For twenty years the Sun Inn has been operating in Edgewater, north of downtown. And for the eleven years I've lived in Miami, I've been wondering about it -- but only wondering. There was something scary about the place. Maybe it was the location on an evidently soon-to-be but definitely not-yet gentrified stretch of the Biscayne corridor. Driving past buildings where rents were lower than a Manhattan parking space, one couldn't help but think: How could a decent eatery stay in business?
Maybe it was the fact that the blood-red building's big picture windows were always totally covered to allow no ray of sunlight, much less any curious eyeballing, inside the Sun. What could be going on in there?
Or maybe it was the big sign that hung out front for years, advertising a $2.90 lunch special. How could a restaurant offer a full Chinese meal, at least one that an ex-New Yorker would want to eat, for that kind of price?
3045 Biscayne Blvd, Miami
305-576-1728 or 305-573 6811. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; lunch specials 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The cheapest lunch special has now gone up to $3.70, still about a buck lower than the bottom-end lunch at most Chinese joints. Is it an authentic Cantonese-style dim sum repast? Of course not. It's Chinese-American style egg foo yong. But the omelet was just as packed with sizable savory roast pork chunks, bean sprouts, and diced onions as that at the vaunted Yeung's across the Julia Tuttle Causeway. And the just-short-of bland gravy was thick and comforting, a Chinese-American version of Southern American biscuit gravy. Also more generously endowed with meat than most bargain Chinese lunches was the special's roast pork fried rice (the default side dish; chicken fried rice is also available on request).
No one would order sweet-and-sour pork expecting authentic Chinese cooking, so the virtually glow-in-the-dark red item that arrived was not a surprise. And though awkwardly large, the battered pork chunks were nicely fatty enough to avoid being dried out, as is often true with today's faddishly lean pig meat. What was disappointing was the lack of even the minimal real veggies one normally finds in Americanized sweet-and-sour dishes. In the sticky, dyed sauce was one lone chunk of green pepper, some pineapple, and lots of thick, zigzag cut bread-and-butter pickle slices. Extremely weird.
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Some of the Sun Inn's fifteen lunch specials, which range from $3.70 to $6.50, come with an egg roll ($1.40 à la carte) and some don't. The $5.25 pork did, as did several others in the same price range, and it was a good egg roll, if rather loosely stuffed. The skin was thin and crisp, and the filling (mostly vegetables) was well-spiced, with no nasty overcooked cabbage odor.
Vegetables seemed generally to be something the Sun Inn does well, as a take-out dinner confirmed. While the dining room proved to be perfectly pleasant (similar to a casual Southern barbecue spot in décor and ambiance), the fact is that most people want take-out from their neighborhood Chinese eatery -- a carton of moo shu pork to go with some time in front of the boob tube. But annoyingly, many places fail to take transport time into consideration, so veggies turn to mush after steaming in their containers. Sun Inn does spell its moo shu pork like mush ("mushu"), but the cabbage, scallions, and julienned bamboo shoots in the pork-and-egg mélange had been undercooked to arrive perfectly crunchy.
The same was true of the jade-green broccoli in orange beef. Equally pleasant a surprise, this item, marked as "spicy" on the menu, actually did have discernable kick. This balanced both the bitterness of the dish's candied orange peel and its sauce's honeyed sweetness, as chilies are supposed to do. (Note to fellow heat-seekers: For a change I didn't have to beg the kitchen to avoid toning down the heat for perceived American tastes. It came as threatened.)
Have you ever deep-fried your Thanksgiving turkey, Southern style? If so you know it adds surface crunch, not extra grease. Don't fear the song soo duck, except that, at $10.95, it's one of the menu's priciest items. One serious warning, however: This item is pure bird, period, so you'll need a separate order of vegetables. And regrettably the Sun Inn doesn't have anything like the garlic/ginger-flavored sautéed seasonal greens you'd find in China, or in any restaurant in New York's Chinatown -- or even in the Miami restaurants that aim for authenticity. Still it's a nice place to have in the neighborhood.