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Dim Sum Has Cart Blanche at Dragon and Phoenix

February 27, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Competition is stiff in Little Saigon. From my perch by a panoramic second-story window I can count more than a dozen restaurants, all Asian and mainly Vietnamese, in this particular Westminster mini-mall.

Dragon and Phoenix Palace is the restaurant of the moment, as the overflow lunch crowd attests. It's brand new, and the huge, angular room is filled with the lucky charms any new Chinese restaurant has to have: flowers arranged in oversized pots, gaudy red ribbons draped across the ceiling, "double happiness" written in gilded Chinese characters on a rear wall. The entrance, a downstairs hallway, is partially blocked by a large platter of roast duck and sliced oranges, a Buddhist offering.

Concerned-looking managers walk the floor at all times, their hands clasped solemnly at the small of their backs, keeping tabs on the crowds of enthusiastic diners. New restaurants always do well in this neighborhood, of course. The real test will be in a year or so, when some of the opening-night luster has faded.

Like most of the other restaurants in the mall, it has a "bright lights, big-city" style. We have been seated at a round table, which, like all tables here, comes draped with a pink polyester tablecloth. This being lunchtime, the dim sum ladies roll carts by nonstop, hawking their wares in strident Cantonese: "Ha-"Ha-GOW, SIU-mai, CHEEN-cheung-fan." The families and businessmen surrounding us can hardly contain themselves.

Neither can we, actually. Dragon and Phoenix Palace might just have the biggest variety of dim sum in town. Dim sum are those beguiling tea pastries that constitute an entire subculture in Hong Kong and Canton and make for perfect breakfast or lunchtime fare. We count 25 varieties on the carts, then lose track.

A hawker passes by with a hot griddle lined with sin chook gyn, which are pocket-sized pouches of bean curd skin brimming with shiitake mushroom, julienne bamboo shoot and minced pork. Here comes the fun gor, a diaphanous noodle wrapper filled with fresh vegetables and the lo mei bao, sticky rice balls with barbecued pork. We can't wait to dig in.

The first two are delicious and exotic, and we eat them hungrily with fresh chili paste. The bao turn out to be a disappointment, though, drier and less interesting than the heartier lo mei gai, where the same rice plus a hunk of steamed chicken is wrapped in a lotus leaf.

Dinner is a totally different experience here, the one similarity being almost limitless choice. The menu contains 221 dishes, not to mention what's left to the imagination. (Yes, they will make you whatever you wish, providing the ingredients are on hand.)

Nightly specials such as Wednesday's Peking duck are worth noting. When was the last time you got an entire Peking duck--buns, plum sauce, scallions and all--for $9.95? And it's not a bad one, either, with crisp skin and flavorful meat, if you overlook the fact that it is a bit dry. Wow! I haven't seen a value like this since the late '70s.

Dozens of appetizers, cold dishes and soups make good beginnings to any dinner here. You might start with No. 17, smoked fish perfumed with star anise; or No. 26, Chao Chow hot and sour shrimp soup, redolent of pineapple, tomato, vinegar and chili (this one seems suspiciously Vietnamese); or No. 8, succulent Cantonese-style barbecued pork.

Deep-fried Chao Chow shrimp roll (No. 105) is a treasure hidden over in the menu's shrimp section. It's pure shrimp meat rolled in bean curd skin, and a great appetizer if it doesn't come up too oily, which can happen. It's served with spicy pickled cabbage, a harmonious coupling.

Bring the entire family if you plan to order satay hot pot (No. 162), so named for the tongue-numbing blend of spices that flavors it. This "soup," for lack of a better description, is a monster ceramic kettle filled to the brim with sea cucumber, sand dabs, shrimp, cuttlefish, clams, squid, scallops and probably anything else that that lives in the sea, all steaming hot. Simply put, it is one of the glories of the Chinese kitchen.

Watch out for deep-fried dishes here, though. The salt and pepper fried spareribs--more or less pork chops cut up into bite-sized pieces--are usually a safe bet at Chinese restaurants but here they get reduced to an oily mess, as do noodle baskets (Nos. 172 through 177), meats flavored with orange peel and the chow mein specialties (Nos. 197 through 203).

And order the very fresh (often live) seafoods with caution, because the sauces may be quite different from what the English menu suggests. Crab with hot spicy sauce (No. 134--a bargain at $8.95) turns out to be a crab sauteed in gluey red ketchup which has been rendered positively chunky with minced garlic. The terrific clams with mint and hot sauce (No. 155) may taste exactly as you'd expect, but pepper dry-braised crab (No. 139) is positively sugar-sweet from a thin residue on the shell. Pepper dry-braised means sweet? Go figure.

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