I've often wondered where, on that long journey from Grandpa's chop suey house to the ersatz mall glamour of P.F. Chang's, does there exist the ideal model of a suburban Chinese restaurant. Something stylish that doesn't pander. Something authentic, minus a duck tongue or two.
To my delight, it now resides in Wynnewood, where Michael Chow's Sang Kee Asian Bistro is approaching its first birthday.
To my chagrin, I could have driven all the way to Chinatown and gotten a seat at Chow's original Sang Kee in the time it took me to get a table in Wynnewood early one Sunday night.
But I shouldn't be surprised that folks here willingly stand in line for an hour at their neighborhood Chinese place. The arrival of Sang Kee has been an event for this inner-ring Main Line burb, rivaled only by the opening of the Italian chain, Vinny T's, a few years back.
But there's one big difference. I would not wait so long for a trough-sized portion of corporate spaghetti and meatballs. The new Sang Kee, on the other hand, I actually prefer to the original downtown.
Chow isn't the first to offer serious Chinese cooking in the suburbs. Margaret Kuo has been doing it exceptionally well for years. Likewise for fusiony Yangming.
What distinguishes Sang Kee is that it is still very much the casual neighborhood haunt, where entrees top out at $18. But the contemporary room has been sleekly outfitted for the 21st century, with an open kitchen clad in a cool stone tile bar inset with tiny flat-screen TVs, plush Asian carpets on the wall, and a phalanx of dark-suited young women who run the seating chart with a daunting blend of pleasantry and no-nonsense efficiency.
The menu is pretty much straight from Chinatown, with the Hong Kong-style duck and noodle house standards that have made it a favorite for 25 years.
The Peking duck, of course, gets top billing, and it's well-deserved. The honey-crisped bird (prepared with 100 others each day downtown) has a fine balance of tender meat, five-spice crunch, and a thin layer of white fat that lathers the meat like cream. It's so rich, I prefer it as an appetizer, rather than an entree, wrapped into pancakes with scallions and sweet hoisin, like the ultimate Asian burrito.
Room should definitely be saved for Sang Kee's many other specialties, especially its many variations on noodles.
Chow buys special thread-thin "wonton" egg noodles to anchor his soups, and they make the perfect base for the meal-sized bowls brimming with golden chicken broth that come crowned with everything from roast pork and Chinese broccoli to dumplings. I particularly loved Sang Kee's thin-skin pork wontons, as well as the subtly different shrimp dumplings.
The kitchen uses a softer variety of noodle for its stir-fried entrees, of which I'm partial to the ginger and scallion noodles - simple, but tingling with fresh ginger.
This Sang Kee is still a ways from the perfect restaurant. Those TVs are a cheesy distraction. And the menu has weak spots, too.
I was excited to order a steamer basket filled with trendy Shanghai juice buns (also known as soup dumplings), but disappointed to find that more than half the delicate noodle pouches had been pierced and lost their juice. The pan-seared roll made from sheets of bean curd reminded me of another favorite, the Buddha's Delight roll at Lee How Fook - but it was poorly wrapped, and the stuffings kept falling out. The crisp beggar's purse "money bags" filled with crab were fishy.
For the most part, however, this kitchen delivered with a consistency and care lagging at the original Sang Kee the past few years.
Succulent sea scallops come sealed inside a micro-thin sheen of XO chili sauce ("XO" is Hong Kong slang, says Chow, for "top shelf"), a bewitching ebony-colored glaze of deeply caramelized spices, bacon and dried seafood seasoning. The stuffed eggplant in black bean sauce is a study in perfect textures - the crunch of a delicate deep-fried crust giving way to pulpy Asian eggplant and a springy core of crumbled pork stuffing.
Tender pads of chicken meat come glazed in a simple sheen of dark soy and oyster sauce, showered with the delicate crunch of snipped chive blossoms. Heat-blistered green beans and super-soft flank steak bask in a sauce that blinks with fresh garlic. A superb version of classic General Tso's boasts tender, freshly fried chicken - but it's a piquant sauce, rife with sweeter roasted garlic, that sets it apart.
The watercress dumplings are fabulous precisely because they are not stuffed with too much raw garlic or pork (the usual flaw elsewhere). You taste the vibrant greens. Crisp little fillets of panko-crusted flounder are streaked with a pearly sweet cream of mayonnaise and condensed milk, then scattered with honey-roasted walnuts.
The five-spice salt-baked shrimp offers one fine example of Chow tweaking a Chinatown standard for the suburbs - the shells have conveniently been removed before frying. He has also replaced the usual pork with chicken in a number of stock recipes, from spring rolls to hot and sour soup. But the real compromises are few. You can even, on occasion, spot a downtown delicacy such as steamed giant oysters, basting in soy sauce and scallions - an acquired taste, for sure.
Also true to its roots is the slim dessert selection: only fried bananas and ice cream. But stroll just one door up the strip mall to the soft-serve Carvel, and Sang Kee's new suburban sibling suddenly feels complete.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.