Paul Chao's Shangri-La is every bit as good as its predecessor

September 11, 1992|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

By the extremely scientific method of counting the names under S in the telephone book, I came up with 12 Chinese restaurants called Szechuan something. (Of course, these didn't include restaurants called something Szechuan, as in the "Hunan-Szechuan Dragon Palace" or whatever.) My point is that owner Paul Chao was smart to change the name of his restaurant on Charles Street near 25th from Szechuan Gourmet to Paul Chao's Shangri-La. Just don't get it confused with his place in Severna Park, known simply as Shangri-La.

In spite of the new name, in spite of the bright pink awning and the completely redecorated dining room inside, this is the same restaurant that opened in the spot where the venerable Jimmy Wu's used to be. It's every bit as good as Jimmy Wu's was, but it's never seemed to do as well as Baltimore's most popular Chinese restaurant did in its heyday. Of course, Jimmy Wu's never had the competition its successor does -- not only from Chinese but also all the other Asian cuisines.

By whatever name, this is a good restaurant to keep in mind because of its location (on the way home from work for lots of people, and convenient to many city neighborhoods). Parking never seems to be a problem, and the food is more consistent than at many Chinese restaurants in the city.

That's not to say the food is flawless, by any means. Nothing here will startle you -- with either innovative or terrible dishes. But sometimes I'm happy just to get a wonton soup ($1.40) with a broth that hasn't been oversalted. Or a fine hot and sour soup ($1.65): tangy-spicy, not too gelatinous, with an intriguing mix of slithery and crisp ingredients.

But the kitchen can also turn out spare ribs ($5.25) with a barbecue sauce that tastes like maraschino cherries. (True, the ribs are good and meaty.) Or shrimp toast ($4.75) (generously full of shrimp, to be sure) fried in overused oil.

Main courses also have mild ups and downs. A house specialty, crispy bone fish, was good, but nothing like I expected. The whole flounder was served on an enormous oval platter, but only the head and tail were crispy (i.e., fried). The part we were supposed to eat, the chunks of filet, might well have been steamed and tossed with fresh vegetables, then returned to the skeleton. I know it sounds dreadful, but it actually looked pretty good on the handsome black and white platter (and tasted good as well). Be warned, though: It's seasonally priced. When we got our bill, we found we had paid a whopping $19.95 for it. That gives you a skewed idea of the restaurant's prices, which are mostly in the $8 to $10 range.

I try to stay away from dishes like General Ching's chicken ($9.95), but you couldn't guess what it was from the menu description. It featured fried chicken nuggets, chili peppers and green peppers in a too-sweet, too-gloppy sauce. Give the kitchen credit, though, for realizing that when customers order meat-heavy dishes, they need their vegetables -- so the dish includes still-crisp steamed broccoli on the side. Mongolian beef ($8.95) is more typical of Shangri-La's food, with its generous helping of flank steak tossed in an appealing, faintly sweet, faintly spicy sauce, and greenery provided by scallion tops.

Paul Chao's Shangri-La has two other things going for it, as well as decent food and a good location: The restaurant offers an elaborate all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and free delivery within 3 miles with a $15 minimum order.

Paul Chao's Shangri-La

Where: 2426 N. Charles St.

Hours: Mondays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Fridays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays noon to 11 p.m., Sundays noon to 10:30 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: AE, MC, V.

Features: Chinese food.

Non-smoking section? Yes.

Call: (410) 235-8744, 235-8745.

** 1/2

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