by Mel Small
For the 270 Wayne State students from mainland China, it had been difficult to find decent home cooking in the city until Midtown's Shangri-La opened on Cass Avenue in the shuttered Twingo's. Cholada Chan, who owns the original Shangri-La in West Bloomfield, debuted her spin-off last month. Both serve many of the same dishes, but the menu at the Detroit branch is briefer, and, more importantly, geared to student budgets.
The oddly constructed two-level restaurant, full of nooks and crannies, looks a lot like Twingo's, although the kitchen, presided over by veteran chef Fu Chin, is quite different indeed. And it is comforting to see legendary restaurateur Raymond Wong out front as a consultant and maitre d', eager to suggest dishes and spice levels to neophytes. Chan, an émigré from Taiwan who had been in the grocery business in the burbs, explains that when she tired of schlepping to Windsor to eat at Wong's, she opened her own restaurant in 1996 on this side of the river.
Wong is not the only asset among the staff. The servers are extremely attentive and move very quickly, so much so that they create something of a frantic scene.
Shangri-La's forte is dim sum, those small plates that are something like Chinese tapas. Unlike most dim sums or tea lunches, those prepared by Fu Chin are available for dinner as well. Alas, while it would be nice to wash them down with beer, especially, or wine, Chan and her son Joey, the restaurant's manager, are waiting for the city to approve their application for a liquor license.
Most of items on the dim-sun menu are $2.95 to $3.50, and most offer a bite or so for at least three diners. Teeny pancakes laden with garlic and chives, crisp dumplings, lilliputian spare ribs in a sweet black-bean sauce, stuffed eggplant, and the sweet bun full of barbecued pork are all winners. More exotic are turnip cakes, which, surprisingly, resemble potato pancakes, and assertively spiced beef tripe with green onion and ginger, which even more surprisingly resembles calamari. Don't ask, but tripe is not from the sea.
Egg tarts, steamed or fried shrimp balls, meat-laden sticky-rice clumps wrapped in a lotus leaf, and those ever popular steamed chicken feet are other possibilities. Because the narrow aisles and small spaces preclude tray-service, the delicacies have to be ordered sight-unseen from their own menu.
Although the regular menu is dominated by traditional Chinese cuisine, curries ($9), Singapore noodles ($8) and cilantro-less pho-like noodle soups ($7-8) suggest a pan-Asian influence. The latter, which may be ordered with flat, egg or bean-thread noodles, should be enlivened, according to the ever-helpful Wong, with a dollop of chili sauce. Among the smaller-sized appetizer soups, the hot and sour is sufficiently zesty.
Other firsts include stuffed crab claw with shrimp paste, spicy quail or soft-shell crab and the interesting multi-layered crispy pancakes flecked with scallion bits. Vegetarians will be pleased with more than 10 options, ranging from sautéed tofu with mushrooms to moo shu vegetables.
Under the category of "Lunch Box" ($8), Chan offers large plates with items such as fish fillet with creamed corn, minced beef with egg, and somewhat salty but tender pieces of roast duck, all accompanied by a mound of steamed rice. There are even more choices among the combination platters ($8), which come with fried rice and a perfunctory spring roll. Here one finds the familiar Szechuan beef or chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and pepper steak. The generous serving of tender (if bland) almond boneless chicken is a doggie-bagger's delight.
If you are looking for more exciting creations, you will have to choose among the chef specials, which are more expensive ($13.95-$16.95). There you can order a whole or half roast duck, eggplant with shrimp paste in black-bean sauce, a mélange of succulent fried squid, scallops and shrimp with (not that) spicy salt or more mellow walnut shrimp. Some diners might desire their seafood, which is coated in a disconcertingly glutinous potato-flour batter, in a more pristine form.
Several impecunious Chinese students report that, though they preferred the specials to the cheaper platters and lunch boxes, they were disappointed in their portion sizes. Of course, we may make too much of their reviews. Do the citizens of Beijing think tourists and expatriates who frequent Burger Kings and Pizza Huts are experts in the American kitchen?
James Hilton's fictional Shangri-La was a mountainous utopia somewhere near Tibet, where life, including the food, was near-perfect. Cholada Chan's Midtown Shangri-La, in the flatlands of America, is not perfect. But it offers mostly Americanized Chinese favorites at reasonable prices to city dwellers who have been denied such satisfying fare.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.