Reliable Chinatown mainstay is a master of hot pots and more

If you eat often in Chinatown, you have seen the All-Knowing Menu. That list of 300-plus items offering everything from chicken feet to chow fun appears virtually everywhere, an encyclopedia of Cantonese flavors with an occasional tingle of Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin.

Of course, precious few restaurants can deliver all the dishes with equal skill. So the real trick to navigating the pleasures of Chinatown hinges on discovering which place best cooks which part of the All-Knowing Menu. Peking duck and noodles from Sang Kee. Salt-baked seafood, wok-fried greens and steamed dumplings from Shiao Lan Kung. Pungent, hearty soups from the Nice Chinese Noodle House. Creative mock meats from Harmony Vegetarian and Charles Plaza. Great dim sum from ... well, I'm still looking for that.

But when I crave the comfort of a great hot pot, I set a course for Lee How Fook. Here the half-glazed earthenware pots arrive at the table radiating heat from the range, still tightly covered as if the kitchen has trapped every vapor inside until a waitress can remove the lid right under your nose. A billow of fragrant steam buffets your face and then disappears, revealing a vessel of bubbling, dark stew with strands of steamed cilantro tracing lines of vibrant green on top.

There are several hot pots to choose from, and I've never been disappointed. Each delivers that perfect balance of heartiness without overthickening, of intense flavors that harmonize rather than compete.

There is the chicken with mushrooms, its tender white meat playing against the woodsy flavor and mouth-filling resilience of shiitake caps bathed in gingery gravy. Another chicken hot pot, this one with crisp asparagus spears, is strikingly different. Its dark sauce seems to have captured the fruity essence of black peppercorns without more than a prickle of sneezy heat.

The beef hot pot came with a warning from our pleasant, efficient server: It is filled more with suety tendon than brisket flesh. But it's worth it just to spoon the gravy over rice, the meaty puree punctuated by crunchy stems of bok choy and an exotic undercurrent of anise and clove.

No such warnings are needed for the excellent fish hot pot. The largely boneless chunks of fried fish in a tangy oyster sauce melt on the tongue. The Buddha's Delight hot pot isn't on the menu, but it's easy to request and is executed with a master's respect for ingredients. A clear, vibrant sauce shows off tiny ears of corn, springy cubes of bean curd, snappy broccoli, and crunchy sheets of Chinese mushrooms.

While the hot pots are a highlight, this little restaurant run by chef Shing Chung and his wife, Doris, has a better grasp of the All-Knowing Menu than most. And that consistency accounts for the longevity of the modest, 40-seat dining room, which also has a banquet room in back. Despite its intensely unglamorous decor — brown linoleum, a mirrored ceiling, plastic plates — Lee How Fook has remained a reliable Chinatown mainstay for two decades.

There were some less-inspired dishes during a few of my visits — gristly beef in black bean sauce, squishy kung pao scallops, and salt-baked seafood that seems, over the last couple of years, to have lost its delicate crispness.

But most of the offerings are easily a cut above those of your standard Chinatown joint. The soups are positively rejuvenating and the wontons among the best I've tasted, seasoned and stuffed to order in thin skins of dough and floating like plump comets through the golden broth. The Szechuan turnip and pork soup is spicy, clear and pristine.

The duck and abalone soup brims with roasted duck flavor but is more a study of textures: delicate meat, chewy abalone and snappy green slivers of snow pea. The crab and winter melon soup is another winning bowl, strikingly subtle in flavor but all comfort in the spoon, the soft cubes of mashed, unsweetened melon flecked with the sea-pink fibers of crumbled crab. But the hot-and-sour soup has a mean streak of sourness with only a flicker of fire.

Lee How Fook's dumplings are a little bland and the spring roll a tad greasy. But the Buddha's Delight roll is a magnet of deep-fried magic: two long, flat vegetarian dumplings wrapped in a crust of bean-curd skin.

The kitchen's vegetable side dishes also are excellent, from the heat-blistered green beans in smoky brown sauce to the garlicky mountains of wok-fried Asian greens. The snow pea leaves are a pillow of pure, soft chlorophyll. The watercress has a peppery bite. The broad white stems of baby bok choy burst with refreshing juice, and the tender stems of Chinese broccoli crunch with pale-green sweetness.

All of our noodle dishes were delicious, from the threads of a rice-stick stir-fry moistened with soy sauce and chicken broth to the crisp-bottomed beds of deep-fried lo mein that softened under a juicy saute of vegetables and pork.

Even more impressive are the whole fish and roasted duck. The steamed striped bass brought to our table was expertly deboned and then spooned with an amber sauce so redolent of ginger and scallions that I could taste it long after the luxurious white fish disappeared. More than a bargain at $9.50, the roasted half duck was the quintessential bird, its moist meat wrapped in a wafer of crisp, honeyed skin. We gnawed the bones clean.

Other restaurants could easily stake their entire reputation on either specialty. But at Lee How Fook, those dishes are simply more proof that most of the All-Knowing Menu is indeed within its reach.

Of course, there is no dessert beyond orange wedges and fortune cookies. This is one Chinatown restaurant that knows when enough is enough. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is claban@phillynews.com.

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