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BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT Miami 2004 - Pao

The valets in front, not to mention the white-tented poolside dining cabanas out back, clearly convey the message that Pao is not the sort of Chinese joint where you run in for a couple of egg rolls on the way home from work. In fact, despite early publicity touting the cuisine as "vintage Chinese," there are no egg rolls on the menu, nor Chinese/American chow mein (or even Chinese chau mien). A fair number of the chef's creations are more classic Southeast Asian than classic Chinese. Prices are relatively high, too ($14 for mixed-ingredient fried rice, $19 for sweet and sour shrimp). It's designer Chinese fusion food. But it's very good food. Among the dishes worth every extra penny are spicy Chinese long bean (blessedly stringless beans seared with hot chilies, ginger, and garlic); salt-and-pepper shrimp authentically flash-fried with shells on and showered with irresistibly salty chili slivers; Manila clams subtly sauced with garlic and ginger; and hot-and-sour snapper, lightly battered fillets with a complex tangy sauce featuring citrus, tomato, and hot peppers.

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