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Chinese restaurants are often neighborhood affairs. Key to their survival is food that is more convenient, cheaper, and at least slightly better than what their local patrons might prepare at home. If it doesn't sell to the folks down the block, it doesn't sell at all.
If the menus do succeed in luring families from their kitchens, an unusual relationship is born. Convenience becomes habit. Habit becomes loyalty. A bond is established that may have little to do with the quality of the fare. Even customers who have moved away will wander back for their favorite pan-fried noodles. And in a place as transient as Miami, where restaurants are as ephemeral as butterflies, it can be reassuring to know that your favorite old Chinese haunt will always be there.
Not so with Tiger Tiger Teahouse. This is a vagabond of a restaurant, as notable for its migratory history as its longevity. It first welcomed guests in 1969 on Biscayne Boulevard. Since then it has packed up and moved two more times -- to South Miami and, after a year's closure, to the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village.
Something may have been lost in the transitions. A sign outside the new location proclaims that the Teahouse is now closed for lunch, suggesting that business may not be what it once was. Indeed, when we arrived on a recent Friday evening, the restaurant was busy with what appeared to be locals, but the crowd was far from overwhelming. Perhaps this was due to the early-summer move to new quarters, distant from its previous home and clientele. But after our experience, it seemed likely due to much more serious problems.
In this incarnation, Tiger Tiger has emerged in a building with a custom-designed interior that takes industrial to the Orient -- with a vengeance. Along the walls, magenta spotlights illuminate a collection of Oriental vases large enough to stash the remains of the entire Ming dynasty. And that's not all they bathe in crimson. The furniture, the fish tank, the menus, even my fellow diners glowed with the hellish intensity of a perpetual tropical sunset, reminding me why red is such a finicky color to wear and why some cultures bury their dead in it. In fact, the room was so hot with scarlet I was prompted to reminisce about the last time I had been similarly lit -- in a prepubescent basement hung with Zeppelin posters, scented with clove cigarettes and the breath of the boy beside me. This was a restaurant atmosphere that would be forgiveable only if the food could stand up to it.
The menu initially offered hope. Like the interior design, it was ambitious. Selections spanned the breadth of China: Mongolian beef (Beijing style) ($9.95), Szechuan eggplant ($6.95), Peking Duck ($19.95). But then came the insult, a section labeled "American Chinese Dishes," which included such old Cantonese favorites as shrimp with lobster sauce ($9.95), sweet and sour pork ($6.95), chicken chow mein ($4.95), and pepper steak ($7.95).
Even if the menu does read like some gigantic melting pot (or wok), I hate this brand of assimilation. Granted, many of these dishes have gone the way of the hula hoop (both gained popularity in the U.S. at about the same time), but Cantonese cooking remains a venerable and palatable cuisine. If people sneer at it today, it's because it is so rarely prepared well. Referring to it as "American Chinese" did not bode well, and reinforced the impression that Tiger Tiger was still a neighborhood joint at heart. The clumsy efforts at modern urban aesthetics were off the mark.
Just as our entire meal missed its mark, beginning with the aphasic waitstaff, two of whom attempted to serve us, neither of them properly. Water apparently was at a premium this night, making only special guest appearances. The food itself epitomized poor preparation from a disinterested kitchen. And time seemed to stand still.
Among our first courses were the spring rolls ($3.50). Most restaurants roll these wrapped cabbage goodies in advance, so it escaped me why they required 45 minutes to be cooked and served. From appearances, though, they might have spent the entire time soaking in the wok, having arrived in enough oil to lubricate a diesel engine.
The curried triangles ($3.95), fried envelopes similar to empanadas, were so tough we had to abandon teeth for chainsaws. The pork filling, ground and seasoned with a light curry, was neither overpowering nor empowering, limbo-ing somewhere in the middle of mediocre. The accompanying sweet-sharp rice vinegar dip was the most pleasantly pungent aspect of the dish.
Perhaps unfairly, I can't help comparing a new Chinese experience to one I had years ago in Sausalito. This restaurant served dumplings that floated above their soups and sauces like ethereal souls above a body. Sometimes I still moan with delight. But not at Tiger Tiger Teahouse, where the red-hot dumplings ($3.50) burned as fiery as the breath of a dragon, and as stale. These minced-meat mistakes were so heavily mummified the filling appeared shrunken inside the epidermal layers, a tiny dab inside a long-forsaken sarcophagus.
The main courses played no better to an audience that had already been lost. Served lukewarm an hour after the appetizers, the crispy duck ($9.95) lay on its platter like kindling, and tasted much the same. A more appropriate name might have been crispy skin, as what little flesh existed had been burned away by the indiscriminate wok. Unaccompanied by even a garnish, crispy duck shed new meaning on the phrase "bare bones."
Equally as barren of vegetables, the ginger salmon ($8.95), which rivaled the lights for bright, was as far from ginger as Gilligan. The sauce owed more to scallions than other flavors, though in truth it tasted very little like anything. The fish itself, however, was nicely proportioned and competently handled, leaving me curious about the other fish offerings: lemon spicy fish, Szechuan fish, and Beijing fish ($14.95), all served whole.
Nutritious if not delicious, the mushu chicken ($8.95), shrouded with pancakes and plum sauce, was generously sized and heaped with shredded veggies. The snow-white scallops ($9.95) were cloaked in an "egg white sauce" that nodded to cornstarch rather than eggs, but thankfully, the scallops themselves were tender. Of our samplings, this dish merited the most notice.
Despite the grudging, grumpy service and the less than average food, my companions and I achieved the goal of any diner -- to spend a relaxing evening not doing one's own cooking. But I still can't agree with the sentiment that Chinese food is like sex -- good even when it's bad. Not when that particular Chinese meal, though a pleasant reminder of my sweaty youth, is also a reminder of a sweaty school cafeteria where cellophane-gloved workers dispensed with ice cream scoops their notoriously noxious chicken chow mein.
TIGER TIGER TEAHOUSE 1624 79th Street Causeway, North Bay Village, 861-0337. Open Sunday -- Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Saturday 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.