The bad news in the Grove is that B.C. Chong moved to Miami Beach earlier this year. The good news is that Susie Cheng's, the restaurant's successor on Commodore Plaza, continues B.C. Chong's tradition of serving outstanding Chinese cuisine.
Little has been altered in the small, friendly room on one of Coconut Grove's more restaurant-dense streets. You can still watch the chefs -- many of whom will look familiar to aficionados of the previous tenant -- through a glass window at the back of the room as they wok diligently in a spotless kitchen. The dining room is still pastel pretty, but the dramatic Kuna Indian molas have been replaced by more ethnically compatible black-lacquer panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl. And the welfare of the guests is still of paramount importance -- just as Paula Chong stopped at each table at B.C. Chong and checked on diners, Susie Cheng was most solicitous the night my dining companion and I visited. Even the idiosyncratic music remains unchanged, with the same oldies piped into the dining area. Where else but America do people tap their chopsticks to "Strawberry Fields Forever?"
Mandarin, Peking, Szechuan, and Hunan cuisines are all represented on Susie Cheng's seven-page menu, and of the nearly 70 different entrees offered, seafood and fish dishes are the hallmarks. However there is no lack of beef, chicken, duck, pork, rice-and-noodle dishes, casseroles, tofu-and-vegetable dishes, or even meals for dieters. Hot, spicy items are marked with a red chili, and everything is described and numbered, which must be a relief to the waiters since some of the names are quite involved or don't translate well -- "curry-flavor vermicelli noodles Singapore style," "blow that conch," "flowerish chicken."
While Susie Cheng's is no fast-food restaurant where diners order one item from each column, the proprietors do not overlook leaner wallets. Bean fried rice and roast-pork fried rice cost $6.95; several tofu dishes and rice-and-noodle dishes with beef, pork, chicken, or seafood cost only a dollar more; and many entrees are priced at $8.95. Moreover, on some of the high-price chicken and duck dishes, half-birds are available for
slightly more than half-price; and half-portions of some Chinese delicacies, such as the $38 shark's fins with crab meat, can also be ordered.
The wine list, which is nearly as long as the menu, offers 32 bottles priced between $15 and $52, but we instead chose the Chinese beer Tsingtao to accompany our meal, which began with soup for both of us. From the eight choices, my companion tried chicken-and-corn chowder, a thick, rich combination of fresh, subtly sweet corn and many slivers of tender chicken breast. He abhors canned creamed corn and said this soup bore no relation to a Del Monte version. The Chinese do not add starch for thickening as American canners are wont to do, and this chowder had the flavor of pure, unadulterated corn -- a taste simple yet sensational.
My traditional hot-and-sour soup was as complex as my companion's selection was basic. The bowl boasted straw mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bean curd that closely resembled (in both texture and taste) julienned pork, egg drop, and scallions floating atop the steaming brew. An aroma and taste of dry sherry pervaded the chicken broth, and jolts of white-wine vinegar, white pepper, soy, and sesame oil added more flavor. Like a kid who grabs the prize in the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, I was delighted to find even a bit of dill pickle in the bottom of my bowl. This hot-and-sour had both the qualities it is named for, and in exquisite balance. Like my companion's soup, mine was offered in two sizes, which cost $3.95 and $6.95.
An entree called nutty pork tickled my companion's fancy, and the $8.95 dish lived up to its billing. A plateful of lean pork cubes with a sheer coating of ginger sauce was liberally speckled with rich, sweet cashews. The combination was sensational, with tiny, fresh spring peas, carrot slivers, and diced celery adding color and pizzazz. I ordered steamed garlic shrimp from the list of specials, and despite its heftier price tag (ten dollars heftier than the pork, in fact), we were torn as to whose meal tasted best. Ten huge butterflied shrimp touched with garlicky sesame oil rested on the platter. Rather than saturating the shrimp, the scent of the oil merely infused the seafood through some sort of culinary osmosis. We could smell garlic even before the plate was put on the table, yet the taste was delicate and in no way overpowered the flavor of the shrimp. Fresh cilantro did double duty, adding a little bite to the dish and serving as a garnish.
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Both dishes were served family style, along with bowls of plain, sticky rice, by a young waitress who was, at first, almost too attentive, pacing back and forth near the table, anxiously waiting to take our order. But as more customers came in and she had more to do, she put her pent-up energies to work handling everyone's needs with ease.
Predictably Susie Cheng's does not cater to the sweet-tooth crowd. Only one dessert was available the evening we were there, a custardlike confection made with water chestnuts. We passed on that in favor of more Tsingtao.
While many Groveites may mourn the departure of B.C. Chong, one visit to its worthy successor will provide ample cause for celebration.
3176 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 567-0088. Hours: Lunch Monday -- Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 5:00 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to midnight.