Four or five bites into our dinner at the Chinese Cafe, the pace accelerated exponentially: chopsticks flew, serving spoons clanked furiously, the tabletop lazy Susan spun and spun and spun.
A gimme-some-more-of-that-kung-pao-chicken look glinted in my friends' eyes; they had seemed politely dubious at the news that I'd found a Chinese joint where everything didn't taste the same -- hot and candy-sweet -- but now, commandeering a few last green beans and probing intently for a likely morsel of fish, they appeared neither dubious nor polite. Our table resembled a war zone. Weirdly wonderful peanuts steamed with star anise lay scattered over its surface like mauve-gray pearls. Glossy blobs of mahogany-brown sauce and silky bean-
urd cubes spilled off a platter where a whole spicy fish lay in bony ruins.
Miss Manners might have quailed at the mess, but it clearly was a table where a good time had been had. That this good time had been procured at such modest cost, and in such unexpected surroundings, made it all the more satisfying.
At first glance, the Chinese Cafe's new location at The Plaza on Richmond, just west of the Loop, does not look terribly auspicious. Its pale, hard surfaces and wham-bam self-serve counter give it a utilitarian air. Its eye-popping photo gallery of menu items, their vivid colors verging on hyper-reality, is a visual aid that suggests a certain fast-food plasticity. But the dishes that fly out of this kitchen in record time suggest just the opposite: an authentic, straight-shooting sensibility is at work.
In many of Houston's Chinese restaurants, it can be infernally hard to order a meal that displays a balance of flavors; at the Chinese Cafe, it is surprisingly easy. The menu isn't relentlessly Hunan- and Szechuan-ized, and sugar is administered with a blessedly restrained hand, so the dread candied effect that's pandemic of late is not a problem here. The sauces tend to cling to ingredients instead of enveloping them in sticky goo. There are enough novelties to tease adventurous eaters, and a couple of pure, simple vegetable dishes to break up the monotony that unrelieved spiciness can impose. And while the set luncheon specials can be iffy, the dinner menu offers the kind of direct, self-possessed dishes that are hard to come by even in more expensive places.
Take an old chestnut like kung pao chicken. Here it's a classic instead of a cliche: discreetly cloaked in sienna-tinted sauce with only a whisper of sweetness, strewn with crunchy peanuts, bristling with dried red-pepper pods that lend a sedate little burn to the sauce (ingest these pods at your own risk, of course). Every ingredient registers; every ingredient works.
Same deal with the velvety slices of Double Spicy Chicken, a sinus-clearing dish that the menu describes (with some understatement)
as "Hot, Hot." Salty and slightly tart, gingered and garlicked, its red-chile-charged sauce puts most restaurants' saccharine spicy-chicken dishes to shame; with its crown of crisp sesame seeds and green backdrop of faintly bitter bok choy, it is riveting stuff.
So is the house special Chinese Cafe bean curd, lumbering home-style slabs of tofu in an exu-berant brown sauce. Gigged with jalapeno
irclets, punctuated with just the right quota of pungent salted black beans, the dish acquires textural swagger from shredded pork and sweetly subtle flaps of leek -- that underutilized member of the onion family sometimes known as "poor man's asparagus."
Such rambunctious food requires counterpoints like the Chinese Cafe's plain stir fries of stemmy, immaculate spinach or bok choy, its crisp heart pale against deep green leaves. Be warned that both vegetables are zapped with radical amounts of sliced garlic -- it's an effect that makes me smile, but more sensitive souls might want to place a custom order. Another, more esoteric plain-and-simple dish is the odd-sounding "fried egg with tomato": actually a very fresh-tasting, soft scramble of egg, scallion and tomato chunks.
My friends vacuumed up these eggs in short order. And they pursued our spicy green beans with equal zeal, seduced by their cartwheels of jalapeno, their bare suspicion of sweetness, their salty exclamation points of ground pork. But the dish that demanded our full, physical attention was the whole farm-raised tilapia fish with spicy sauce -- an extravagantly bony, finny affair that rewarded persistent dismantling efforts with soft, sweet nuggets of fish in a rich, gingery sauce. Sweet, but not too sweet. Hot, but only marginally. And rendered almost voluptuous with a flotilla of bean-curd cubes for a mere 90 cents extra.
Among the menu's several whole fishes, curiosity-seekers must try the one heaped with an otherworldly "crispy bean sauce," a pungently salty, garlicky debris that has the toasty, attractively scorched quality of bottom-of-the-pan scrapings. Taken straight, this substance is aggressively weird. But mixed with steamed rice and gentle pieces of fish, it becomes oddly winning. And for $8.45 -- the price of the small-size fish -- you can afford to experiment.
Also in the experiment category -- less immediately appealing than some of the more mainstream dishes, but interesting nonetheless -- are the blackboard-special stir fries with yellow chives, a strangely grassy-tasting herb cut in long, crunchy strips that squeak between your teeth; and the poetically named Ants on the Tree, a dense tangle of tiny, amber-tinted rice noodles, salty and hot and garlicky, that are interspersed with "ants" of shredded pork. This is best tried by a large group, because a little goes a long way.
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.
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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.