Bummed out that our 2009 "Best of" pick for Chinese may also come with a nose bleed? Or that Hakkasan, Lee's review this week, may be best reserved for a special occasion? Here's a wise pick for those further south that won't burn a hole in your wallet and proves one should never underestimate the little guy. It's Confucio Express Chinese Gourmet Cuisine, and don't let the "to go" concept fool you. For all intents and purposes, this takeout/delivery counter with a few tables on a deck overlooking a Farm Stores is a bonafide Chinese restaurant, just without the China tableware.
A standout is the Confucio "salt and pepper"-style preparation featuring jalapeño, carrot and shallot. Also available with fish, I sampled the shrimp, which were perfectly cooked and very fresh, bouncing back to the bite and with a crispy, caramelized coating so light, you'll question if there's a batter involved or not. About a dozen of the well-seasoned crustaceans sit on a pillow of shredded iceberg lettuce, offering a cooling contrast to the medium level heat of the familiar green chilies. It's the balance of Ying and Yang encapsulated and holds up surprisingly well in transit. For $14, the dish, like most at Confucio, is amply-portioned.
The vegetable lettuce wrap ($8) is great way to start things off and easily serves two. Delicate iceberg lettuce cups wait patiently on the side for you to pile on a Hoisin-sauteed mixture of chopped straw mushrooms, Shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, snow peas, carrots and celery. Or try the dumplings (6 for $6,) which I tried pan-fried and are more akin to what we know as "pot stickers," than some of the thick-skinned pan fried dumplings of most American Chinese restaurants.
If you're looking for even more value, try one if Confucio's 22 specials available for both lunch (11:00 a.m. - 4 p.m.; $8.95) or dinner (4 p.m. - close; $11.95) that come with oriental fried rice and an egg roll. The vegetable selection is limited, but offers a classic and equally as tasty garlic eggplant for $12.50. Rods of the slim, purple Chinese variety get several good turns in the wok with ginger, garlic, soy, rice wine vinegar and some other goodies until the cooking liquid is reduced and the vegetable is soft. The dish is finished with scallions and served with white rice on the side to soak up every bit of the sweet and savory sauce.
Owner Jose Choi is of Chinese decent, born in Colombia where his family runs a popular Chinese restaurant. He came to the U.S. eight years ago and has been running its sister sit-down restaurant called Jardines de Confucio (10658 N.W. 7th Ave) for about two years now. But the Express concept is all his -- well, his and that of a few friends.
"A couple of us partnered up on the concept," Choi explained, who opened up seven months ago and is already exploring franchising with three to four interested parties. "We do about 40 percent delivery, 60 percent takeout. The majority of my customers works in Brickell and stops by to pick up dinner on the way home. The success is mainly because the taste is not the same as your regular Chinese food. We have more flavor, and everything is fresh."
And cooked to order by four Chinese chefs who speak a little Spanish and command the woks in this remarkably little kitchen -- although it's probably
half the size of the restaurant and the largest in proportion to the front of the house, than any I've been in.
You won't find the iconic Chinese takeout cartons here; it was an intentional choice by Choi to use upscale plastic containers for dishes and Styrofoam for rice to "make it more presentable." It's probably the only thing I miss, but it's in-keeping with what you'd expect from a more upscale establishment and the "gourmet" in its name.
"I live in Brickell, a few blocks away," said Ximena Dominguez a regular who was picking up an order on my first visit. "They're a staple. I love the chicken Szechuan and the beef with broccoli."
1810 SW Third Ave. (Coral Way)
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