"City of indulgence" is the way poet W.H. Auden once described Macau, the former Portuguese colony returned to Chinese control seven years ago. Once famous for gambling dens, international intrigue, racy nightlife and a laissez-faire bent, the small peninsula and two islands tacked onto the bottom of mainland China are less than an hour from Hong Kong by hydrofoil.
More than 400 years of Portuguese presence created a distinctive blend of Chinese and European architecture and a delicious fusion of food cultures in Macau. This bicultural motif is the theme at Macau Street, a happening lunch-to-late-night cafe in Monterey Park.
Framed prints show faded colonial buildings painted the color of pastel ice creams. Menus and paper place mats bear an image of Ruinas de Sao Paolo cathedral's 17th century rococo facade.
Chinese characters on the mat translate to: "Knives and forks together with chopsticks raised; butter and soy bean paste together cooked." Oh, fusion food, right?
Well, yes and no. Macau Street does serve a mix of Chinese dishes and several Portuguese sweets, but the food is unquestionably Chinese cafe fare with occasional Portuguese twists, not the exotic blend known as Macanese. (That cuisine began as Portuguese and evolved when Chinese kitchen maids, called amas, started substituting local ingredients for the hard-to-get European imports. Even so, most Macanese dishes retain a European character.)
Instead, what you'll find intriguing at Macau Street are the southern Chinese dishes local to Macau that are scattered among the Cantonese standards. Prices are low and many servings are just right for one or two, as befits the restaurant's informal style.
A dish called "roasted pig neck" may not strike everyone as fabulously alluring, but these lean, dense, slightly chewy meat slices, with flavor that bests Cantonese char siu barbecue, are as seductive as any great Italian cold cut. You also find pig neck served as an entree sautéed with fresh asparagus.
The squab, another house special, is glorious: brittle, lacquered skin reminiscent of great Peking duck surrounds dark, rich meat.
The appetizer list reads like a scene breakdown for an Anthony Bourdain TV shoot: deep-fried pork intestine, soy sauce goose gizzard, duck "chin" (actually duck tongue), and a regional specialty of pork feet with fermented tofu sauce.
But it's the chicken knees that win me over. These crispy, deep-fried morsels must be the joint between the drumstick and thigh. They are chewy, cartilagey and meaty. I loved them. Fried chicken Hawaiian style (the Portuguese also gave us Hawaii sweet bread and malasadas) is a breast fillet ever so lightly breaded and fried with a distinctive, light, sweet-soy flavor.
Filet mignon cubes, French style with a light glaze of meat-based sauce, seem as much European as Chinese, as do oysters baked in wine. Sparingly moistened with dark pungent juices, the plump oysters' flavor comes through beautifully.
Listed under "Nostalgic Dishes" is eggplant with chicken and dried fish. There's no recognizable trace of the fish, though, because it is subtly integrated into the delicious braising liquid, giving it extra dimension. In another dish, chewy slices of dried tofu sheets add welcome substance to lightly cooked spinach.
The house special plate — definitely nostalgia food if you're from the region — combines shredded dry squid and sizable dry shrimp sautéed with carrot shreds and bits of green.
The term "escargot" is liberally used on this menu, referring not to snails but to baby conch, which is offered several ways: roasted, sautéed or in a clay-pot casserole. The most flavorful version is "escargot" sautéed whole with fresh basil, served in the shell with toothpicks for fishing them out.
Macau Street's long menu covers all sorts of comfort foods such as crisp-bottomed rice pots, hot pots, noodle soups, congee and daily changing tonic soups. And there are an enormous number of drink options, including watermelon juice, sugarcane herbal tea and slushy, creamy tapioca drinks.
Among the more than two dozen desserts are buttery-crusted Portuguese custard tarts and crunchy hearty cookies as well as steamed egg with milk (a silky light custard), fresh lychee fruit jelly and warm items such as black sticky-rice with coconut cream, tofu pudding and steamed sweet taro.
Even before the hand over of Macau to the Chinese, Macanese descendants of Portuguese and Chinese parents had declined to a small number. Perhaps that accounts for the prevalence of Chinese food at Macau Street. But the evocative décor, southern Chinese dishes, Portuguese sweets and handful of fusion dishes set this busy cafe apart and offer a reminder of a unique geopolitical era.
Location: 429 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 288-3568.
Price: All dishes: $2.95 to $9.95; desserts $2.95 to $5.95.
Best dishes: Roasted pig neck, house special squab, eggplant with diced chicken and salted fish, baked oysters with wine, egg custard Macau style (tarts).
Details: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Soft drinks. Lot parking. VISA, MC.