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Every evening, thousands of local foodies head to their respective rooftops and issue a plaintive wail that resounds and echoes forth into the dark and balmy Miami sky: God is great, but the same can't be said of our Chinese restaurants! Actually, most of these people are obnoxious New Yorkers. And it's not exactly thousands of them. Well, all right, it's just me, and I did it only a couple of times — but that doesn't take away from the validity of the sentiment.
Granted, things have improved with upscale newcomers Hakkasan, Philippe, and Mr. Chow — at least for patrons willing to pay for an egg roll what a working-class person might consider shelling out for a new pair of Wranglers. But when it comes to the sort of affordable, family-style Cantonese restaurant that every neighborhood should have, precious few do. As such, most locals know the go-to place for all things gastronomically Chinese requires a drive to 163rd Street in North Miami Beach — and many concur that Sang's Chinese Food is the best on that strip.
Proprietor Purwan Cheung was a cook in New York's Chinatown, and he has continued cooking since moving to Miami and opening Sang's in 1990. One can imagine the 90-seat dining room's tables and chairs that year, surrounded by fresh wood paneling spotted with neatly framed Asian prints and glistening red and gold accents. Back then, the crowded fish and lobster tanks might've even sported clear water. Nowadays, the unchanged décor looks tired, but two important details stand out: Most of the seats are filled with Chinese people, and most of the plates are filled with rewarding Cantonese fare.
1925 NE 163rd St.
North Miami, FL 33162
Region: Aventura/North Miami Beach
There are two menus here. If you get the pink one, meaning you've been plunked in with the non-Asian amateurs, ask if you may also peruse the white one, which contains dishes beyond the usual chop suey of mu shus, moo goos, egg foos, and so forth. Then again, you'll likely want to start with soups and appetizers from the more Americanized bill of fare, for that's where you'll find familiar favorites such as hot-and-sour soup, which is requisitely piquant (along with won ton soup, a bland pool of broth not worth dipping into). Egg rolls and dumplings also come from the pink list: the former pretty standard and spiked with teeny shrimp, and the pan-fried dumplings thick-skinned and plushly padded with minced pork.
We likewise shared roast barbecue pork as a starter, whose neon-red batonettes were generously portioned and effusively flavored.
Among the hundred or so pink selections, one can find General Cheng's chicken (but don't), orange peel beef, curry and sweet/sour sauces, chop suey, a credible lo mein, sub gum chicken, and nubs of subpar poultry insipidly spotting chicken-fried rice — Sang's greasy yellow version has consistently disappointed over the years. Not so the egg foo young, which I hesitantly admit to having a yen for. Here the American-Chinese treat comes as a trio of freshly fried, pancake-shaped omelets with toss-ins of bean sprouts, caramelized onions, celery, and nuggets of roast pork pooled in a thin brown sauce.
The more authentic and equally extensive white menu offers apps such as abalone, duck with jelly fish, and braised shark fin soups — the last expensive ($40 to $45) and involving too much animal cruelty to consider. More accessible dishes include a fantastic hacked-up whole roast duck with crisp mahogany skin and juicy meat (though the sauce was a tad too salty); a slowly braised stew of beef and turnips; baby bok choy stir-fried with garlic; scallions stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and garlic; soft, sweet pieces of purple Chinese eggplant dissolving with flat, tender squares of beef in a spicy-sweet brown garlic sauce; and Singapore-style vermicelli tossed with ham, shrimp, scallops, you name it, in a lightly curried sauce. Vermicelli noodles also form the backbone of a crunchy, pan-fried pancake studded with shredded pork, capped with onions and peppers, and bathed in more of that all-purpose brown sauce (which is less cornstarch-gloppy than at other places).
Sang's waitstaff is a sturdy hybrid of no-nonsense personalities with no-incompetence efficiency. While dwelling aloud about potentially ordering fried tilapia, I noticed our waitress's facial expression turn stern and disapproving.
"Not the right choice?" I asked.
"Why fry such fresh fish? Steam is better," she correctly opined, for the white flakes of fish proved fantastic with julienne ginger and scallion in a light soy broth. You'll pay at least twice as much as the $12 (per pound) for a whole fish at the aforementioned chichi gang of three, but it won't be any fresher.
Prices are refreshingly affordable, most entrées costing between $8 and $12. Eighteen $8.95 dinner specials include an egg roll and pork-fried rice. Lunch specials, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., offer the same choices, with pork-fried rice, for around $5. Plus, some 60 dim sum snacks are available daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Favorites include steamed ribs with black bean sauce; roast pork buns studded with succulent, sweet barbecue meat; octopus in curry sauce; deep-fried taro with shrimp; and sticky rice and sausage wrapped in lotus leaves. Most small plates cost $2 to $4.
Diners are brought orange sections and fortune cookies at meal's end. What else could you want? I was certainly satisfied and have even come up with a new mantra to shout from the rooftop: Sang's is great, but it could use a little sprucing up!