Restaurant Review - China Cooks Chinese Seafood

Feast or Fancy? Choose China Cooks if you prefer well-seasoned seafood to eye candy

Here's something you don't see every day: a Chinese menu translated into Spanish. But then, there aren't too many Chinese restaurants as thoroughly surrounded by Mexican and Hispanic shops, restaurants and a sundry of small businesses as China Cooks Chinese Seafood. For the benefit of those patrons, the list of specials, which changes with seasonal availability, appears in Spanish inside the menu's back cover.

China Cooks is a paradox. On the one hand, the interior is, frankly, shabby. The dusty rose-colored carpeting and appointments have seen better days. The air is stale with bygone smoke that hangs over the small dining room even when no one is smoking. On the other hand, this is one of the few remaining Chinese restaurants in town main- taining an extravagant active fish tank. I don't mean colorful decorative fish; I mean lively Dungeness crabs and frisky lobsters ready to find their way to your table, thence to your satisfied stomach. I must say, though, that while I like spiffy decor as much as the next person — probably more — I would always favor good food over visual feasting if I were forced to choose.

And here at China Cooks, it is possible to find something good in every price range, from the $6.95 selections of sauteed vegetables (with or without bean curd or sauces) to the venerable $27.95 Peking duck, which happily does not require two days' advance notice — nor even one hour's.

But truthfully, a light meal easily could be made of the delicious thick soups. Of course there are the usual hot-and-sour and egg drop soups. But so long as you are in a place that emphasizes fresh seafood, you may as well take advantage of that fact by ordering, say, the crab meat and fish maw soup.

Most everything here is cooked, sauced and presented to highlight the main ingredient, which is not something that can be said about a lot of kitchens. A few things are labeled "hot and spicy," but that is relative. China Cooks approaches things from a Cantonese (northern) perspective rather than the fiery Szechwan (western) perspective. The heat, then, is not the kind that roars through your whole mouth and makes you gulp half a glass of water with each bite. It is, rather, more refined. Hot and spicy Thai-style soup (currently a menu specialty) is a good example of this. The broth alone is divine, with the body of consomme. The kitchen could get away with dropping in a lot fewer morsels of seafood. To its credit, though, it doesn't skimp. Add to that the graceful note of lemongrass, and there you have it.

For something a bit heartier, try the House Special Soup, based on an equally good chicken broth and loaded with just about everything — thin slices of meat, fish and a variety of vegetables.

Truly, you won't need much more than this to feel well-fed. But given that the whole steamed fish — of whatever species, but principally pompano, grouper and sea bass — is so good, you really should try it. Under any of a number of subtle sauces, be they ginger or black bean or even the occasional mystery sauce, the flesh is moist and silky.

If you are in the mood for crunch and salt, however, you are also in the right place. I never eat here without getting the spicy/salty soft-shell crab, a pair of crispy crabs on a bed of shredded lettuce. By the time you've devoured the crabs, the excess salt and spices will have seeped into the lettuce, an additional treat. (But watch out for hot pepper!) The kitchen's salt-and-pepper treatment is marginally less salty and marginally less spicy, which seems to suit calamari very well.