What's In A Name? Think Big

DINING OUT

February 06, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Jumbo Seafood, Sudbrook Square, 48 E. Sudbrook Lane, Pikesville, (410) 602-1441. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for lunch and dinner. D, MC, V. No-smoking restaurant. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3-$5.50; entrees, $4.95-$16.95. ***

I found out about Jumbo Seafood by accident when someone at work said he had a funny story about it. He and his wife, when they were told they were being taken to a place called Jumbo Seafood for their anniversary, had planned to order crab imperial and a nice piece of red snapper with a cream sauce.

When they got there, they found that if they wanted crab, it was going to have to be in fried crab meat won tons, and if they wanted red snapper, it would have to be with black bean sauce or ginger and scallions.

True, it's surprising that a Chinese restaurant has a name like Jumbo Seafood. But what interested me most about his story -- about a place I'd never heard of -- was that people were lining up to get in on a Sunday night. (The restaurant takes reservations only for six or more.)

So Jumbo Seafood must be doing something special to pack 'em in, right?

You can't tell it from the menu. Here are shrimp toast and egg rolls for appetizers, orange beef and "Dragon & Phoenix" for chef's specials, as well as the usual beef, chicken and noodle dishes. There are, perhaps, a few more vegetarian choices than usual, but I didn't notice any more seafood than you ordinarily find.

The setting can't be what's luring them in, either. Jumbo Seafood is an attractive little place, but it is one small dining room located in a strip shopping center. Sit too close to the door, and you get a blast of cold air every time another customer walks in.

What you'll notice first about the place is how close the tables are to each other. Not an inch is wasted. Mirrors do open up the room, which is decorated in shades of green, peach and maroon -- not your typical Chinese restaurant colors. A huge, gorgeous aquarium dominates the space.

After you've climbed over several people to get to your seat, the waitress brings you a pot of tea without your asking. Uh oh. It means no liquor license and therefore none of those drinks with the funny names and the little umbrellas in them. The tea itself has been brewing too long: It's strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth. And the fried noodles that accompany it, with duck sauce the color and sweetness of maraschino cherries, aren't exactly a gourmet prelude. What is it that keeps people coming back to this place?

It's not the fried crab won tons. They are amazingly grease-free, but they have no discernible crab in the filling, which tastes like a cross between cream cheese and mayonnaise. And it's not the vegetable egg rolls, which are also grease-free and much appreciated by the vegetarian among us, but are, after all, filled with nothing much more than cabbage. (You can get spring rolls with chicken and shrimp.)

But with something as ordinary as won ton soup, I begin to get a glimmer. The broth is hot, fresh, full-bodied and not oversalted. The plump stuffed noodles are remarkably tender, and there are slender strips of white chicken instead of the traditional pork. Even better is the seafood crystal won ton soup. The translucent noodles, thinner than the usual won ton wrapper, are filled with chopped shrimp and other seafood. Squares of bok choy in the pale broth offer an interesting textural contrast.

With the teriyaki chicken appetizer, which arrives a bit later than our others, I get an even clearer indication of why this place is so popular. At another restaurant this amount of chicken skewered with pineapple would be a main course. It's beautifully tender, and while it doesn't really need this much sauce and this many sesame seeds, I'm learning that the Jumbo in Jumbo Seafood must refer to the size of the portions and everything that comes with them.

Almost every one of our main courses is larger than life. At other restaurants, orange beef is usually smallish pieces of some indeterminate cut deep-fried and sauced. At Jumbo Seafood, it's three tender filets mignons, sauteed and still pink. The spicy brown sauce tinged with orange has none of the traditional dried citrus peel, but there are whole red peppers. And along with them are perfectly cooked fresh green beans, slices of fresh orange and slices of tomato.

A whole red snapper comes crisply fried with a smooth black bean sauce. To cut the richness, the waitress explains, the kitchen adds beautiful steamed vegetables on the side: broccoli, snow peas, carrots and fresh, not canned, mushrooms. (This is the first time I've had fresh mushrooms in a local Chinese restaurant.)

My least favorite of our main courses is perhaps the showiest: delicious mou sou vegetables and hoisin sauce are wrapped in fried scallion pancakes, thick as an omelet and a bit greasy, XTC which are sliced and held in place with decorative toothpicks. It looks great, but I prefer the traditional, paper-thin Peking doily.

My favorite dish isn't showy at all. It comes in a modest little bowl and is one of four curry specials. Curry? you may ask. But this is like a Thai curry rather than an Indian one, with a creamy sauce lightened with coriander. There aren't many shrimp, but they are fat and fresh, and the sauce contains finely chopped cashews, bits of carrot and a few peas as well. A wonderful dish.

We certainly have no room left for dessert, and our waitress must realize it. Without asking she brings us miniature cups of peppermint ice cream, each with a fortune cookie. It's just about as much as any of us can manage.

Next: Central Station

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