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By Bill Wisser
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I pace. I fume. And fumo. But even the redolent Parliament Lights can't replace the taste of Charlotte's smoky, zesty Mongolian beef ($8.25) or assuage my addiction to vegetarian lettuce rolls ($5.50), sauteed vegetables cuddled in fresh iceberg with a plum sauce finish.
I imagine all sorts of catastrophe: the chef, from Hong Kong, wakes up with a case of his native flu. Or my Hermes's 'blades snag a root, and he spills pork chops in hot pepper and spiced salt ($7.95) to neighborhood strays: porcine falls to feline in major evolutionary coup.
To distract myself, I tally the take-home menu. More than 125 dishes, not counting soups, appetizers, and fried rices. That cook must have one amazing cheat sheet, but he probably doesn't even need it for the Hong Kong specialties, the best dishes in the house. The black bean sauce is a subtly spiced mix rarely produced in the States. It's particularly rich over wide rice noodles with beef and green peppers ($7.95). I last savored this version of chow fun in London, when Hong Kong still knew the Brits as absentee landlords. It seems apropos to find it once again in Miami, where black beans (though a different size and flavor) are the norm.
"They had the evenest tempers, the most perfect patience and good nature," wrote another Charlotte (feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman) about her utopian women. Obviously these women never had to wait for Charlotte Barron's (owner of the Kitchen) honey-glazed walnut and sauteed shrimp ($9.95), a sweet dish arranged on shredded lettuce. The shrimp are battered but armed with honey and a creamy dressing. The only abuse they'll receive is from my teeth; and from them there is no protection.
But Charlotte's isn't all crustaceans and cream. In fact, the kitchen always runs out of something, substituting spinach for the garlic saute ($6.25), noodles for the chow fun. Fortunately for her first-time guests (who think they're special) and her regulars (who know they are), Charlotte is often on hand to recommend something else. Perhaps the Singapore rice noodle with curry flavor ($7.95) would suffice, or the braised string beans in hot garlic sauce ($7.50), accented with chili paste and minced dry shrimp.
Also, dishes don't always arrive as described on the menu. A recent version of Lake Tong-Ting shrimp ($8.95) excluded the expected black mushrooms, bell peppers, baby corns, carrots, and water chestnuts in favor of the Eire-invoking green broccoli and egg-white sauce. Far and away from the menu's depiction -- a bit salty but tempered with wine -- this unexpected combination brought China to the Beach.
I drift into reminiscence to avoid passing out (from low blood sugar or high blood alcohol, who's to say? It's Friday, after all). Ten minutes of waiting for Charlotte's is like an hour's anticipation of any other meal. Memories of previous dinners there take me like hot flashes. The first time the chow fun was a hope fulfilled, on the third and fifth visits we were detained by General Cheng's division ($7.95) of Privates Garlic and Hot Pepper -- all could fill pages in my satiation scrapbook. I feel my lips stretch into the familiar grimace heat and joy leave behind.
I admit I've done unforgivable things to Charlotte's delicacies. I've had it delivered by Waiters on Wheels, a two-hour ordeal. I've eaten it cold, straight from the refrigerator when the power went down. I've even frozen the egg rolls and reheated them first in the microwave, then in the toaster oven (for crispness -- it worked; they were delicious). I've also done things the usual way, snatching shrimp from lobster sauce ($8.25) and sizzled rice in soup ($5.50) in the less-than-visionary decor of Charlotte's. Just once I'd like to see a Chinese restaurant "tangled up in blue," or any shade other than red. Though in this case, I have generously ignored the urge to scribble "redrum" all over the walls and contented myself with battling my friends' chopsticks for the last butterflied prawn.
Except tonight it's I who have been left behind. Or left to starve. Is it possible my partner in dining has been enticed by a more attractive dish? "Ants climb up the tree" ($8.95) does sport a gossamer bean vermicelli, caressed with chopped pork and a Szechuan bean sauce.
An eternity since he departed (thirteen minutes!), the winged wonder returns. He reports a long takeout line and friendly, sarcastic service. So I forgive him his lengthy sojourn, particularly since, confronted with my cranky attitude, he threatens to withhold the cold sesame noodles ($3.50) and crispy scallion pancake ($1.75), dim sum-type foods he orders for sentimental reasons. (We used to share these items at a tiny place in Boston that has since gone out of business. A great loss I still haven't assimilated).