Restaurant Review - Off the menu

Canton Cooks offers excellent Chinese any way you order it

When dining at a Chinese restaurant, you can go for the simple quick-fixes. There are always the standbys of fried rice, kung pao this or sweet and sour that. It's the evolved homogenization that Chinese cuisine has become in our country — and around the world. The Szechuan, Cantonese and Mandarin traditions are often lost on most of us. So, I admit it. I cheat. I bring my Chinese friends along.

I heard that Canton Cooks served some of the best Chinese in Atlanta. A Chinese-Indonesian friend swore by it. So we bundled up the group in the SUV and headed to a strip mall along Roswell Road in Sandy Springs.

It's not much to look at from the outside. Located in a developing strip mall with a Whole Foods Market and a Bikram yoga studio, you have to traverse piles of dirt and roped-off areas to get to the door. Inside it appears to be the same as any other brightly lit, plastic table-covered chain Chinese restaurant. One difference — a tank of slowly moving lobsters. The restaurant proudly boasts of specializing in Chinese seafood and you can order up lobsters, oysters, clams, sea cucumber, abalone, squid, scallops, crab or saltwater fish.

Again, there are the standards for the less adventurous. So, if you have a friend who wants moo goo gai pan, it's there ($8.95). But if you want a truly great Chinese dinner here, don't even bother ordering from the menu. Chinese restaurants list their most popular dishes and money makers but if you know what to order, you can usually have an even better experience. Canton Cooks offers an addition to their standard menu, a piece of paper scrawled with house specialties, but I wasn't up for the fried pork intestines or braised sea cucumber on this visit.

You must try the salt and pepper pork chops ($8.95). Breaded strips of fried pork (with and without bones) served with sliced jalapenos are reminiscent of good ol' Southern chicken-fried steak but without the heavy, bread crumb batter. Instead it's a light mixture that clings to the meat and is fried to a dark brown. It's a sodium and calorie fix for sure, but worth it.

Sauteed snow peas show up on the menu, but we ordered something that was even more interesting, the sauteed snow pea leaves ($8.95). The tender leaves and stems are sauteed with oil and garlic and are a great complement to the heavier meat items.

Fried and stuffed tofu ($8.95) squares are filled with shrimp. Take the tofu cubes and soak them in the soy sauce, ginger, jalapeno and scallion mixture that accompanies the dish. It's a sweet and spicy creation that revolutionized my thinking concerning tofu's edibility.

We didn't stick solely to non-menu items. The eggplant with spicy garlic sauce and minced pork ($8.50) was excellent, as was the beef chow fun ($8.95). The chow fun is composed of thick egg noodles and a sauteed hodgepodge of vegetables and beef strips. If you like lo mein and haven't tried chow fun, you don't know what you're missing.

The clams are available when in season and luckily we were able to partake of them drenched in a black bean sauce ($11.95). The only problem is trying to figure out how to use chopsticks with the slippery morsels and not make too much of a mess.

Not everything passes the test. Both the pan-fried and steamed pot stickers (six for $4.75) are under par. The restaurant doesn't make its own wrappers for the dumplings and it shows. They are chewy and the pork inside lacks flavor. Hey, we all have our sticking points.

If you have the dough to blow, try the Dungeness crab served in various incarnations ($20.95-$22.95) or one of the live lobsters baked in black bean sauce ($19.95).

Whatever you do, you won't look at a Chinese menu the same way again.??