Think Chinese food is just chow mein? Try Chinatown Cafe

Experiment as tasty options abound at good prices

Eats: dining reviews, Hot Stuff

April 08, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance asked me if I knew a good place for dim sum. At the time, I had to admit I didn't. In fact, I didn't know of a single place in the Baltimore area that served it.

Dim sum - basically Cantonese-style noshes that can range from green bean sheet rolls to steamed snail - is not offered at the average strip-mall Chinese takeout. But now I know that an excellent assortment is served at Chinatown Cafe.

The 2-year-old restaurant, helmed by Joann and Wuen Cheung Wu, attracts a multi-ethnic crowd despite its so-so Park Avenue location. The fact that it's the site of the former Joe's Dim Sum Palace probably helps, but so does the considerable praise the restaurant has won, both in print and through online surveys.

On a recent night, I saw a large group tucking into what looked like fantastic won-ton soup, served family style from a Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, as well as a mother with her young child, and a couple, apparently on a first date, trying to out-adventure each other with their dim-sum selections.

Chinatown Cafe is a good place to experiment with unusual dishes. Most entrees are under $10, and dim sum runs from $2.25 to $4.95. If the steamed spareribs with black bean sauce are a little too chewy for you, chalk up that lost $2.25 to experience and try something else.

Perhaps one reason the food is so cheap is because money hasn't been lavished on the decor. The dining area is spacious and bright, but certainly not elegant. The carpet is shabby, the wallpaper looks dated, and the Chinese prints on the wall are somewhat faded. When I was there, a silver banner that read "congratulations" hung from the ceiling.

As with many Chinese restaurants, a fish tank bubbles away in one corner. At Chinatown Cafe, though, another tank out in the vestibule is not for show but stores live seafood for future meals.

Our servers were wonderfully friendly and attentive and gamely answered as well as they could in English when we asked for descriptions and recommendations. Pots of hot tea and bowls of crunchy fried noodles were placed on our table as soon as we arrived, and forks were supplied for diners who had trouble with chopsticks.

The expansive menu is written in both Chinese and English and includes familiar standards like General Tso's chicken, Peking duck and shrimp lo mein, as well as items you're not likely to find anywhere else in Baltimore. Chow fun (flat rice noodles) and mei fun (rice noodles) form the base for many dishes.

Seafood, though, is clearly the focus at Chinatown Cafe. The fish is marvelously fresh and carefully prepared. The steamed shrimp dumplings, a highlight of the meal, contain tender, flavorful morsels, surrounded by a thin dough wrapper, clearly made by hand.

Though I couldn't bring myself to sample the chicken feet or shark fin, I did try something new in the form of abalone, a large mollusk rarely seen on local menus. It arrived in a hot pot that also contained sea cucumber, a squidlike creature closely related to sea urchins, as well as shrimp and scallops. The sea creatures, plus some bok choy, were served in a thick and delicious soy-sauce-infused broth.

A less exotic dish of pan-fried noodles with beef and black bean sauce had a wonderfully savory sauce and nicely crunchy noodles, but the beef itself, sliced into thick strips, was on the tough side.

Desserts were as adventurous as the rest of the meal, and included a warm green bean tapioca (really!) that was like a not-very-sweet rice pudding, as well as almond tofu, mild, snow-white and very gelatinous, and mango pudding, also very gelatinous, with tart bits of fruit on top.

We also got fortune cookies. Mine said my jolly family makes me happy. True enough, and a concept that transcends cultural boundaries.

Chinatown Cafe

Where: 323 Park Ave.

Call: 410-727-5599

Open: Closed Wednesdays, open every other day for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $1.25-$4.95; entrees $5.95-$13.95

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: **

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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