Chau Down

Even in Miami, restaurants don't come much funkier than Kon Chau. Looking very back-lot Warner Brothers, a big, square room covered in well-trodden red industrial carpeting is flanked by vinyl banquettes of the same vintage as the seats in a 1955 Chevy - right down to the stuffing poking out of the rips. Formica tables and chairs fill the center of the room, and day-glo orange vinyl screens draw the eye like a bad accident. Hovering overhead are dozens of intricate light fixtures, the kind that, for some inscrutable reason, usually have tassels hanging from them.

Any temptation to don one's sunglasses, however, passes quickly. The food and the service more than compensate for the restaurant's lack of design savvy. Kon Chau is not for those wishing to wallow in ambiance - visit this place for the pure joy of indulging, Chinese-style.

A full-time dim sum parlor, the restaurant offers a second, more conventional menu featuring sweet-and-sours; chow meins; chop sueys; mushus; sizzling platters; stir-fries; duck dishes; Szechuan specialties; a smattering of curries and vegetarian preparations - plus the requisite choose-one-from-Group-A-and-one-from-Group-B "family dinners," which include egg rolls, spareribs, pork fried rice, and a choice of egg drop or wonton soup. The restaurant serves from both menus all day long, every day, seven days a week.

Even though my dining companion lived in San Francisco for years and waxes on ad nauseum about that city's Chinatown, he is hooked on Kon Chau, particularly the dim sum. On various trips to the restaurant, he has sampled about a dozen of the 60-plus offerings, and is anxious to eat his way through the entire list. He's especially wild about the puffy steamed Chinese sausage buns, while I prefer to pop shrimp dumplings like M&Ms. The tidbits are not served via a tea cart, as in many dim sum parlors, but are delivered individually to the table in a small tin steamer as they are prepared. The end result is the same: delicious.

As for the customary fare, there's a variety of soups, such as wonton, egg drop, chicken noodle, and chicken rice, pork or chicken yatka mein, and mixed Chinese vegetable. On our last visit, I tried the "special" wonton soup ($4.50). Served in a tureen, the clear broth buoyed plenty of huge wontons chock-full of shrimp, pork, and chicken, and hefty pieces of bok choy. The warm elixir could easily serve as a light dinner for two, but the prospect of other preparations as pleasing to the palate as this one kept us plodding forward.

Skipping the menu's hot-and-spicy selections and family dinners, I lingered over the house specialties. Chicken, duck, pork, beef, and seafood creations in this section range in price from $6.95 for chicken sauteed with Chinese vegetables and straw mushrooms to $14.75 for the "seafood triple crown," a melange of shrimp, scallops, three kinds of mushrooms, green onions, and snow peas in a light sauce. I opted for a mid-range item called "Three Delights" ($8.50).

The simple printed description of "shrimp, roast pork, and chicken sauteed with Chinese vegetables" belied the elaborate entree that I was actually served. A number of the large crustaceans, along with a hearty helping of chicken and pork strips, were bathed in a sherry-spiked sauce containing sweet carrots, straw mushrooms, crunchy water chestnuts, bright green broccoli, and crisp Chinese celery - accompanied by a serving of sticky rice. Each ingredient was perfectly cooked, as if separately and for the exact period of time necessary to achieve the proper texture.

Desserts on the standard menu at Kon Chau are just that - standard: ice cream, almond cookies, extra fortune cookies - so it's wise to glance at the dim sum sheet and pick an authentic Chinese treat, such as water chestnut pudding, coconut custard, egg custard tart, or red bean frost.

We're planning to get a group together for the $58.50 eleven-course family dinner. That way, if our economy really isn't pulling out of the doldrums, each of the guests will be out less than ten bucks for a true Chinese feast. As the Chinese say, ho ho sik - eat well. But don't forget to take along a few bills. A sign at Kon Chau reads: pay cash, no credit cards accepted. Maybe the economic turnaround is further away than we think.

8376 Bird Rd, 553-7799; Open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.


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