We Sing for Wah Shing

It's all Mandarin to me and you, which means the royal treatment
Steve Satterwhite

It was not for food that I first, about a year ago, went to Wah Shing Chinese restaurant. It was for karaoke, which had suddenly become hugely hip among my younger friends. I'd never done this singing-to-vocally-zapped-recordings thang myself, maybe because I spent a young adulthood playing in actual live touring bands. Ones that stayed in seedy hotel rooms located upstairs from said karaoke venues: Japanese restaurants that late at night transformed into joints where staid Japanese businessmen transformed, after a few Buds, into Elvis imitators -- very loud ones.

So a Chinese restaurant that featured karaoke, as Wah Shing's newspaper ads touted, seemed a better bet for my first Elvis imitation. I showed up at about 9:00 p.m. one Saturday with the words to "Jailhouse Rock" inked on my forearm.

Well, there was no karaoke despite the ads. I was disappointed. However, I was also hungry, so I grabbed a menu and started reading. And in less time than it takes to fast-forward to another cut I was thinking, "Hey, what's so interesting about karaoke? I've got a live band. On the other hand, Chinese beef burritos and Lobster in Original Recipe of China -- now that's interesting."

Wah Shing still didn't have karaoke on my last visit. "Everyone too tired from cooking," one employee explained. But Taiwan-born May Sung's five-year-old eatery still does have many dishes one won't find at the average Miami Chinese joint. This cuisine is, Sung says, Mandarin. Which is, according to Chinese food authority Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, a misnomer since there is no such school; unlike Szechuan or Cantonese cuisine, Mandarin doesn't refer to a region but suggests aristocratic cooking such as might have been presented at court (especially during the grand Ming and Ching dynasties), featuring dishes that look as though great effort has been expended in both their cooking and presentation. If the term "Mandarin" has been largely associated with Beijing and northern China, it is not, therefore, because it favors grain-based (rather than rice-based) foods, preserved vegetables, and other authentic northern specialties, but for the suggestive fairy-tale reason that Beijing/Peking was the ancient capital of the imperial court.

Wah Shing's dishes actually come from all over China's map, with a not inconsiderable dose of homegrown Miami creativity thrown in, as is demonstrated by dishes like beef burritos -- fiery chili-spiked beef shreds rolled in Chinese pancakes instead of tortillas.

But much of Wah Shing's presentation certainly is royal. While it's nothing special, for instance, that Peking duck comes in two courses (duck skin in pancakes followed by duck meat stir-fried with veggies), almost all Chinese restaurants demonstrate pancake techniques and then leave diners to sloppily roll their own. Wah Shing presents the first course as lovely little pancake cones prestuffed with delectably crisp skin, hoisin-based sauce, scallions, and lettuce. The latter is unfortunate -- more scallions, or some cucumber strips or Chinese parsley, would provide crunch with more character -- but the packets were otherwise terrifically tasty as well as cute. The second course, with lots of crisp vegetables and savory sauce accompanying the duck meat, was also good, and plentiful; together the two courses served six.

Among appetizers, rainbow pancakes were a standout, the same Peking crêpes rolled around tender shredded pork, wood-ear mushrooms, carrots, bean sprouts, rice noodles, cilantro, and a Thai-like peanut sauce. With a smear of the Peking duck's hoisin sauce, the rolls were even better; I highly recommend asking for a side. (Wah Shing makes a point of accommodating preferences, for spiciness, salt, fat, and so on, and this dish, among others, can be made vegetarian.)

Crispy rich rolls certainly were rich, due to a thickly battered exterior that quite overwhelmed the delicate bean curd skin wrapper the menu had described. Twice the amount of bean curd wrapped around the good mixed vegetable filling (peas, carrots, water chestnuts, baby corn, and several types of mushroom) would improve the dish -- or, better yet, a much thinner batter. The same deep-fried coating was, however, entirely appropriate on an entrée of lemon chicken, whose tangy citrus sauce cut the batter's grease beautifully.

Regular egg rolls (oddly not mentioned on the menu, which instead highlights banana spring rolls) were better than average, unimpressive in diameter but packed with peppery pork and just enough crisp vegetables, not the usual celery-heavy affairs.

All three soups I tried were unthickened by starch, making them Atkins dieter dreams -- though frankly I'd have preferred the hot and sour soup with its traditional thicker body, as well as its traditional exotic ingredients (dried and fresh bean curd, mustard pickle, cloud ears) rather than plebian cabbage, carrots, and button mushrooms. But the option to sub shrimp for the usual pork was a nice touch, and the soup had a great vinegar/hot pepper bite. The broths for both other soups, supreme won ton and Tian-Jin beef, were extremely bland -- not a disaster in the former delicate soup, but a big disappointment in the latter (as was the presence of plain cabbage rather than the promised pickled vegetable), though considerable cilantro livened up the flavor.

The entrée Exotic Lady proved to be a generous heap of small but perfectly cooked tender shrimp flavored with XO sauce, a popular paste -- probably invented about twenty years ago in Hong Kong's upscale eateries -- made from dried scallops, dried shrimp, Smithfield-like Chinese ham, garlic, and hot chilies. It sounds like it would taste both salty and fishy, but is rather complex, with an indescribable Eastern-spice aroma. However, the unadorned spiced shrimp got boring; the dish would have benefited from some contrast ingredient, like a bed of garlic/ginger-spiced sautéed greens.

Black bean prawns, on the other hand, came with tons of vegetables -- too many, and too mildly sauced for those in my party accustomed to the usual shellfish preparation of a few bell peppers in salty concentrated black bean paste. But as someone who favors Chinese stir-fries with a relatively high vegetable-to-meat ratio and with some subtlety, I found Wah Shing's dish of large shrimp with lots of fresh onions, snow peas, and just a touch of black beans to be, as described on the Chinglish menu, "an excellence."

It was not as excellent, though, as Lobster in Original Recipe of China, a sizzling casserole touted as an original creation of a Ching dynasty emperor. In reality what made the dish so good -- well worth a stiff $22-per-pound "market" price -- wasn't its aristocratic family tree but its bracing hot and sour sauce and, mainly, its naturally sweet pieces of perfectly cooked, tender, fresh lobster. Because Sung won't use frozen lobster, in fact, she advises diners craving one of Wah Shing's four lobster dishes (the light but rich ginger and scallion lobster is even better than the emperor's favorite) to call ahead earlier in the day to ensure a fresh, live critter will be waiting.Those who follow the holiday tradition of taking exhausted family chefs out for Chinese on Christmas Eve couldn't ask for a more royal reward.

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