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Photograph by George Sakkestad

By Land or By Sea: Executive chef Tony Su can prepare a mean crab dish, just one of the marine delights at ABC, a Chinese restaurant equipped with massive live-food aquariums.

Letter Perfect

ABC offers delicious lessons in authentic Hong Kong-style cuisine

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WE STOOD OUTSIDE staring at the suckling pigs and ducks--all glazed and golden--hanging in the window of the ABC. I'd heard good things about this place from a Chinese-American friend who slipped me the restaurant's business card sometime in September. When recently we stepped through the doors into the bright, busy dining hall, my pal's words, "very good, very authentic," echoed in my ears, and I had to smile. The ABC is better than good; it's extraordinarily good, rivaling the Hong Kong Flower Lounge (in Millbrae), heretofore my favorite Chinese restaurant.

One step inside and we were swept up in the festive, banquet-style activity. The place was packed to the proverbial gills and the drone of a thousand conversations sent vibrations that reached our toes. To our right behind windows were more golden ducks and suckling pigs--squabs as well. Only now we could see the chefs cleaving them into geometric pieces, then constructing platters for high visual appeal. Further in were the fish tanks, percolating with bubbles and filled with every imaginable water dweller, including gigantic lobsters, prawns and sea bass. Even frog is present here (in many permutations), and jellyfish too.

All around us, the patrons that evening were having a blast. Large round tables equipped with Lazy Susans spun like roulette wheels delivering sundry delights to the fingertips of eager guests. There was no letup to this gastronomic indulgence; platters of lobsters, fish and ducks just kept pouring from the kitchen in what seemed like cartoon succession. We were in awe.

Although the name ABC may evoke images of primary education, believe me, there's nothing small-time about this true Hong Kong-style restaurant--it upholds all the traditions and standards one comes to expect from an establishment of this nature. Nothing was spared when creating this institution (which has another site in Foster City). Once my guests and I acclimated ourselves to the riot of sights and sounds, we focused on a decor that was uncluttered yet elegant, with interesting deco lines and neutral colors (vivid pink napkins were the welcome exception). Because of the spacious layout, we never felt crowded even though the place was jammed.

When done right, Chinese food is perhaps the world's greatest cuisine. Of course, this ancient culture has had much time to perfect the art of cooking; their greatest chefs approach heat physics with exacting method and philosophical devotion. I love this food, so when I see a menu as extensive as the one at ABC, I want to have it all in one gluttonous seating.

We launched our banquet with the barbecue combo platter ($15), which brought together three delicious meats: duck, suckling pig and chicken, all roasted to perfection with rich flavors prompted by subtle seasonings. The crispy-skinned duck was especially tasty, its natural richness coaxed along by a whisper of five-spice.

At almost the same moment that our barbecue hit the table, out came a plate of Chinese broccoli ($8) still steaming from the wok and lightly mantled with oyster sauce. A second appetizer, and our only concession to the deep fry, was the shrimp balls ($7); they were made of ground prawns and deep fried to a crunchy exterior that was surprisingly not greasy.

From here, we submerged into the waters, feasting on an array of fresh fish and shellfish. We had steamed live prawns in a garlic sauce ($22 a pound), very brothlike in consistency, and full of fresh garlic, cilantro and natural juices. These shrimp were so good that we sucked the heads for the wonderful juices and consumed nearly all the delicate shells. If you don't mind getting a little messy and using your fingers, the fresh whole crab with scallion and ginger ($20) proved another culinary marvel. Again, the sauce was brothlike, not forced into consistency by adjuncts and thickeners. The scallion and ginger were generously applied, each providing flavor and color.

Our last was also delicious, but as both my guests commented, most people are not used to fresh catfish ($9 a pound) prepared in such a natural fashion--rather, Americans often have it deep-fried and served with hushpuppies. In this setting, our whole fish was bathed in pungent liquid with a base of black bean sauce.

We returned to the land when we sampled the Mandarin spareribs ($8), cooked crispy with a sweet sauce that married well with the richness of the pork.

Our closer consisted of complimentary bowls of sweet red-bean porridge, a traditional dessert, with lotus seeds. Its subtle sweet flavor and warm souplike consistency aided in digestion and cleansed the palate.

At first I thought the servers didn't have a clue as to what they were doing. While it is true that they seemed incapable of making a martini, I came to understand that, in this case, an impression based on cocktail service was irrelevant. For the most part this crew patrols the tables like a squad of shore police. Service here is generally a tag-team effort--you may begin with one server and have three or four by the time it's all over. I was most impressed by one of the busboys who cleaved up a whole duck tableside and served it Peking-style to the waiting banqueteers.

Anyone who likes Chinese food will be rewarded by a feast at the ABC. Prices may seem a little elevated, but what you get is worth the expense. Sometimes we have to spend the dough for the better things in life. What's money for, anyway?

Address: 768 Barber Lane, Unit 206, Milpitas
Phone: 408.435.8888
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-2:30pm and Sat.-Sun 10am-2:45pm; dinner daily 5-9:30pm (Sat.-Sun. until 9:45pm)
Cuisine: Elegant Chinese
Prices: $7-$22

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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