Roll your own

Pleasures pile up as fast as the dishes in this neighborhood eatery.

"No man is ever lonely while eating noodles—it requires too much attention."

—Fortune cookie message Neighbors in Wedgwood are up in arms because they're losing their Red Apple Market to outsiders. We're pretty sure they won't be pleased to hear that we're blabbing about another neighborhood treasure, the Black Pearl—it's hard enough as it is, they'll say, getting a table in this uncommon Chinese restaurant. Chinese food is said to use more than 35,000 ingredients and is by far the most highly developed cuisine in the world. In America, Chinese have been cooking for us round-eyes for a hundred years or so, and the Cantonese-style food that evolved is suited to our somewhat undeveloped tastes. For years, Chinese restaurants stayed within the bounds of this tried-and-true hybridization, resulting in some boring decades when mein was the only chow in town. So when other Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese arrived and caught on, Chinese sort of went out of fashion, shunted to the sideline by complaints that it was loaded with grease, meat, and MSG. Black Pearl

7347 35th NE, 526-5115

Mon-Thu 11-9:30, Fri-Sat 11-10:30, Sun 4-9;

AE, D, MC, V; checks OK; beer, wine While that's a fair criticism of many joints where Jell-Ored sweet and sour still rules, many chefs began listening to their customers. They cut down on fat, eliminated MSG entirely, elevated noodle, seafood, and vegetable dishes, and branched out from Canton, adding offerings from Hunan, Szechuan, and Shanghai. While greasy Chow Yuk will always be dear to those of us raised on it, the healthier, lighter fare is bringing favor back to this worthy cuisine. The Black Pearl exemplifies what Chinese restaurants can and should be. On our first visit there, a plethora of appetizers led the food brigade from the kitchen. We pushed stuff out of the way to make room for heaping plates, platters, dishes, and bowls as they arrived, our feeling of hospitable plenty and endless feasting a classic reaction to the Chinese way of dining. First came the vegetarian spring rolls ($1.30), with shredded vegetation and Chinese mushrooms, and the curry chicken spring roll ($1.50)—subtle with curry spice and vegetables and served with a peanut sauce. These were fried in fresh, clean fat and neither greasy nor soggy. Pot stickers ($4.75 for six) were tender, the vegetarian versions—with spinach, tofu, and black mushrooms—being especially tasty, and the pork renditions rich and meaty. Shrimp cakes ($5.25), also fried cleanly, were brown, crispy disks of shrimp forcemeat. These appetizers were served with a covey of dipping sauces: sour plum, a clear sweet-and-sour pickled sweet ginger, and hot oil. Then came the entr饳. We tried the Black Pearl Special chow mein ($8.75) and got noodles plump and plentiful, boiled, wokked, and tossed with shrimp, chicken, beef, and seven different vegetables. (These homemade, hand-rolled noodles distinguish this place from other neighborhood Chinese restaurants.) We tried the asparagus and mushrooms ($7.75), and the fat Yakima asparagus was cooked competently crisp, but we wished the mushrooms had been the black Chinese ones instead of tending-to-be-invisible buttons. Still, with its potent black bean sauce, it successfully complemented the other dishes in the feast's big picture. Among them: the oolong tea steamed sea bass ($10.95), slices of this popular fish aromatically steamed with squiggles of the tea leaves, served knee-deep in its own fragrant juices. Tofu, much ridiculed as the food of choice for people who care more about nutritional sense than sensation, often gets a laugh for the sound of its name alone. But no one was laughing at our table when the piles of shrimp-stuffed tofu ($7.75) arrived. These plump tofu pillows fried golden brown and stuffed with shrimp cake in an oyster sauce with green onions didn't look overly "good-for-you"—rather, they looked great. They were perfectly executed: outside crispness saturated with sauce; a thin, soft wrap of tofu; savory shrimpness inside. What had started as a joke turned out to be one of the big hits of the evening. We also ordered the vegetable mu-shu ($7.50) as a vegetable side, and it was a little disappointing, being mostly shredded napa cabbage and a few lonely shreds of wood-ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, and egg. The pancakes, however, were thick and homemade, and we rolled fat burritos with the plum sauce. All chicken dishes here are made with breast meat, and the orange chicken ($9.75) proved to be succulent hunks fried and sauced with sweet, pungent orange and tossed with broccoli and curls of peel. From the House Specialties section, we ordered the Shanghai rice cakes with pork ($7.25)—soft, thin-sliced rectangles of the musty-tasting cakes stir-fried with meat and vegetables. These cakes are an acquired taste; not everyone will love them, though there were none left on our platter at the end of the night. We'd heard about the Sassy Scallops ($9.75), and they were as good as reputed, slightly hot with jalape� long, red dry petines, sweet and piquant with cilantro, lime, garlic, sweet red peppers, and bamboo shoots served over icicle noodles fried crisp. A criticism: Water chestnuts outnumbered the scallops three to one, and—like grasshoppers—they're crunchingly annoying when overpopulated. The service here is attentive and funny, delivered by a diverse bunch of young servers knowledgeable about the huge menu and helpful in guiding the newcomer. Many neighborhood folks don't wait for a table—takeout and delivery account for about 60 percent of the Pearl's business and keep three trucks busy. Best time to get a table without a wait is Monday through Wednesday; sitting at the counter is easier. Watching cooks bustle woks and steamers and hearing the passing raves by sated customers is fun—many regulars wouldn't sit anywhere else. One of the cooks madly pumping groceries is Marlene Chang, who—with husband, Ray—opened the Black Pearl as Panda's nearly 10 years ago. Their dogged seven-day-per-week commitment to quality and consistency is paying off—certainly for their customers, and, we hope, for them.

 
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