau, puffy buns stuffed with moist, chopped roast pork.
10855 SW 72nd St., Miami; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m.-11
p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday; 305-274-9099
Sang's Chinese Food:
Décor is bare-bones but service is quick and efficient at this North Miami Beach haunt. Sang's eschews cart service for an epic checklist of dim sum ($2-$5) including eggplant stuffed with shrimp, rice-dough dumplings stuffed with spinach and pork-stuffed bean curd. This is also the place for tongue-tingling Szechwan specialties like ma po tofu (ground beef and bean sauce with chiles and scallions) and garlic-braised eggplant ($8-$12).1925 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach; 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Sunday;
The centerpiece of this Beijing specialty is a steaming cauldron of assertively spiced broth in which diners cook meats, seafood and vegetables. It's a winter dish that translates well to aggressively air-conditioned South Florida.
Peppers Chinese Restaurant and Lounge:
The $20, all-you-can-eat hot pot menu at this disco-ball-accented Pembroke Pines restaurant find is perfect for families and small groups. The round tables are piled high with plates of thinly sliced lamb, shrimp, crab legs, bok choy, spinach, rice noodles, fish cakes, bean curd and condiments. If you're not in the mood for soup, request the Chinese menu ($7-$18) and order the slightly bitter balsa pear with sesame oil, rice-wine seasoned Kung Pao frog legs or wonderful ma po fish, fiercely spiced with fragrant Szechwan peppercorns.9976 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 3:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday; 954-437-7738Lung Gong Restaurant:
Hot pot -- in vegetarian versions, too -- is only the beginning at this Tamiami Trail gem, especially for adventurous eaters. The "blue" menu (there's an American one, too) offers delights like stir-fried pork kidneys, preserved duck eggs with jalapeños, Mongolian lamb chops with caraway seed, spicy sliced conch and chewy enoki mushrooms with scallions. Al dente Szechwan noodles -- similar to classic dan dan noodles -- come piled atop a sharp mixture of chiles, garlic and chopped peanuts. Check the white board for specials like rabbit and pomfret fish. Prices are budget-friendly ($3-$15), portions are generous and the staff is incredibly friendly.11920 SW Eighth St., Miami; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday (closed Wednesdays in the summer); 305-553-4644PEKING DUCK
This popular Beijing dish dates to Chinese royalty, and though it's become commonplace, it's still quite regal.
Tony Chan's Water Club:
Look past the '80s decor and ubiquitous sushi bar to the impressive bay views and respectable Chinese menu. There are more than 160 dishes, but the star of the show is the Peking duck, presented with fanfare in a three-course ritual. First, the crisp skin is carved table-side and plated with hoisin sauce in wheat crepes. Then the carcass is whisked back to the kitchen, where the meat is stir-fried with vegetables. Finally, the bones are used to make a decadent soup. (The 5-pounder will set you back $40 but easily feeds two.)
Also notable: shark's fin soup and abalone (large sea snails) -- pricey status symbols among Chinese high rollers and bureaucrats -- and sautéed string beans doused with vinegar and combined with peppery minced pork -- sweet, sour, hot and salty in one dish.1717 N. Bayshore Dr., Miami (in the lobby of the DoubleTree Grand Hotel); 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, noon-11 p.m. Sunday; 305-374-8888Mr. Chu's Hong Kong Cuisine:
There are plenty of Cantonese-style dishes at upscale prices ($15-$24) at this cavernous Washington Avenue outpost outfitted in wicker and hand-painted lanterns, but go for the roasted duck -- a mahogany masterpiece, crisp and impossibly rich. It's carved table-side, head-on and wafting smoky, star-anise aromas. Then the meat is turned into a second-course stir-fry (for soup, add $4 to the $38 tab). If you're more in the mood for dough-wrapped snacks, Mr. Chu's is the only Beach restaurant to offer traditional dim sum cart service daily.890 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; dim sum 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 305-538-8424OUT-OF-THE-BOX CANTONESE
At its most generic, Cantonese food is what Americans think of as Chinese: It originated in the same area of southern China as the earliest and biggest waves of immigrants. But lo mein and sweet and sour pork barely scratch the surface of this slight sauced, subtly spiced cuisine.
King Palace Chinese BBQ:
This bustling mainstay on North Miami Beach's Chinatown strip is a place to try unusual dishes like jellyfish spiked with chile oil, sea cucumber and yellow chive; duck tongue with spicy sauce and salt and pepper dried squid. The fluorescent-lit eatery channels the grand restaurants of Guangzhou with its four gurgling tanks filled with fish and seafood diners can choose for dinner. The grouper steak in a
Cantonese-style hot pot is remarkably tender, doused with not-too-garlicky brown sauce in a sizzling clay pot. A tea-smoked half duck is served bone-in with a light vinegar dressing that deftly cuts the richness of the meat. Snappy chive spears and other vegetables are lightly sauteed and served with clear sauces with the right ginger and garlic bite. Prices are moderate ($7-$20), attracting Asian families for Sunday night feasts of lobster, barbecued duck and stir-fried greens.
330 NE 167th St., North Miami Beach; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; 305-949-2339
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Jellyfish salad with chili oil and Chinese eggplant is seen at King Palace Chinese BBQ in North Miami. For a food story about Chinese food and the Olympics. Photo: Alex Kolyer.