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 Eat @ Joe's

A NEW COLUMN
FOR A (CHINESE) NEW YEAR


BY JOEL ANN REA

January 30, 2003 -- Saturday is Chinese New Year, the ancient lunar holiday that is celebrated with time-honored rituals, special foods and festive banquets meant to instill good fortune for the year ahead. How appropriate, then, that we debut Eat@Joe's, a new column about food on the road, on the eve of 4701, The Year of the Black Sheep.

This column's goal: May you eat well and prosper as you take care of business on the go.

Food can play a central or supporting role as you travel, but good food will nourish mind and spirit as well as body. I've seldom met a meal I didn't like. But, hey, why eat bad food when good food, however you choose to define it, could be just around the corner?

Especially Chinese food. Granted, "Chinese food" describes virtually everything from so-so local takeout to sublime micro-regional dishes prepared with ingredients that are exotic or even scary to the American palate. For me, this immense range is just another reason to love this diverse cuisine. There's a constant aspect of discovery and a sense of eternal quest.

So, to kick off Eat@Joe's and to honor Chinese New Year, here are five of my highly personal picks for a banquet or a business meal. I can't recommend these places over all of the other estimated 30,000 establishments claiming to serve Chinese cuisine in the United States, but that's only because I haven't eaten in all 30,000 places. But give me time. I'm working on it.

NEW YORK   One of my favorite Chinese dishes is Beijing/Peking duck. When properly prepared, there is nothing more delicious than juicy, golden duck and crisp skin folded into thin, crepe-like pancakes and accented with green onions and plum sauce. It's a festive, often hard-to-find, dish worthy of a New Year's celebration. In New York, my choice for best duck is Maple Garden Beijing Duck House. Not only is the duck great, but the midtown space is a tranquil oasis from the workday world. (Others may find it beige and boring compared with a noisy Chinatown banquet palace, but I welcome the chance to check my coat and laptop before digging in.) Other favorites include steamed dumplings, spicy dry shredded beef and homemade noodles with shrimp. Expect to pay about $50 per person. (236 East 53rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues; 212-759-8260; open seven days from 11:30 a.m.)

WASHINGTON, D.C.   When I'm on business in or around the District, I save one evening for a trek to the Peking Gourmet Inn in suburban Falls Church, Virginia. This Northern Chinese storefront got its start in 1978 and quickly rose to national acclaim when the newly elected President George H.W. Bush became a regular patron. While you wait for a table, you'll have time to read the newspaper clippings that chronicle the family farm created to provide ingredients such as garlic sprouts and "jumbo spring onions" (leeks) for their specialty dishes. The wall of fame doesn't reveal whether presidential son "W" is now a fan, but thousands of other hungry diners flock here nightly for the outstanding Peking duck. Available on demand without previous reservation and deftly carved tableside, the succulent duck with its crispy skin is served with 12 perfect pancakes, sliced spring onions and piquant Hoisin sauce. Other dishes are quite good, but pale by comparison. Expect to pay about $30 per person. (6029 Leesburg Pike at Bailey's Crossroads; 703-671-8088; open seven days from 11 a.m.)

PITTSBURGH   Sometimes a mom and pop spot isn't the answer for a Chinese-style meal. In Pittsburgh, which isn't exactly a hotbed for Chinese food, I turn to P.F. Chang's China Bistro in suburban West Homestead. This outpost of the popular and fast-growing Chinese chain anchors the Waterfront, an upscale dining, shopping and entertainment complex built on the site of former steel mills. The menu offers a variety of fresh appetizers and entrees from the five major culinary regions of China, as well as sauces "personally mixed" by your server. Vegetarian and seafood choices--lettuce wraps, garlic snap peas, calamari tossed with ginger and scallions and lemon scallops--are appealing alternatives to a road-weary traveler in this still largely meat-and-potatoes town. A choice of 50 wines is an unexpected bonus. Once refreshed, it's just a short stroll for some stellar shoe shopping. Expect to pay about $40 per person. (148 West Bridge Street; 412-464-0640, seven days from 11 a.m.)

SAN FRANCISCO   The Bay Area teems with extraordinary Asian dining options, but my first choice is a "deem sum" lunch at Yank Sing. A local icon since 1958, Yank Sing now operates from two locations and offers more than 60 of its 100 varieties of dim sum daily. Designed "to touch the heart" and permit diners to enjoy dozens of tastes in one meal, these bite-sized morsels--once fare only for Cantonese emperors--come steamed, baked, grilled, stir fried and deep fried, all crafted of the freshest ingredients. Favorites include snow pea shoot dumplings, scallion prawn skewers, pork siu mye and their signature individual Peking duck buns, as well as selections from the innovative monthly California Collection specials. Check out the Deem Sum Gallery for more. Despite the constant motion of tempting food carts, the atmosphere is enjoyable. Even tea is given special attention, with every table receiving its own stunning glass museum teapot. If you can't make it for lunch, they deliver and cater and sell three of their popular sauces for home use. Expect to pay about $30 per person. (101 Spears Street at Mission in One Rincon Center, 415-957-9300; 49 Stevenson, 415-541-4949; open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

HILO, HAWAII   While Hilo is the business capital of the Big Island of Hawaii, I'll forgive you if you find yourself here on vacation. But whatever the reason for your stay, be sure to schedule a meal or two at Ting Hao Mandarin Seafood Restaurant. Located in the lower level of the Naniloa Hotel on Hilo Bay, the stunning food more than compensates for the lackluster atmosphere. Standouts include made-to-order dumplings, dried green beans, garlic shrimp with wood-ear mushrooms and crispy whole fish. And the endearing wait staff will happily package leftovers, which make a perfect snack after a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just 40 minutes away, or while en route back to a posh Kohala Coast resort. Expect to pay about $30 per person. (93 Banyan Drive; 808-935-8888; closed Tuesdays)

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joel Ann Rea. All rights reserved.