THE CUISINE OF China is rarely translated with any kind of integrity in America unless you are in one of our larger coastal cities. I have friends who refuse to eat Chinese food unless they are in San Francisco--to be specific, Chinatown.
I have a young friend who recently returned to her native China. Although raised in Tucson, she is fierce about her heritage. After her first week in Beijing she sent me an enraptured letter, not about the surge of pride at returning to her culture or the freedom to forge a new identity, but about Peking Duck. All 14 versions of it that she had tried that first week. This normally chilly person was moved to hyperbolic dizzying descriptions of a dish I may never get to try. Her final words were: "I am never coming back. This ain't Boston Market, baby."
Such culinary epiphanies are rare and should be treasured. They certainly give me pause before I recommend a solid Asian-cuisine restaurant. Still, from the moment it opened its doors, Café Pacific has never let me down. For four years, this fierce independent has quietly been serving up a wide range of Asian cuisine, and doing so in its own singular style.
Although there are many fine entrées at Café Pacific, I go in on a regular basis for the sheer restorative properties of the soups. One finds many familiar soups on the menu: Egg Flower, Hot and Sour, War Wonton and Miso, each one fragrant and soothing. Bypass these and go directly to the noodle-soup menu. Even if Café Pacific served nothing else but noodle soups, I would still be a consistent patron.
If I am feeling run down or perhaps just need some solitary nurturing, I grab my favorite table and order a bowl of the Hong Kong Style Won Ton Soup ($6.25). Served in a clear and heady broth, these wontons are freshly made, stuffed tight with minced pork and shrimp, and simmered until plump. Each bowl is served bobbing to the brim with wonton. Chinese greens are swirled in until just tender and add a sweet, clear note. Make sure to ask for a side of chile and a little vinegar to brush the wontons through. I'm reasonably certain this soup could cure most afflictions short of Ebola.
Although a single bowl is a full repast in and of itself, Café Pacific's soups can also be a great way to start a meal. If you are dining with a few companions, make sure to try the Vietnamese Beef Rice Noodle Soup (Pho Tai) ($6.25). A redolent and velvety beef broth served with a broad noodle, this is an impressive way to begin the meal. When the soup arrives, it is served with many condiments (fresh basil, bean sprouts, Thai chile, hoisin, raw onion, sliced serrano, lemon wedges) so you can tailor the soup to your own specifications. Not only does this give you the opportunity to take your soup in whatever direction you want, you'll also have plenty of condiments for whatever dishes you order next.
The Café Pacific Sampler ($10.95) showcases a nice range of flavors. Use this colorful platter to nibble from while you negotiate the menu. The Vietnamese egg rolls are served piping hot. Stuffed with minced pork, carrot and bean thread, these are crunchy on the outside and savory on the inside. To eat them properly, wrap them in the accompanying lettuce leaf with a piece of basil, then dip them in the incendiary and tangy dipping sauce. The cooling lettuce, the hot, crispy egg roll and the sparky dipping sauce provide a delightful and sharp awakening of the senses.
Several crab puffs appear on the platter, and they are fairly routine. The fresh spring rolls act as a delicate and quiet companion, though. Served chilled, the soft rice-paper noodle wrapped around minced vegetables and vermicelli provides both soothing textures and flavors. Slices of barbecued pork are generous, tender and a nice foil to the lighter items on the plate.
Should your party choose to linger a bit longer over appetizers, make sure to order the North Style Scallion Pancake ($5.95). This is a delicate rendition of a traditional flatbread. Using just enough batter to hold the scallion together, this light bread yields a deliciously sweet and mellow onion flavor. The accompanying dip, a sweet and spiked chile sauce, makes a great combination.
Many dinner entrées are offered from the traditional American-Chinese items found on nearly every Chinese menu (Kung Pao Chicken or Sweet and Sour Pork). The most interesting entrée items are found in the Exotic Dinner Selections or House Specialties parts of the menu.
The Spicy Singapore Style Ho Fun (Que Tiu) ($8.95) is a great entrée if you are in the mood for some full-on spicy comfort food. A generous platter of stir-fried flat noodles, this dish is studded with shrimp, barbecued pork and bean sprouts. Served in a yellow Thai curry base, this dish is reminiscent of Phad Thai, but swerves into its own range of warm curried flavors. The balance of flavors and textures make this a full meal all on its own, or a great plate to share.
Although certain large, impersonal chains would like to stake their reputation on having invented the stuffed lettuce cup, this dish wasn't thought up by a group of savvy young marketing executives. Here at Café Pacific the Lettuce Cup ($11.95) gives a nod to its traditional roots. This is a generous plate to share. An ample serving of finely chopped chicken, black mushrooms and fried noodles is served with plenty of lettuce to roll up your own little roll, served with a zippy dipping sauce. We had fun with all the condiments we'd accrued on the table, dressing these up into some outrageous concoctions.
If some in the crowd would prefer something not quite so seasoned, we found the Spicy Lemon Grass Chicken ($11.95) to be quite tame, despite its name. This broiled chicken breast served with rice or vermicelli had a hint of a lemon grass rub, but it was very mild. We often order this plate if we're dining with kids or the timid and shy.
On a recent night we tried the Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms with Shrimp ($16.95). This dish would be delightful if the shiitake were fresh, but on the night that we were there, they had been reconstituted. A freshly steamed shiitake provides a velvety, silky texture, but a reconstituted shiitake is a tough and chewy affair. Here, the light and delicate flavors on the plate, the steamed baby bok choy and the delicate shrimp paste filling were overwhelmed by the rather chewy shiitake base.
Desserts at Café Pacific aren't really a strong component. We were offered mango pudding or ice cream (chocolate, strawberry or vanilla). Perhaps it is a matter of personal taste, but I'm happiest after a long and lingering Chinese meal to eat a simple piece of peeled fruit sporting a jaunty paper umbrella. As far as I'm concerned, the mealy-mouthed fortune cookie was invented to pass onto some gullible, unsuspecting soul.
If I had the power to bestow a fortune onto Café Pacific it would be Your Soup Pots Will Always Simmer With Heavenly Offerings That Will Bring Great Shame On Chain Knock-offs With Bigger Interior Decorating Budgets. Your Persistence And Superior Product Will Prevail And Yield Great Profit.
If even half of the people waiting at the door of a certain innocuous and trendy Chinese restaurant drove a block or two south and found this little hidden gem, a small but significant revolution could take place. Because that is how revolutions should take place, not by corporate takeovers, but person by person, or in this case, palate by palate.
Café Pacific. 3607 N. Campbell Ave. 326-5174. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday noon to 9:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m. MC, V, no checks. Menu items: $3-$18.95.