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Chopsticks at the Ready

The modest Chinese Cafe knows how to produce a feast worth losing your poise over

Oh, and don't forget those steamed peanuts. They may start out as an experiment, but they quickly become an addiction: half-crisp, half-mealy, elusively perfumed with hard, woody starbursts of Chinese anise ("Don't eat those!" a counter-man warned jovially). The menu unhelpfully lists them, under the "Various Dish $1.00" category, as "peanuts." Try them with a Tsing Tao beer; imagine serving them at your next Super Bowl party.

Other dollar dishes worth trying are the hot pickled Szechuan cabbage and the hot-sweet spicy cucumbers, both of them apt relishes to eat with plain rice or contrasting dishes. The price is certainly right. Indeed, all the prices are right: dishes involving meat are mostly $5.95, bean-curd dishes cost $4.95, and vegetables go for $4.45. A large whole fish for $9.45 is about as expensive as things get, which means four people can feast uninhibitedly and escape for forty bucks.

So what if there are no cloth napkins, no waiters, no tablecloths? With food this good, it's a deal. That's what has made the original Chinese Cafe, way out Bellaire near Ranchester, a mecca for impecunious Rice students.

The Richmond surroundings may be ultra-neutral, ultra-spare, but there's something to be said for an absence of florid Oriental decor. And the rainbow coalition of diners here is decoration enough. Our Friday night companions were a Chinese trio, a hip African-American couple, a uniformed Hispanic policewoman, an extended family of Pakistanis, and Anglos of various persuasions, from white-bread to baguette-loving. There were even a couple of young men, baseball caps turned backwards, who appeared likely to end the evening in some mosh pit. Nothing like some serious Double Spicy Chicken to bring people together.

Chinese Cafe, 5092 Richmond, 621-2888.

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