Thursday, December 19, 2002
Photo: Randy Tunnell
I have found my Chinese restaurant, and it is in Salinas. It''s a small, unprepossessing place on West Alisal St., a block north of Main. It''s owned by 29-year-old Sam Chen and his brother Daly, 31, natives of Canton, China, who came to Salinas a year ago after ten years in San Francisco. The brothers grew up in the business-Dad is a chef at a Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant in the City by the Bay, and one uncle owns a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. The boys cooked around San Fran for awhile, then decided to go into business for themselves. They scanned the "Chinese restaurants for sale" ads in the city''s five Chinese-language newspapers, and visited properties around the Bay Area, Napa and Santa Cruz before settling on Salinas.
The Eagle opened in October of 2001, a tricky time to start a new venture, but the Chen brothers weren''t fazed.
Daly does the cooking, while Sam manages the front of the house. The place is packed at lunchtime, and in the evenings they do a brisk home delivery business. Likely as not, it''ll be Daly-or Sam, or possibly their third brother, Jack-ringing your doorbell personally with that redolent bag of hot, spicy goodies.
I love the Eagle partly because of the faux-adobe archways, bead curtains and red and green color scheme, left over from one of the restaurant''s previous incarnations as a Mexican eatery. I love it partly because it''s a feel-good story of Chinese mainland immigrants who found their own, private Golden Mountain.
But mostly I love it because of the Salted and Peppered Tofu, the Walnut Prawns, the Triple Mongolian, Fresh Vegetarian Spring Rolls and Vietnamese Seafood Noodle Soup. And those were only the dishes I tried. I also love it for the dishes I haven''t tried, from Pan-Fried String Bean to Salt-Baked Shrimp with No Shell to Five-Spice Roasted Chicken. And I love it because they offer 25 different lunch specials, at $4.60 a pop (50 cents extra if you order seafood), instead of the usual eight or nine choices.
There''s a lot to love at the Eagle.
I tried it for the first time last week with my friend Sparky, who swears by the place. Sparky and her family make the Eagle their Friday night home-delivery ritual, and Sam, Jack and Daly all know Sparky and her kids by name. "You''ll love the salt and pepper tofu," she assured me, as we walked in and settled ourselves in one of the red leather booths.
Sam came over to take our order. "Try the Fresh Vegetarian Spring Rolls," he counseled. They arrived ($5.95), four hefty servings of rather large, raw pieces of Chinese cabbage, lettuce, bean sprouts and mint leaves, rolled up like a giant eggroll in cool, thin rice paper together with potato-stick-shaped pieces of quick-fried tofu seasoned with star anise, and sprinklings of thin rice noodles. It wasn''t an elegant dish-peasant fare, probably. We dipped the rolls in a spicy peanut sauce, and marveled at the dish''s lightness, and how each ingredient kept its individual taste.
Next up was the Seafood Noodle Soup ($6.25), one of four soups offered on the restaurant''s "Special Vietnamese" list. Like all traditional Chinese or Vietnamese soups, it was served in a large bowl, family style. Sam portioned it out into small, separate bowls, making sure we each received ample servings of the shrimp, scallops and squid. The broth was a very gentle, clear vegetable base, similar to a Won Ton soup. Simmering in that broth, along with the seafood, were straw mushrooms, thinly sliced vegetables, and fresh bean sprouts, chili and basil leaves. It was a light, palate-cleansing soup, perhaps not suited to an entire entree, although it is offered as such on the lunch menu. But it was perfect as a first course for what was yet to come.
We ordered the Triple Mongolian ($8.50) because I love Mongolian Beef, and the addition of chicken and prawns to the dish sounded scrumptious. It was. The three meats were lightly sauteed, glistening in chili oil and brown sauce, served over a bed of green and white onions and vermicelli noodles. Just great, with a lingering heat.
The Walnut Prawns ($8.95) was a little sweet for my taste, but I don''t even like desserts, so it''s hard to find a sweet dish that merits my attention. The dish involved a generous serving of large, moist shrimp, lightly coated in a sweet, creamy sauce, accompanied by a lettuce salad and candied walnuts. What was lovely about it was that the sauce wasn''t goopy or saccharine-sweet, but almost like a very light, clotted cream, and it just barely coated the shrimp instead of drowning them.
But the stand-out dish of the day was the Salted and Peppered Tofu ($5.95). Daly uses a firm, spongy tofu cut into small cubes, brushes a hint of a batter on them, and deep-fries them for probably half a second, just enough to crisp them up. They''re served on a bed of sauteed cabbage and onions, and when you pop one in your mouth, you get a burst of salt and pepper goodness. It''s an unusual dish to find hereabouts, and just wonderful. Kids will like it, too-it''s a great way to introduce them to tofu.
Portions were so generous that I got two more meals out of the deal. And the food was even better reheated in the microwave-a true test. In fact, the reheated Walnut Prawns was spectacular, as the sauce kind of burned off, leaving only a sweet-spicy glaze.
Too bad they don''t deliver to P.G.