Restaurant Review - Hidden treasure

China Cooks up a storm of fine seafood

"Chinese doughnuts." The mind boggles. "General Tso's jelly-filled?" "Moo goo gai chocolate?" The only way to learn the true nature of the special entree at Sandy Springs' China Cooks is to order it.

The Chinese Doughnuts ($8.95) look little like the American variety. Instead they're roughly cylindrical, bite-sized, glossy-red morsels, piled generously on a plate. Glazed with a sweet and sour sauce, the doughnuts are bits of dough, stuffed with minced shrimp that has a spongy texture, and fried until the edges are crispy. The shrimp has a subtle presence in the flavor, which is enjoyable for its chewy sweetness. Best split as an appetizer, rather than an entree, the Chinese Doughnuts are a delicious, unusual dish.

China Cooks Chinese Seafood is full of surprises. The restaurant's surroundings have little promise for quality Cantonese fare, as it's located on a strongly Latino street in Sandy Springs, and its disheveled strip mall is surrounded by taquerias. It's rather like stumbling across a quality Chinese joint in a Latin-American city, and China Cooks is a good neighbor, offering a Spanish-language version of the menu.

The dining room is decorated in the blah colors of an airport lounge, with few flourishes to appeal to the eye. The lobster tank is so dismal, it makes the goldfish in the pristine aquarium near the cash register look far more appetizing. But China Cooks clearly takes advantage of its no-frills surroundings, letting the kitchen focus on the food and passing the savings onto the customer. The lunch features almost nothing above $6, and while the Dungeness crab dishes can go north of $20, the dinner prices are pleasingly reasonable.

The menu has all the American-friendly mainstays, from egg drop soup to the Gourmet Dinner ($12.95 per person) of entrees like Mongolian beef. But why stick to the familiar and Westernized when so many of the atypical dishes are so satisfying? A tomato-based Thai soup ($5), fragrant with lemon grass, contains hearty helpings of vegetables and shrimp.

The pan-fried salted scallops ($13.95) are the size of old-fashioned silver dollars, only thicker, with dry, salty exteriors having an intriguing coarseness on the tongue. But when you bite into them, the fresh, juicy scallop meat releases the flavors of the ocean.

The double-cooked pork ($8.50) initially put me off, the strips of pork proving rather tough. But the pork's faintly smoky flavor grows on you as you chew it (and you have to chew it for a while). It's accompanied by chopped cabbage, peppers and water chestnuts.

Minced pork plays a supporting role in the eggplant hot pot with spicy garlic sauce ($8.50), to the disappointment of vegetarians. The aroma of the garlic is enough to make you swoon. It's hard to eat it without making a mess, slopping lengths of soft eggplant rind across your plate, but it makes an efficient garlic injection system.

The only disappointment I've ever had with China Cooks' food was a carry-out experience. The shrimp with ginger and onions ($9.95) sounds like something they'd thrive on. But when I brought the meal home, I discovered that the shrimp were neither very big nor very fresh, and the spice level surprisingly bland. That was on Memorial Day, though, so maybe things had gotten lax over the long weekend.

And granted, nothing tastes its best after spending 20 minutes in a Styrofoam container. I suppose I'll have to show up in person if I want to fully explore the range of tastes on China Cooks menu. And I do.??