Sailing The Pacific

A Voyage To Café Pacific Reveals An Unexpected Sea Of Pan-Asian Delights.

FOR THE THIRD time in as many months, I've wandered into the modest shopping center at Prince Road and Campbell Avenue in search of some distinctive repast. Whether it's timing, fate or an auspicious alignment of the elements, this little corner of the universe is lately a repository of culinary achievement: a top-notch French bakery (La Baguette), a charming and uniformly delicious French café (Ghini's), and solid Southern barbecue (Bobby Dean's). Add to the list a savory trip to the Orient in the guise of Café Pacific, the latest restaurant to open in the space, and a serious contender as one of the best.

At first glance, Café Pacific may seem like all the others who've tried to bring Chinese food to a desert population steeped in enchiladas and topopo. But beyond the familiar terrain of chow mein and moo goo gai pan, you'll discover traces of Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the South Pacific. For the diner who loves all manner of Asian cuisine, this is a real Oriental express. More amazing still, every dish sampled resonates with robust flavor and authenticity. Café Pacific comes as close as any restaurant in town to honestly interpreting pan-Asian cuisine.

A conversation overheard at the restaurant may explain this display of eclecticism. A patron asked where the proprietors were from originally, and the waiter replied, "Hong Kong." Of course! Referred to as "the culinary heart of Asia" in many guidebooks and magazine articles, Hong Kong may be the most tastefully cosmopolitan city in the world -- a global intersection where East, West and Southeast tantalizingly collide. Café Pacific adeptly reflects just such a melange of gastronomic influences.

Nonetheless, the café's predominant theme is Chinese. Daily lunch specials ($4.95-$5.50) include familiar sweet and sour pork, broccoli beef, sesame chicken, lo mein and moo goo gai pan, all served with wonton or egg roll and a choice of egg flower, hot and sour, or miso soup. A la carte dishes expand to include several beef, pork, chicken, seafood and vegetable stir fries. Egg foo young, fried rice, chop suey and chow mein complete the guise that Café Pacific is just another Chinese restaurant in the anemic local scene.

But hold on just a minute. A glance at the soups indicates something different is happening here. In addition to all the standards, there's Hong Kong-style wonton noodle soup; Pacific seafood soup with shrimp, whitefish and mussels; pork and chive dumpling noodle soup; roast duck noodle soup; barbecue pork udon; pho and borsch.

Borsch? "Beef and vegetable soup," we're told by the waiter. "Very good." Maybe, but somehow I'm reminded of that song on Sesame Street where one of the objects doesn't belong. Instead, we sample the Hong Kong wonton noodle ($5.25), and are rewarded with a large, steaming bowl of aromatic broth swirling around a beehive of rice noodles with strips of bok choy, chopped green onion and delicate dumplings filled with shrimp and minced pork. At our host's suggestion, we add a dash of red vinegar for a satisfying zing.

Under ordinary circumstances, the soup would easily be a meal in itself, especially with the addition of an appetizer (we suggest Vietnamese spring roll, fresh spring roll, Chinese or spicy egg roll). We are, however, professionally obligated to total gluttony. So we sample both the soup and an order of vegetarian egg rolls ($3) before even considering our entrees.

Though not specifically listed on the menu, this vegetarian version is available upon request. Perhaps there's not a more clichéd first course in the world than these envelopes of fried dough with their various fillings of meat and vegetables, but somehow Café Pacific manages to breathe life into the tired form. The doughy wonton is light, slender and fried golden and crisp; the blend of shredded vegetables (cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, rice noodles) remains fresh, crunchy and delicious.

On a subsequent visit we check out the crab puffs ($4), another overworked hors d'oeuvre, and find once again that they beat expectation. The humidity may have worked to the disadvantage of the pastry's crispiness, but the filling of cream cheese and crab was about twice the typical allotment and thoroughly tasty. House specialties and "exotic dinner selections" are printed on the back of the Chinese menu, and this is where our attention quickly turns.

A daily special of spicy Thai shrimp ($12.95) is served steaming with devilish impudence (on a scale of one to 10 in heat, we ordered a six). Hot-and-spicy epicures will love Café Pacific's customized dishes, but beware: they'll give you exactly what you ask for, and those Asian peppers are hot. A thick, spicy-sweet chili sauce covers the firm crustaceans on our plate, creating a tender and luscious composition balanced by a neutral order of steamed white rice. A vegetable slaw of cabbage, onion, peanut and red chili, served on the side, also delivers a distinctive kick.

The Malaysian satay ($11.95) is equally impressive. A long, rectangular platter boasts three pairs of tender and flavorful beef, chicken and shrimp kebabs, with their signature peanut sauce served on the side. A cool addition of sliced cucumbers completes the platter, and we find we must request additional quantities of the creamy, chili-infused sauce to do them justice.

Café Pacific's pan-fried shrimp ($12.95) is something of an Asian scampi of large, butterflied prawns sautéed in garlic butter and dusted with paprika and black pepper. A choice of rice, noodles or fettuccine leaves the final East-meets-West interpretation up to the diner. We conclude our main course survey with a stir-fry order of spicy, Singapore-style rice vermicelli ($6.95): a steaming nest of delicate rice noodles tossed with shrimp, barbecued pork strips, red and green bell pepper, green onion and bean sprouts. Ample enough to share, this Asian pasta is a firebrand even at the requested "medium." The barbecued pork in the dish is a standout, adding a hint of smoke and sweetness to an otherwise pungent dish.

Finally, Café Pacific may be the only Asian restaurant in town where you'll find a dessert tray worthy of consideration, with an assortment of fruit puddings and custards in an appealing rainbow of colors. We tried the mango pudding and coconut custard topped with strawberries, cantaloupe and kiwi, and found both to be outstanding. Though more gelatinous than creamy in texture (the base is of fruit rather than dairy), each won us over with its refreshing burst of fresh fruit flavor and subdued sweetness. Finally, guilt-free desserts that actually taste great!

There's much more to be explored at Café Pacific, and I for one plan to work my way through every nook and cranny of this exceptional menu. It's not your run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, for sure.

Café Pacific. 3607 N. Campbell Ave. 326-5174. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Beer and Wine, V, MC. No checks. Menu items: $3-$12.95.

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