5. The rice on the side is brown.
4. The most popular spring rolls and dumplings are filled with "contemporary" pork alternatives such as chicken and duck.
3. The kung pao is made with fancy cashews, not peanuts.
1. The kitchen is out of whole fish by 8 p.m.
But in fact, I'm not on Skippack Pike anymore. This is Ly Michael's at 11th and Arch, where Buu Ly and Michael Ly (business partners, but not related) are trying to re-create the success of FuziOn, their pan-Asian BYO in Worcester, Montgomery County.
Much of what I've eaten at Ly Michael's has been a delight. But Buu Ly is the first to admit that their Chinatown experience has been mixed. Business from one night to the next at the six-month-old restaurant is hard to predict, he says, and depends on what's booked at the Convention Center across the street and at the Trocadero down the block.
The boxy, modern yellow space (formerly Taste of Thai) consists of several rooms and a mezzanine. As sections open when needed to accommodate more customers, capacity can swell from 30 seats to 150, making it a challenge to decide how much food to buy or staff to schedule.
So the whole fish may be sold out early in the evening. And that can seem odd in a neighborhood where the striped bass swimming in fish tanks at other restaurants often outnumber the diners.
Then again, why would anyone go to Ly Michael's for whole fish? The Lys aim to give the neighborhood something new - a smattering of more diverse Asian flavors and a dash of contemporary style.
Chef Michael Ly and Buu Ly, who runs the dining room, met 13 years ago while working for Susanna Foo, the doyenne of local Asian fusion. So it's no coincidence that a few dishes on Ly Michael's' wide-ranging menu taste a bit like Foo lite. The crabcake, its crab-studded shrimp mousse encrusted with tiny croutons, is a direct descendant of Foo's.
But the Lys have given the menu their own flair. The thin-skinned seafood dumplings are reminiscent of those in Foo's delicate wonton soup, but the broth has a tangy undercurrent of fish sauce that reflects the owners' backgrounds as ethnic Chinese who spent their childhoods in Vietnam.
Buu Ly, who has worked mostly at local Thai restaurants, has also made the peanut- and coconut-milk-based curries of that country a fixture of the menu. Tender grilled chicken satay, bowls of littleneck clams in fragrant coconut green curry, and tangy-sweet pad thai with tamarind sauce are among the best choices.
The handful of Japanese-style dishes are not. Our sushi rolls were splitting at the seams with too much cream cheese and not enough crab. The tempura vegetables were slightly doughy.
At times, the flavors seemed to have been blanded down for the suburban palates at FuziOn and at the old Ly Michael's in Overbrook Park, which closed in 1999. A pinch of edgier zip for the Chinatown crowd could transform some pleasant dishes into great ones. I'm thinking of the penang talay: The sauteed seafood in Thai curry is made with fine ingredients - large sweet shrimp, plump scallops, and tender clams - but I barely broke a sweat.
The kung pao shrimp lacked even a flicker of spice, and the kitchen's use of sweet cashews instead of peanuts only emphasized the lack of heat. And I would have preferred a funkier medley of rehydrated Chinese mushrooms to the pile of sauteed button mushrooms served as a side dish for $11.
But those issues can easily be fine-tuned. Ly Michael's' consistently deft cooking and fair prices (entrees are $20 or less) are its best reasons to succeed in Center City. The decor is acceptable but austere, and the rest rooms in the building's lobby need serious work. And the service isn't especially slick, though the staff is friendly and reasonably efficient.
Still, it's hard not to be won over by a plate of good duck dumplings scattered with mushrooms in five-spice gravy. Or by the puffy crab beignets studded with corn. Or the thick slice of seared New Jersey tuna tingling with a lemongrass, rosemary and jalape????ub. Or the perfectly crisped roast duck fanned over a raspberry and cognac sauce. Or tender wild boar with bitter melon in a chile sauce ribboned with Thai basil.
It also can be hard to peg the Asian element in some entrees. Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin medallions with stone-ground mustard cream in Chinatown? But Ly Michael's nailed the dish as well as any French bistro, the tender pork and crisped ham playing against the tangy cream. Likewise for the center-cut filet mignon with cabernet sauce, a simple but satisfying bargain at $20.95.
Only at the end of one meal did I snap back to the reality of where I was. The restaurant usually serves a tray of decidedly un-Asian cheesecakes, tarts and such. But like that whole fish, that night there were none to be had.
Hey, everybody knows that finding no dessert is one of the top clues that you are eating in Chinatown. Maybe Ly Michael's was finally just making itself at home.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.