After two trips to China, I’ve noticed a trend: The dishes I remember from China don’t often show up on American Chinese restaurant menus, and vice-versa.
This pattern mostly holds true at Best Lee’s, a primarily Chinese pan-Asian restaurant in the Far Northeast Heights—but not completely. A smattering of Chinese dishes that deserve to be called “authentic” is just one reason why it’s worth a visit. The food is prepared and presented artistically. The atmosphere encourages the unexpected—visitors are often greeted by a bespectacled man who introduces himself as “Chinese Uncle” and returns to your table to make sure things are going well. And while the menu is mostly a mix of standard Americanized Chinese food (General Tso’s chicken, crab Rangoon) and pan-Asian cuisine, especially Thai food, there are some gems on the menu that you probably haven’t seen before.
Upon entering, you may notice a strategically placed certificate naming Best Lee’s winner of a Top 100 Chinese Restaurant Award, bestowed by Chinese Restaurant News. There are also carefully placed classic and modern Chinese-style paintings, and the booth seats and walls are adorned with Han characters.
Awaiting me on my table was what could be called Chinese chips and salsa—a basket of crispy wonton skins with a sweet, citrusy sauce. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it grew on me a little. A pot of delicate organic white peony tea, however, was my cup of tea.
A bowl of Thai-style red curry soup was good enough to be served at a top-tier Thai restaurant. The spicy red soup was rich with coconut milk and packed with eggplant, potatoes, green peppers, fresh basil, zucchini, peas, carrots and crispy tofu.
It was as authentic a Chinese dish as I could want, deserving in every way to be called a delicacy.
Ordering the crispy rex sole reeled in a whole, flat fish. Fried and drenched in a fruity sauce that tasted of pineapple, the fish was garnished with vegetables and a massive “flower” carved from sweet potato. The flesh was firm, clean-tasting and moist. It peeled easily off the bones. Scallops in garlic sauce was also good, though fairly pedestrian—a stir-fried dish in a brown garlic sauce with vegetables.
My next visit began with a serenade en route to the table: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way / Chinese Uncle take care of you and you have a nice day.”
This time, a small vessel of cucumber pickles greeted me at the table, followed by a bowl of hot-and-sour soup that was borderline masterful—spicy and thick with seaweed, egg, celery, shredded red chiles, mushrooms, a few unchewable root things, carrots and green shreds of something that might be broccoli stem. A side of Thai spring rolls was crispy and light, with peppery cabbage inside.
“Asian-style duck” translated to shredded duck meat, yummy morsels of fat clinging to its pieces, stir-fried with greens, onions and a hint of anise. Cucumber and artfully arranged onion crescents, a bowl of brown sauce, and a plate of thin moo shu pancakes rounded out the entrée. You’re supposed to put a little pile of duck and some sauce into your pancake and eat it as a bundle. My finished package was tasty but not spectacular—the brown sauce was too salty, and I found myself wishing for more tartness in the equation.
All was forgiven when I tried the steamed yellow fish with ginger-scallion sauce. I learned in China to override my impulse against steamed fish, which sounds more soft and mushy than appetizing. But steamed fish is remarkably receptive to sauce, and Best Lee’s is a classic and remarkable sauce. It was as authentic a Chinese dish as I could want, deserving in every way to be called a delicacy. My only regret is I didn’t order it with rex sole instead—it’s bigger than the yellow fish.
As I spooned through a three-toned chocolate mousse, served in a slick plastic tube cut-off at a sharp angle, my waitress made a point of warning me to be careful. If you eat this dessert with beer (I had just finished a Sapporo), she said, you’ll get very drunk.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “But if you eat it and drink like five beers, you get really drunk.”