Décor dripping with dragons, eye-popping red/green/gold-leafed pagodas, Chinese coolie peasants pulling rickshaws -- even the name itself does not exactly scream "21st-century cuisine!" or even whisper the suggestion to savvy diners that authenticity might be on the menu at 67-year-old Fu Manchu, Miami Beach's oldest Chinese restaurant.
One expects not haute cuisine but high camp, exactly like that found in the laughably colonialist Dr. Fu Manchu pulp novels written from 1913 to 1959 by Englishman Sax Rohmer (actually Arthur Sarsfield Ward -- and with terms like "yellow peril" peppered heavily through his pages, it's easy to see why a pseudonym was a good idea).
One expects, from a place founded when the evil "insidious doctor" (whose faux-autographed photo hangs in the entryway) was an American pop-culture icon, the sort of equally evil faux-Chinese food popular in that era -- main ingredients of MSG, soy-free caramel "soy sauce," and a ton of cornstarch.
325 71st St, Miami Beach
305-866-4303. Open daily, noon to 10:30 p.m.
One expects, in short, what my grandmother from Queens used to call "an egg foo yung joint."
But what you see isn't always what you get, especially since 1971 when two families of immigrants from China, via Cuba, bought this joint. On Fu Manchu's lunch combination platters, for instance, you can get non-Chinese chow mein, the gluey American invention with dried processed noodles to sprinkle on top instead of a base of authentic fresh chau mien (fried noodles). But astonishingly, there's also rib tips with pepper and onions in black bean sauce. These tips are not the most meat-free inch or so of Chinese-type spareribs one would expect from the name. No, it's the dish genuine Chinese eateries call "beef flank" stew, or even "fatty beef" because they are indeed fatty, but as the doctor would surely agree with glee, worth every last insidious cholesterol point.
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Listed under Authentic House Specialties is lobster with ginger and scallion. According to master Chinese chef Eileen Lin-Fei Lo, there isn't a restaurant in Guangdong province that doesn't feature shellfish in this simple but scrumptious sauce, and though Fu Manchu's has more cornstarch than the typical delicate Cantonese sauce, the intense ginger/rice wine/soy spicing is fabulous. The lobster itself, shell-on pieces of what appeared to be a whole if small specimen, was sweet, moist, and fresh-tasting.
I'd recommend paying the extra two bucks for this preparation instead of $12.95 for the live Maine lobster special; when I tried the latter American-style steamed dish, the lobster was fine but the "melted butter" was not (meaning not real fine, and possibly not real butter).
Chef's Special almond duck doesn't claim to be authentic -- and it isn't; many American Chinese eateries term the dish "Mandarin" but that's merely a made-up style meant to suggest a connection with Chinese royalty. Nor was the dish of deep-fried crisp-battered duck sprinkled with pulverized almonds at all subtle. But its good greasiness was satisfying and its sauce soothing, though fairly flavorless.
Oh, one message for my aforementioned grandmother -- who's dead, but maybe still somewhere enjoying some nice Chinese take-out: Fu Manchu's egg foo yung is also good, full of big roast pork pieces. Maybe the omelet isn't as soggy as you were used to, since the sauce (the same bland stuff as the duck's) comes separately on take-outs, even if it's only a $3.95 lunch combo platter; nonetheless it's really tasty. I doubt that delivery is available to your current zip code. But hell (oops! or wherever), it'd be worth a try.