Asian restaurants offer some of the most reliably good food and best bargains in the city -- a blessing certainly, although it can make choosing only two for a bargain column difficult. But even among so many fine options, the following are standouts.
Summer Palace is one of the brightest of the Pembina area stars -- an airy and relatively tranquil bi-level space, with prices that range from $8.95 to $14.95. What's more, the addition to the standard menu of dishes that once were listed on a separate Chinese menu has made it easier to get at some of the really interesting stuff. Much of it turns up even on the take-out menu, but the in-house menu's treasure trove of authentic North Chinese, Cantonese and Taiwanese specialties can turn ordering into agony.
Like, for instance, which chicken to choose. We passed on Salt Baked Chicken and Crispy Chicken (reluctantly, since both were excellent on past visits) in favour of the rarer Three Cup Chicken -- succulent little chunks on the bone, braised in the three basic ingredients of rice wine, soy sauce and oil, which fuse into a luscious and predominantly winey sauce. Deciding on a lamb dish was equally daunting. Pan-fried with leeks and cilantro? Grilled with onions on a hot plate? We finally settled on the dry-cooked, tender little squiggles that were heady with cumin.
A savoury brown sauce coated ribbons of beef tenderloin stir-fried with green beans and a mixture of mushrooms -- among them pale, meaty slices that, I'm reasonably certain, were oyster mushrooms. Pork belly was another triumph -- sliced thin, coated in a salty-sweet paste of preserved tofu and deep-fried, it becomes crisp, chewy and utterly addictive. And although it is equal parts fat and pork, miraculously, not fatty-tasting.
Typhoon Shelter Shrimp come complete with heads and shells in a blazing glaze of chili oil -- not for the finicky, perhaps, or tender palates, but they are big, flavourful and fabulous. For a milder and garlicky (no, not an oxymoron) dish, try the shrimp paired with slices of calamari, brightened by dark green spears of gai lan.
Only one of the sampled dishes didn't make the grade -- tiny fresh clams Taiwanese style, in an unpleasant pale, gluey sauce, all the more disappointing since they had been so good in the past. Sadly, the onion pancakes, although listed, often turn up unavailable. Apparently it takes pre-ordering to get them, which is probably a good idea since there's not so much as a dumpling among the few starters -- just mundane egg or spring rolls, barbecued pork and fried wontons.
Staff is friendly and endlessly patient about explaining the dishes. It's hard to spot in its strip-mall location -- look for the big Value Village sign. Delivery within five kilometres. Licensed. Wheelchair access.
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Even in a city with so many good Vietnamese restaurants, the food at Com Tam Thuan Kieu still shines, with fresh, clean flavours, attractive presentations and a top price of $9.50. Many of the dishes are Chinese, and they weren't bad on past visits, but not on a par with the Vietnamese dishes, on which I concentrated this time.
It would be easy to compose a meal of appetizers alone. The fresh salad rolls are the biggest I can remember, plump with shrimp and pork that are visible through the translucent wrapping. Coleslaw may sound ordinary but isn't, with a subtly sweet dressing sparked by lime juice and fish sauce, fleshed out with slices of freshly cooked chicken (or beef or shrimp, if you wish) and strewn with cilantro and chopped peanuts
You can't go wrong with any of the almost caramelized charbroiled meats -- thinly sliced beef, chicken, pork, or (possibly best of all) pork balls. The colourful platters come piled high with bean sprouts, marinated carrot shreds, slices of cucumber, rice vermicelli and big sprigs of mint, to be wrapped in rice-paper crepes and lettuce leaves, and dipped into a particularly fine, non-cloying peanut sauce.
The soups really are meals. There are at least 30 variations of noodle soups, among them the best-known, beef-based phos, but there are two others that I can never resist. The Special Phnom Penh, for one, a rich pork stock, fragrant with fried garlic and packed with slices of pork, shrimp and translucent rice noodles, topped by (the icing on the cake), a thin crunchy crepe pierced by a single shrimp.
The other isn't a noodle soup, and is always listed separately among the entrees (No.166). "Sweet and Sour" isn't an adequate description for this light, lovely broth -- only slightly tangy-sweet with tamarind sauce, and teeming with chunks of pineapple and tomato, slices of celery and spongy-crisp taro stem, bean sprouts and big, fat shrimp, and plenty of them (chicken or mixed seafood are alternatives).
One of my favourites is listed simply and inadequately as fried chicken (No.139) -- no batter, no bread crumbs, just a thin, crackling crunch of skin and marvellously moist flesh. And if all you want is a $2.99 snack, try the steamed bun stuffed with ground pork, sausage and a wedge of hard-boiled egg.
The coral-coloured, U-shaped space is cosy and comfortable, and service is exceptionally attentive. Closed Tuesday. Licensed. Wheelchair access from parking lot in the rear.