Ethnic restaurants usually go wrong when they pander to bland middle-American tastes, so on a recent visit to Ba-Dar, my dining group (including a China-born friend) pretty much shied away from the standard menu (fairly extensive, but not overwhelming) and instead ordered items mainly from the Chinese menu, which is available only by request. It's printed in English as well as Chinese; what makes it "Chinese" is the greater variety of fare, going well beyond the usual beef with broccoli, moo goo gai pan and crispy this 'n' that. The prices are comparable between the two menus, running about nine or 10 bucks for most entrées.
On either menu, what sets Ba-Dar apart from many of its local competitors is its abundance of fish and seafood dishes. Even the standard menu offers five different preparations of squid, for example. So we thought it best to sample several entrées that included water life (other than the ubiquitous water chestnuts).
Even the standard menu's appetizer combo ($8.95) managed to insinuate crab and shrimp into the proceedings: two crab rangoons (deep-fried flower-shaped wonton wrappers with little dollops of crab and cream cheese in the center) and two fried shrimp, along with pairs of egg rolls, fried wontons, little barbecued ribs and "chicken in foil" (foil-wrapped chicken popovers). Crab rangoon is an American invention (does cream cheese occur naturally in China?), but the Ba-Dar version is undeniably appealing--crisp but not greasy little bundles of starch with a moist surprise in the middle. The other items on the platter were equally good in an unpretentious way, just enough to stimulate the appetite for heartier dishes.
We tried only two other things from the regular menu. The sizzling rice chicken ($9) was stir-fried strips of chicken with mixed vegetables dished up on a hot iron plate. I'm not sure that plate ever made it around to my side of the table, and after the meal, nobody else had much to say about it, so obviously it didn't leave much of an impression. At least it didn't leave a bad impression. The shrimp in lobster sauce ($9.95) boasted shrimp stir-fried with carrots, peas, baby corn and straw mushrooms in a creamy sauce, but the shrimp bits were vastly outnumbered by the veggies. It was a mild preparation, not nearly as heavy and rich as you might expect with a sauce like this.
Otherwise, we focused on the by-request menu. What's billed as "shrimp with scrambled egg" ($9.95) is actually a fluffy shrimp omelet. Many of the crustaceans had migrated to the omelet's outer edge, as if trying to escape, but they made a substantial contribution to a dish that was satisfying though not redolent of the usual Chinese flavors. In other words, it's a good choice if you're dragging along someone who claims not to like Chinese food.
In both the sliced fish with mushroom ($10.75) and the rather oddly named "salted fish with eggplant and chicken pot" ($9.95), the fish was exceptionally mild--safe for people who feel compelled to order fish even though they don't care for fishy flavors. The real winning ingredient here was the eggplant, savory and glistening with sesame oil. This would have been fine fare all on its own. Another mild-mannered oceanic item was the seafood-bean curd soup ($8.95), with imitation crab, shrimp, egg, big chunks of fresh-tasting tofu and veggies in a fish broth.
The string beans with strips of pork ($9) made a fine impression. The beans were crisp: the pork came in little ribbons: and it was all very slightly spicy. Nothing we ordered was very hot on the spice scale, and I wonder how serious those little red chiles of warning are on the other menu items.
I can't say that Ba-Dar is any more authentic that the city's other Chinese restaurants; in fact, you have to ask for chopsticks instead of forks, and the Muzak favors Doctor Zhivago over the greatest hits of the erhu. And you won't mistake the food here for what you can get in coastal California. Even so, the service is very good, and Rebecca Cook got it right 10 years ago: "The restaurant maintains a solid 'as it should be' with something extra in terms of variety."