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Weekend! Food: Restaurant of the Week

Chinese dishes take the chill out of fall
by: Denise Farwell, Chinese delights like sesame beef (bottom), prawns with snow peas and chiang-sa chicken tenderloin reward diners who make the effort to find Sungari’s tranquil downtown space.

This is the time of year when people begin to crave hearty, warm, stick-to-your-ribs food: rich beef stew, earthy squash soup, homey spaghetti and meatballs.

But I find myself yearning for kung pao chicken.

Going out for Chinese used to seem exotic, and there were all those dishes with the chilies you dare not eat. Nowadays it's considered about as outré as meatloaf, and maybe that's why it's become so comforting.

Many sophisticated palates have turned to Thai and Vietnamese, and who could blame them when so much Chinese food is so bad. Cafeteria mystery meat has nothing on the indecipherable ingredients in many dishes of moo goo gai pan and egg foo funk.

But when it's done well, Chinese food can have as many different flavor palates as 'American' food, and its contrasting spices, textures and presentations make for ideal leisurely meals on dark fall nights.

While I'm sometimes of the opinion that Chinese dishes taste better eaten with chopsticks from the archetypal white-paper containers in front of the hottest new television show, it's also well worth working your way through the downtown labyrinth to eat in the newly spiffed up Sungari.

The elegant and peaceful restaurant is saddled with a poor location (it's surrounded with MAX tracks), which is now made more challenging by a construction-affected traffic pattern the Minotaur could call home.

This restaurant was once affiliated with Sungari Pearl, and the menu will seem similar to patrons of that trendier space. But while the quality of food in the Pearl location has unfortunately diminished over the last year or so, the food at the downtown Sungari - which remains under the original owner - remains consistently fresh, well-balanced and intricately flavored.

Even though it's almost impossible for me to shake the restaurant reviewer's habit of ordering all-new dishes at every meal, I'm a bit obsessed with the sweet, chewy, spicy sesame beef served over a crunchy tangle of crisp rice noodles. It's a terrific dish that's actually better for lunch the next day.

In fact, you won't be disappointed with any of the old standards. Dry sautéed string beans, moo shu pork with plum sauce, crunchy General Tso's chicken and kung pao shrimp and/or chicken with tons of peanuts - they all bear no resemblance to the flavorless monochromatic mush served under the same names at so many fast-food Asian eateries.

At Sungari I prefer to order many main dishes and forgo the appetizers - seeing the tables literally covered with dishes is one of the best things about a Chinese feast - but the barbecue pork slices with their painted pink outsides make a terrific pre-meal snack.

The waiters will tell you that the scallops with spicy tangy sauce is the most popular dish with an urgency that implies an overzealous purchase of the bivalves. But the dish isn't my favorite, mainly because the breading on the scallops quickly grows mushy in the thick sauce. And they're just awful as leftovers.

For a similar taste but better texture try the slivered pork or chicken in the same sauce. The spices will warm you from the inside out.

- Audrey Van Buskirk

735 S.W. First Ave., 503-224-0800, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, $7.95-$18.95