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Mei Secret Garden

[whitespace] Chef Hoonkong Chau
George Sakkestad

Plate Techtonics: Chef Hoonkong Chau holds up an offering of mussels with black beans and ginger, one of many delectable seafood dishes available at Mei Garden.

One of the first dining places tourists see as they roll into town is really a local treasure

By Christina Waters

WHEN I EXPLAINED to my companion Keith as we entered the large Mei Garden restaurant last week for lunch that we would need to order more food than we could eat, he just grinned. Keith loves Asian food, and the thought of leftover stir-fry for lunch had him combing the menu with relish. He also grinned at the huge aquarium by the front door, in which very lively lobsters frolic in anticipation of their $13.95 stir- frying.

I've watched this particular space sprout American '50s food, Mexican restaurants and a few other culinary nationalities over the years. Stretched along Ocean Avenue practically to the corner of Soquel, it's so big that many locals expect it to be a tourist pit-stop. Ahh, but the neighboring employees of the even more enormous county building give thanks for Mei Garden on a daily basis. One look at the specials menu told us why.

Eggplant was available freshly stir-fried with black bean sauce. Asparagus, booming this time of year, awaited our choice of tofu, pork, chicken or prawns before joining a garlic sauce. Most things on the lunch menu hovered between $5 and $7, and were enough to share with a friend. Fine, we agreed, ordering the asparagus tofu special ($5.95), the fish filet in black bean sauce ($7.75) from the regular lunch menu, an order of dumplings in hot sauce ($4.25) as an appetizer, and a dinner order of salt-and-chile pepper prawns in shell ($8.95). Rice, packed into a red enamel box, and some very competent hot and sour soup showed up along with our orders.

Spicy food goes best with very cold beer as far as I'm concerned, so I poured my Tsing Tao ($2.50) over ice and wiped my brow in response to the gratifyingly spicy (yes, that is why they call it "hot") hot and sour soup.

"It's excellently average," Keith pronounced. I thought it was a little better than that, admiring its gelatinous broth, long strands of egg, lotus root and tofu, as well as chewy shreds of black mushroom. Nice and spicy, filled with both white and red pepper, it did the trick and opened our taste buds full throttle.

The dumplings impressed us both. At least a dozen soft wontons arrived filled with a chicken, ginger and scallion mix, and dusted with handfuls of chopped garlic and red peppers. All of this was bathed in a red oil sauce, heightened by a hint of star anise and vinegar. It was a dish for which we'd both come back-- in a minute. In fact, Keith liked it so much he ladled up every remaining trace of the brothy sauce.

Our entrees hit the table steaming and obviously very fresh from the stove. Huge platters filled to the edges bore very pretty creations. Small wedges of lightly battered, stir-fried fish--rock cod, perhaps-- were mounded with salty fermented black beans, fresh zucchini, onions and mushrooms. The dish was flavor intensive with every bite. The handsome prawn dish lacked a moistening sauce but was abundant with prawns-- the salt cooking gives them an appealing firmness-- and coarsely chopped jalapeños, which were treated as a vegetable. Raw onions completed this dish. I ate the prawns and just gazed at the other ingredients, which I do not process well in their raw state.

The asparagus dish was pretty much a diorama of springtime-- expertly wok'd to just the al dente point. Within this emerald landscape, I located a few rotund wedges of tofu and fresh crimini mushrooms, all glistening in an inoffensive, rather uninteresting tomato-garlic sauce. If I'd taken this dish home, I would have doctored it up with some chile oil and a huge dose of rice vinegar. Still, it was flavorful and uncomplicated, and the crunchy asparagus was terrific. It was a lot of food and a lot of flavor for not a lot of money.

Mei Garden
Address: 533 Ocean St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 458-1687
Hours: Daily 11am-10pm (till 11pm Fri.-Sat.)
Chef: Hoonkong Chau
Entrees: $5.95-$13.95
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Cozily cavernous traditional interior festooned with lanterns and filled with huge, hemispherical booths
Service: ** 1/2 They know what you want, even if you don't-- and your order is brought promptly.
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Custom-cooked, stir-fried, ultra-fresh Chinese-American specialties are done nicely.
Overall: For a huge establishment, Mei Garden does a fine job finessing Szechuan and Cantonese classics at great prices.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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