Not Every American's Cup of Tea : Canton Seafood Restaurant a Hit With Chinese

Most of my acquaintances who have traveled in China say the food is awful.

The likely situation is that they were served Chinese food as the Chinese eat it, rather than the relatively luxurious and carefully refined dishes that turn up in most Chinese restaurants here. In addition, the Chinese are remarkably catholic in their tastes, willing to eat almost anything that moves. The old saying that the only part of the pig not consumed is the squeal applies quite literally to the Chinese. This naturally is distressing to the contemporary Occidental, who, pampered by prosperity and refrigeration, generally turns up his nose at anything other than standard cuts of meat.

Thus it is interesting to find in San Diego a restaurant that prepares Chinese food as the Chinese eat it. The Canton Seafood Restaurant in East San Diego does exactly that, with a degree of authenticity attested to by the fact that the majority of its customers are of Chinese extraction.

The city of Canton is famous for its seafood dishes, and as the restaurant's name implies, it emphasizes the denizens of the briny deep. But as anyone who knows anything about Chinese cuisine will acknowledge, a meal that concentrates too heavily on a single type of food is considered incomplete and even declasse. Thus the menu extends to such interesting dishes as beef tripe cooked with pickled mustard greens.

Blackboards, covered in Chinese characters and listing the day's specials, hang on every wall. The servers translate these on request but do so without conviction, probably because they do not expect to make a sale to anyone who needs a translation. This is likely to be true when it comes to such items as braised pig's intestines, or a dish of cooked pig's blood (both recent offerings), but is not at all accurate in terms of the seafood choices. For example, a special of fresh flounder steamed in a pungent liquid was one of the most delightful seafood dishes of recent memory.

Steamed whole fish are a Canton specialty, and several kinds normally are available, including catfish. Guests can choose any of several special sauces if they wish, but it seems wisest for novices to content themselves with the straightforward, basic fish, which is sufficiently sauced by the elements in which it is steamed.

The flounder certainly was an impressive presentation. It arrived on an immense platter and looked very flounder-like, its tail hanging over the end of the dish and its fishy eye staring reproachfully at every member of the party. The fish reposed in a pool of vinegar-spiked soy sauce, and wisps of shredded ginger and scallion coated it heavily. These auxiliary flavors only heightened the remarkably sweet, natural flavor, and since the fish was just barely done (in keeping with Cantonese precepts), it truly did disintegrate most pleasingly on the tongue. When the pleasure of consuming this critter was past, the handsome skeleton remained as a reminder of the feast.

Actually, that skeleton outlived its welcome. On two dinner visits, the quality of the service by no means matched that of the cooking, and long waits for service were accompanied by the discomfort of sitting at a table that was never cleared or cleaned. The restaurant is pleasantly informal (many families bring small children who are just as likely to play at your table as at their own), but that is no excuse for sloppy service.

Shrimp cooked in a spicy, Szechuan-type fashion were much more rustic than those encountered elsewhere, another testimony to Canton's habit of doing things as they often are done in the old country. Pungent pickled vegetables gave the dish a lift, but the rough-hewn chunks of onion were disagreeable; worse, the shrimp were tough.

Seafoods stir-fried with black bean sauces are a great Cantonese specialty, and the restaurant offers a dozen or more choices in this category. A good way of trying this sauce is with clams, served in the shell and cooked just long enough to render them tender and sweet.

Most of the soups (all served family style and in great quantity) Also contain seafood, and here again we find examples of authenticity challenging Occidental tastes. The "Canton special soup" starts with a bland broth thickened with egg white, the blandness intended as a neutral background to such ingredients as shrimp, scallops and strongly flavored squid. This last is quite tough and chewy (texture counts for more, and in different ways, in Oriental cooking), and will cause one either to happily down several bowls, or to quickly retire one's spoon. A corn and crab soup, on the other hand, is not only quite unchallenging but remarkably delicious.

Fish of many kinds, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, scallops, oysters, Alams and sea cucumbers populate the menu, but by no means to the exclusion of meat dishes. Most are simple, and one of the most pleasant is the Peking duck. The restaurant serves large birds (so large that a pair of guests canceled an order for a second entree), which are carved at the table, the segments of meat and crisp skin then rolled inside rice pancakes spread with sweet sauce and slivered scallions. Specify a duck roasted long enough to cook away the bird's heavy layer of fat.

In an entirely different vein, the place serves classic dim sum luncheons, which on the weekends commence at 8 a.m. Dim sum, or pastries and various small dishes, can be quite a treat, and a pair of guests should be able to try six or seven varieties without spending more than $10. Carts bearing six or seven choices circle the room, and in the course of a meal one should be able to select from among 20 or more.

Typical and pleasant are har gow, or transparent steamed pastries filled with shrimp; sausage buns filled with fatty but exquisite Chinese sausage; turnip cakes, which must be eaten burning hot, when they are like German potato cakes or Jewish latkes; curried beef turnovers; crisp fried dumplings filled with minced shrimp, pork and greens, and shrimp "meatballs," which bear an uncanny resemblance to French seafood quenelles. The barbecued pork buns have a good filling, but the dough is rather like mashed Wonder bread.

CANTON SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

4134 University Ave., San Diego

281-6008

Lunch and dinner served daily.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $40.

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