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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Oh My: The tender gan pung chicken at O'Mei is chock-full of chiles.

O'Mei in the New Year

One of Santa Cruz's favorite Chinese restaurants continues to refresh its saucy culinary attitude.

By Christina Waters

Through décor changes, menu changes and staff changes, I've almost always been happy with meals at this local landmark. Last week longtime O'Mei veterans joined me for our first dinner of the new year.

A new arrangement of cafe tables in the front bar area signaled an ambience makeover. And when we took our favorite table in the back of the second dining room, we noticed even more fresh touches. O'Mei was one of the very first restaurants to showcase our top local wineries, and it continues to expand its by-the-glass offerings. That was just fine with Richard, Serena and me as we placed our wine orders as the tray of "small plates" arrived. The presentation of little appetizers makes such welcoming sense in a menu that lacks Western pre-dinner munchies like bread or chips. From the colorful choices we grabbed the sesame seed cashews (Richard is hopelessly devoted to the hot, sweet and sticky side of the palate), the vinegary marinated eggplant (one of my favorites) and the green beans with fermented wheat strands for Serena. Each $3 offering allows plenty of zippy flavors to share, and while the eggplant dish seemed disappointingly lacking in closure (not silky soft enough, lacking full flavor development), the green bean creation more than made up for it.

Our three wines by the glass worked well with the entire meal. A Bargetto Pinot Grigio ($6) offered light, citrusy tones--perfect to cut through Richard's order of his gotta-have-it gan pung chicken ($12.95). I was happy to see Vine Hill/Gatos Locos Pinot Noir on the menu, but when told that in its place that evening was a Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2006 ($7), I went with the flow. It was a fine choice, a bit lighter than I like my pinots, but spot-on with my entree. The velvety 2003 Storrs San Ysidro Merlot ($8) was a knockout, complex enough to make me reconsider all of my chuckling asides about merlot being a "trainer wine." The merlot made a believable match for Serena's vibrant sha cha shrimp, at $14.95 the priciest of our entrees. We added three orders of Jasmin rice ($3 each) and started in on an appetizer of red oil dumplings (six for $7.95).

(A word here about O'Mei's 10 percent service charge: it goes directly to the people who cook the food. I say we ought to stop complaining. It works in Europe; it can work here.)

As many times as I've eaten--or, rather, inhaled--O'Mei's luscious and intricate creation of pork-stuffed dumplings, sparkling in a red chile oil sauce perfumed by Szechuan peppercorns, I still can't get over just how incredibly satisfying it is. Even Richard stopped talking and just savored each bite. This year's style seems to be free-form, rather than the uniformly shaped dumplings of season's past. If anything, the current configuration of the red oil miracles provides an artisanal authenticity that coincides with the earthy flavors. I can't say enough about this appetizer, but I'll move on.

The gan pung chicken blew me away. Glistening with that irresistible sticky sweet/spicy coating, each crunchy piece of chicken was tender inside and brilliant with flavor. The attractive platter offered a very generous helping of the chicken, punctuated by slices of water chestnut and that mysteriously textured black wood-ear mushroom. Fat red chile peppers flecked the tart creation, but while we enjoyed their heat, we avoided actually biting into these incendiary little darlings. The shrimp dish, laced with garlic, shallots and thin green beans, was wonderful. And my entree, a custom order the kitchen happily accommodated, was a variation on the chicken and broccoli in black bean sauce with slices of buttery, tender pork instead of chicken. The broccoli was crunchy perfect, and the pork, while not sliced into thin strands as I'd expected, was delicious.

Yes, we were stuffed by the end of this fine dinner and failed to save even a tiny bit of room for one of the half-dozen specialty ice creams we were offered by our servers. Remember, as Scarlett O'Hara said, tomorrow is another day.

O'Mei Restaurant

Address: 2316 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.425.8458

Hours: Tues-Sun 5-9:30pm

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