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Far East Side

Balancing Asian and Asian-American concepts

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"You will have great success in your latest endeavor" was the fortune I cracked out of a cookie at Formosa Chinese Cuisine. You have got to hand it to the Chinese. Fortune cookies are a great marketing concept: everyone leaves happy.The 72-seat Formosa, which opened in June 2002, is the second restaurant developed by owner Chin-Feng Tsai. Her first was Golden Garden, which she sold in order to open this location. Tsai had wanted a restaurant in the Arboretum since she used to work in a now closed Chinese restaurant located in that shopping center. Tsai is a native of Taiwan, thus the name Formosa, the island's former name.

In the kitchen is Chef Heng who trained in a culinary school in China and has been working in the US for the past 18 years. His style was described as "a blend of Chinese cuisines, grabbing what he feels is good." Heng is from a coastal region and subsequently excels in seafood.

The cuisine at Formosa is a mix of China's regional cooking. The long-standing dilemma for Asian restaurant owners is whether to prepare authentic food or offer an Americanized version of their cuisine. The Americanized version would surely fill the tables, and thus the cash register, while authentically prepared dishes would attract the ex-pat community and the more intrepid diner, but would not necessarily allow for financial success.

This has been a particular problem for Chinese restaurants since these were the first Asian cuisine restaurants to become popular in the US. The male Chinese immigrants of the mid to late 1800s, who were restricted to certain vocations, tried to reproduce Cantonese dishes without access to their native ingredients and spices. In addition, they had not been privy to long standing family recipes since the kitchen had been traditionally a female domain. The dishes they created, laden with sugar and soy sauce, became part of the pseudo-Cantonese that has been popular in America for the past 100 years.

To resolve the dilemma, most Chinese restaurants offer two menus. The second menu is typically given to Asian clientele or non-Asians who request it. The second menu at Formosa is one page and some of the items are identical to the items on the primary menu. However, this menu features dishes such as Shark Fin Soup and Crystal Shrimp.

The primary menu offers the better known Chinese dishes, such as chicken with cashew, moo shu pork, sweet and sour shrimp, chow mein, and Hunan and General Tso's Chicken. The names of the dishes and menu descriptions accurately foretell what will arrive. The prices of entrees on both menus are in the same range: the difference lies in the sauces and ingredients.

Given the neighborhood of Formosa, using two menus is a good idea. It helps Formosa fit in to the back rim restaurant row of the Arbo, which has other eateries ranging from Ben & Jerry's to locally owned Mickey & Mooch. Formosa's interior is devoid of Chinese knickknacks and fish tanks. Overhead lines of high style halogen lights project spots of light onto the linenless tabletops. Tables are set with forks, not chopsticks, and salt and pepper shakers, not bottles of soy. The sound track is vaguely Asian and the servers are fluent in English. Tsai is on hand to answer questions and explain how dishes are prepared. She can steer you toward the more authentic dishes or dishes which cater to Americans' expectations of a Chinese menu. Take out is a large part of their business and many folks breeze in and out of the restaurant to pick up dinner.

We tried items from both menus. On a cold winter night the Peach Chicken entree sounded inviting, but I passed when learning from my server that the kitchen used canned peaches.

The best of what we tried were the six steamed juicy pork pot stickers, an exceptional appetizer served with a luscious soy dipping sauce. This dish is a bargain for $4.25. The lettuce wrap, a Cantonese Mee Krob, consisted of small cubes of tender chicken and vegetables in a light sauce, which are then wrapped into fresh iceberg lettuce. Another appetizer, the barbecue spare ribs, were too fatty, a plus for Asian cuisine authenticity, but not for my taste.

From the second menu came a platter brimming with supple jumbo shrimp spiked with a brilliantly spicy ma-la sauce and large crisp vegetables. This proved to be a table favorite. The house special, featured on both menus, is also very good with thin slices of compressed rice cake (actually loaf) pan sauteed with noodles, mushrooms, and vegetables. Finally the Peking duck, which does not need to be ordered in advance, turned out to be perfectly crispy and graciously prepared tableside by an adept server.

Friends of mine who did a stint in Hong Kong lament the lack of good Chinese restaurants in town, a place where General Tso is nowhere to be found. But as one main character who was worried about the restaurant's financial future counseled a chef in the movie Big Night, "Give the people what they want." Formosa should ably please customers looking for varying degrees of authenticity in Chinese cuisine.

Eaters' Digest
Want to celebrate Chinese New Year, February 1? Try Jai, or Buddha's Delight, a traditional dish for the New Year. According to Buddhist tradition, no fish, chicken, or other animal should be killed and consumed on New Year's Day. Instead the body should be cleansed. Jai is an 18 ingredient dish featuring bean curd, Napa cabbage, different kinds of mushrooms, rice noodles, and black moss. Also popular on New Year's Day are Zeen Doy, or sweetened fried Sesame Balls. A Chinese tradition says that if a person eats Sesame Balls on New Year's, his fortune with expand during the ensuing year.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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