China Square Restaurant
450 S. B St.
China Square, tucked between Subway and the Plazas Cinema 14 movie theater, offers a great patio for people-watching. The warm sun and cool breeze combined with The Beatles, Billy Joel and Madonna, belting from speakers attached to trees, made for a perfect evening. Curiously, we were the only ones outside. Everyone else preferred the restaurant’s intimate interior, full of dark wood tables, tapestry carpet and patterned booths.
We were greeted by Tony’s (the owner) exuberant smile. His genuine enthusiasm was infectious. He instantly recognizes 90 percent of the faces that walk through the door and has the uncanny ability to check on you several times throughout your meal without ever bothering you. He is from Taiwan and runs the restaurant with his wife; and on weekends, his son joins them.
They serve house wines and the award-winning Taiwan Draft Beer, an amber lager whose distinct flavor comes from the addition of fermented rice. The menu hosts many classics, from General Tso’s chicken to pork in garlic sauce or chow mein, but also has twists like three lamb dishes, smoked tea salt pepper shrimp (served with their heads on), and their mu shu is also referred to as “Burrito à la Chinoise.” The “Chef’s Suggestion” lets you add soup, fried shrimp, egg rolls, fried won ton, and fried rice to an entree for $4.50, and they encourage personalized requests like less oil, salt, spices and MSG.
Lunch combos start at $5.95 and come with an entree, soup, fried won ton, fried rice, tea and a fortune cookie. I was intrigued by the fish fillet with white wine sauce or black bean sauce for $8.55.
When I inquired about a dish named crystal shrimp, our waiter, Tony’s son, suggested I pull out my phone and look on Yelp to see what customers had said about it, and sure enough they’d raved. We decided to order the pu pu tray appetizers, the crystal shrimp and another dish he’d recommended highly, pan-fried noodles.
Our waiter brought out a bean sprout salad “on the house” and offered to refill our dish of crispy noodles and their sweet, lightly gingered dipping sauce. The sprout salad was fresh and crunchy, with green bell pepper and carrot strips and a few lightly spicy red chili pieces.
Our appetizers arrived with a decorative sterno fire burning in the center. My shrimp toast featured bits of water chestnuts throughout that, along with the sesame seeds, made for crunchy textural intrigue. When my companion tasted them, he exclaimed, “I want a whole tray of these!”
I tried the egg roll. It was smaller than many and delicate and had a simple, moist cabbage and vegetable interior with a thin crunchy exterior. The appetizer tray arrived without dipping sauces and, though there was soy sauce on the table, we didn’t use any. Once we settled into tasting the components on the tray simply as they were, we were pleasantly satisfied. All the individual elements were cooked perfectly and warm — the moist paper-wrapped chicken (actually wrapped in foil), the fatty sweet fuchsia-hued barbecue ribs and the tender teriyaki beef.
The crystal shrimp dish arrived on a blue and white plate with a silk purple orchid, and the pan-fried noodles came in a clear Pyrex dish. The shrimp were fried and tossed in a mayonnaise-based sauce with carrots, peas and pineapple.
They were lightly crunchy and the sauce was sweet as were the other accompaniments. It’s a rich dish and sort of like eating dessert and dinner all at once.
I expected the thick pan-fried noodles to be crisp but after they were fried, they were tossed with brown sauce and turned chewy. The chicken with our noodle dish was lightly floured. With the dish were lots of mixed vegetables like baby bok choy, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and carrots. When I singled out the vegetables, they were fresh and done just enough to still be crisp, but the other components of this dish were heavy.
Desserts were fried bananas or lychee fruit but we were too full. With our bill came fortune cookies and almond cookies. As we were leaving, another large group walked in and shook Tony’s hand. Then I overheard a lady at a packed booth say, “I told you, all I want for my birthday is crystal shrimp!”
For us, the beer and appetizer tray were the best bites we’d tasted; and the service was so warm and personalized, it was a treat. As we walked around to let our food settle, we became those being watched rather than the watchers.
For more of DK Crawford’s writing and photography, visit www.thefoodsavant.blogspot.com