Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/1/2010 (3539 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It's that time of year. The holiday bills are pouring in, the money is pouring out, but you still have to eat, and you want the best deals possible for what's left of your money. Which is why the next few columns will be devoted to bargains.
Many of the consistently best buys are in Chinese restaurants, and this city — as I have said, ad infinitum — is blessed with an abundance of them. And one of the best is Southland, a big, rambling kind of place, with a nondescript decor accented here and there by Chinese artifacts, and an almost totally Chinese clientele who, unquestionably, know how to navigate the menu better than I do.
If making choices from Chinese menus that often run to 200 items can be difficult, consider coping with a 16 page menu listing 255 dishes, not to mention the possibility of some Chinese-only specials we might not know about, plus another 80-plus on a take-out menu that features such old familiars as chop suey, foo yungs, deep-fried wontons and breaded veal.
But it was that epic main menu I'd come for, with most main courses from approximately $8.50 to $15 (the top prices are mostly for seafood or certain specialty dishes). The daunting number of choices includes an array of exotica, ranging from pig intestines and sea cucumbers to goose webs (goose feet, I assume), but although I'm one of those I'll-eat-anything types, it would take at least 10 visits to do everything full justice — something neither my expense account nor a sense of self-preservation allow for. Which is why I concentrated on the more familiar foods, the kind that will probably also appeal to most readers.
And tops among them are the pan-fried, honey-glazed shrimp — huge, juicy ones and plenty of them, partnered with candied walnuts, and, these days, slathered in mayonnaise as well. I don't remember any mayo from past visits, but it doesn't damage the dish and, in any case, can be scraped off, if preferred. Either way, they are superb and an incredible buy at $12.95.
Another standout is the mammoth Southland Deluxe Barbecue Platter, a succulent selection of tawny brown pieces of duck, chicken, ribs, side pork (with crackling) and lean pork which, at $20, would serve four, at least.
For a less intimidating starter for two there are smoked pork trotters — thin, cold slices that taste more pickled than smoked, paired with gelatinous strips of jellyfish in a light, sesame-seasoned dressing, and offering a nice chewy contrast to the meats.
Yet another gem is listed simply as pan-fried sea bass — a description that doesn't do justice to these sweet-fleshed, moist slices within a simple coating of bread crumbs, sitting in a little puddle of soy sauce. The title also doesn't do justice to the dish dubbed Diced Barbecued Duck With Lettuce Leaf, which turns out to be a colourful and textural treat of not just duck, but also bits of dark Chinese mushrooms, water chestnuts and crisply fried strips of white rice vermicelli, all to be pocketed in a lettuce leaf and eaten out of hand. I also loved a hot pot of eggplant and minced beef in an only slightly peppery brown sauce, as well as stir-fried chewy, fresh Shanghai noodles tossed with strips of pork and cabbage and an occasional blast of chili.
Service is attentive and warm, and this operation is classy to the end — no mere fortune cookies here, but instead one of the little house-made pastries. They vary nightly but our's was a kind of dense little cupcake, and in the past I've had a custard-filled bun and a glutinous rice patty with sweet bean paste.
For even less money consider a dim sum lunch (until 3 p.m.). They come on rolling carts on weekends, but are made to order during the week — fresh and hot, but with a trade-off of sometimes spotty service ($2.40 small, $3 medium, $3.80 large). The selection isn't vast but most items are good, and some are outstanding — notably the marvellously flaky baked onion buns filled with honeyed bits of pork; some of the juiciest, most flavourful sui mai pork dumplings in town; and steamed Chauchou dumplings, plumped up with bits of pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots and peanuts.
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The Rice Bowl, by contrast, is a friendly wee place, tidily done up in shades of sand and chocolate brown, with a mere 60-item menu (most entrees from $7 to $12). You can have Chinese food here too, the smoky barbecued ribs, for instance, but (unlike the usual Chinese way with ribs) these are meaty and long, not hacked across the bone into little chunks. Crispy chicken comes in bigger than usual pieces, too, deep-fried and finished with a splash of soy sauce.
But Chinese food is only a small part of the story. This is a family restaurant, and the family, it turns out, is a mixture of Vietnamese and Filipino, a background that is reflected on the menu. And some of what's unique here are the classic Filipino dishes — not languishing on a buffet, but cooked to order and served at table.
Crunchy, pork-stuffed lumpia spring rolls, for instance are available, as are wonderful near-caramelized skewered pork slices. Also such homey, rib-sticking stews as calderata of beef and assorted veggies in a vinegar and tomato-spiked brown sauce, or the fascinating kare kare — a peanut-infused dish of oxtails and short ribs with long beans, some leafy greens, eggplant and (with a flavour similar to artichokes) banana blossoms.
Southland, 2855 Pembina Highway, 261-3510
Rice Bowl, 641 Sargent Avenue, 779-2777