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Hidden Treasure

Once in a great while in a Houston diner's life comes that singular moment when she stumbles upon a truly terrific divey Chinese restaurant. If she's smart, she'll do her part to make sure the restaurant is stocked with enough patrons to keep it healthily humming along, and thus protect her food supply. So it is that self-interest compels me to tell you about Jin Bo, which was introduced to me by a friend whose father, on a quest for a good Chinese restaurant, stopped in at random one day.

In a search for an inexpensive, unpretentious Chinese restaurant, there are many low points: vast numbers of rubbery dumplings endured, myriad pounds of cardboard-like beef chewed through. But then, in a restaurant that may almost have escaped your notice, it happens. The server sets in front of you the Jin Bo roast duck, and what you see whispers to you that your odyssey may have ended. An astonishing fluorescent orange skin, flecked with seasonings, looks as shiny and glazed as hard candy. It has shrunk back around the edges of each three-inch piece of cleaved duck to reveal the grayish-pink meat underneath. This is one of the most theatrical roast ducks you've ever seen. You scarcely want to disturb the visual effects by eating the creature, but you have to learn if the mouth experience lives up to the eye experience. And you're not disappointed one iota. The skin that appeared so impenetrable is crispy yet surprisingly tender. The meat is pleasantly oily and musky and full of flavor. You foresee that even though Jin Bo is nowhere near where you live, you'll insist your family make this a regular dining-out staple. You have finally found, you realize, your Chinese food home away from home.

The phrase "jin bo" means "good luck" but also, fittingly, something on the order of "rare and expensive antique object." Like some trinket that had to be unearthed from beneath a pile of junk at an antique store but has now become a family heirloom, this is a gem of a restaurant. It sits on Lawndale near Wayside, far off any well-established restaurant row, but the quality of what comes out of Jin Bo's kitchen could rival that of almost any of the food temples in either of the city's Chinatowns. King Lee, who, along with his wife Wing, runs Jin Bo, exercises strict control over his cooks, not allowing them to alter any of the recipes he has developed over the 20 years that Jin Bo has been open. That obsessiveness pays off.

Take, for example, the steamed spareribs in plum sauce. The fellow with the cleaver has been at it again, as evinced by the ribs' being transformed into two-inch cubed riblets. These tender bone-in bites of pork -- swathed in bright-tasting, murky gravy -- are perfect for gnawing on while contemplating what next to dig your chopsticks into. The clay pot oysters with side pork would be a good choice: stocked with huge, briny, milky oysters, loaded with whole fat garlic pods, chock full of pyramids of tofu, the entire affair is swimming in a persuasive, gingery gravy. Or you might sample with pleasure the beef in the special house sauce: flaps of amazingly tender beef and slivers of onion are coated with a near-sticky, sweetish maroon sauce.

My sense that at Jin Bo I had escaped the occidental influence that pervades many Chinese restaurants vaporized somewhat when King Lee conspiratorially disclosed the principal ingredients of his special sauce: ketchup and A-1. Oh well, unadulterated Oriental fare it ain't, but you won't find me balking at having more of it.

A modified version of the special sauce shows up in a shrimp dish that a friend likened to a seafood sloppy joe. He's right. This tomatoey mishmash of springy shrimp, ground pork and water chestnuts is sweet enough and pasty enough to remind of that baby-food-trying-to-be-chili. I never learned to love sloppy joes, and Jin Bo's version hasn't changed my mind. Jin Bo's fillet of fish with mixed vegetables, though, is impossible not to love. Improbably light and fresh bites of sole virtually disappeared in my mouth. The fish is fried, I'm told, but it comes off as so ethereal, I almost don't believe it. The mixed veggies in their balmy light sauce are of the sort found in most Chinese food dishes -- baby corn, broccoli shootlets, snow peas, straw mushrooms -- but they're so deftly prepared, I don't mind the absence of more exotic fare.

Well aware that the best fare in many Chinese restaurants is off the menu and is reserved for Chinese visitors -- the restaurateur's family, close friends and the like -- I one night asked King Lee to let me sample the choicest jewels that might issue from his kitchen. It took some work to convince him that, yes, I trusted him to whip up something special, something that he usually reserves for the customers who sit at what looks like the family table toward the back of the restaurant. He wrinkled his brow while trying to think of a suitable experiment for this table of non-Asians. He finally pronounced that his house specialty was squid, and minutes later, he appeared with another visual marvel. Oblong, flattened pieces of pearly, butter-tender squid meat had been scored with a sharp knife and rolled into tubes so that they resembled albino pine cones. These little cylinders, and the squids' disembodied, purple tentacle clusters, equally tender, were tossed with a sticky sauce of ginger and green onion. Stunning, I announced.

One item that Lee reports is a favorite among his Chinese patrons, though, I'd just as soon leave to them: the salt duck and Chinese sausage in clay pot. An assemblage of salt-cured meats -- rounds of fatty, magenta sausage, minuscule cubes of jerky-like side pork, pink-edged, sweet chicken pieces and what can only be described as the ham of the duck world -- is clustered with steamed broccoli atop a broth-infused bed of rice. Interesting, but not the reason I'll be sending my friends in.

Ethnic thrills are all fine and good, but for those whose tastes run to the more familiar elements on a Chinese menu, as mine do on certain days when what I really crave is a dumpling fix, Jin Bo can come through like a champ. I normally avoid fried dumplings, finding them to be ponderously greasy affairs, but when I asked Wing Lee whether the menu's pan fried dumplings might be good steamed instead of fried, she replied, "We're from Canton, in the south of China. We prefer them fried."

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That response triggered my own primal partiality to things fried, so fried it had to be. Once again, Jin Bo pleasantly surprised. These chubby little potstickers, with their browned hindquarters, showed not one scintilla of excess oil. The meatball of ground pork and shrimp, once exposed, begged for a smear of the hot red sauce plus vinegar mixture. One brave soul I was with doused his dumplings in a liberal spoonful of the sinus-clearing hot mustard -- then proclaimed that he had seen God.

Jin Bo might not be able to guarantee a religious experience to all of its visitors, but if your expectations are closer to the worldly -- if what you want is memorable Chinese food served in a come-as-you-are atmosphere -- then this is the place for you.

Jin Bo, 7046 Lawndale, 926-6595.

Jin Bo: roast duck (one-half), $9.45; beef with special house sauce, $8.50; pan-fried dumplings, $5.

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