Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What? Decent Chinese food in Chinatown?

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I have a love-hate relationship with Pembina Highway. I hate the traffic. I hate the harrowing slow search for invisible addresses while the drivers behind me honk in impatience. And I hate driving home into the blinding sun in summer, and into the blinding headlights in winter. Nevertheless I often do drive on Pembina because these days that's where some of the best Chinese food in the city can be found. So the fact that good Chinese food can also be found at Foon Hai -- situated at the edge of our old Chinatown, a short drive from anywhere in the city, and clearly visible on its corner of William and Adelaide -- is a blessing.

It's a cosy little place, simple but not bare-bones, with wood-panelling halfway up the walls and some lovely Chinese silk embroideries adorning the upper half. The menu is one of those overwhelmingly lengthy ones (just try choosing from 190 items without dithering), but it lists no unfamiliar dishes or any ingredient that might even remotely be considered esoteric. The prices are standard Chinese restaurant bargains, with most ranging from $10 to $14, and much as I love the new and often mysterious dishes I've found on Pembina, I also love such durable and omnipresent standards as hot sour soup, mu shu crepes and crispy chicken.

The flavour of Foon Hai's hot-sour soup is as perfect a balance of chili and vinegar as I've found anywhere, so good I was sorry I hadn't ordered the larger size. The pan-fried potstickers I tried recently weren't up to those I've had here in the past -- OK, but thin on flavour, thick of wrapping. On the other hand, the steamed siu mai pork dumplings were superb -- bigger and juicier than most, with an earthy hint of mushroom in the flavour -- and among the best I can remember.

Mu shu crepes were another great appetizer. I'm sure the usual fillings of bean sprouts with the meat or veggies of your choice would also be good, but the roast duck with cabbage filling that we chose, wrapped in fresh, hot crepes spread with zesty hoisin sauce, turned out to be one of the highlights of the meal.

Another highlight was the crispy chicken, which seems to be one of those never-fail dishes. I don't think I've ever had one that wasn't at the very least good, but here it is wonderful -- half a marinated chicken, bones and skin intact, deep-fried to a marvellous crunch and hacked across the bone into rough chunks. It can be ordered plain, but also, as we did, with a splash of soy sauce and a sprinkling of green onions.

Plump, juicy shrimp, simply dredged in flour and pan fried, were excellent. Another top choice can be found under New Additions, the tiny, tasty Five Spice Salt and Pepper pork chops, which were subtly seasoned with Five Spice, simply floured and deep fried. Despite its chili pepper symbol it delivered only a slight tingle on the tongue. In fact, no dish marked with that little chili pepper was numbingly spicy, but the delicious bean curd with minced beef (a.k.a. mapo tofu) came closer than any of the others in living up to its "spicy hot" description. The menu shows only one pepper symbol for any dish, but if you ask to have your food really hot, I'm sure the kitchen will oblige by amping up the heat by as many peppers as you wish.

Some other dishes might have ranked as high as the above if more attention had been paid to the details. Our steamed sweet-fleshed basa fillets, for instance, had a lovely, delicate flavour, which we enjoyed more once we'd drained them from the ultra salty pool of soy sauce. The basa is also available with a mixture of vegetables (possibly with less, or even no soy sauce) or deep fried.

Our Dry Beef Chow Fan rice noodles was also flavourful, and might have been another good choice if the beef hadn't been over-tenderized to a soft, pulpy texture. The nicely chewy little twists of beef, in the Ginger Fried Sweet And Spicy Beef, didn't have that pulpy texture, but would have had more character if there'd been more ginger and spice, and less sugar.

The shrimp in lobster style sauce has been another of my past Foon Hai favourites, but this time, although the shrimp were still excellent, the sauce was gloppy from cornstarch, with not enough ground pork for texture or black beans for flavour, and finished with strips of overcooked scrambled eggs. It was disappointing, but at least we could enjoy the shrimp. The Singapore-style vermicelli was a total failure -- unpleasantly dry, only slightly curried, dotted by flavourless and limp wee shrimp and -- very sparingly -- with a few tiny cubes of barbecued pork.

We did get fortune cookies, but my future looked dull, and the deep-fried bananas with ice cream made a nicer sweet conclusion ($5.75). The service was good, the arrival of the food well timed, and every now and then we were asked if everything was satisfactory. And for the most part, it was.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2011 D3

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