It’s been decades, I think, since St. Louis had a new style of Chinese cuisine, when Yen Ching brought us Hunan-style food, our first non-Cantonese experience. China, of course, is immense, and more multi-ethnic than most of us tend to realize. (I’m guilty, too.) Now we have a restaurant bringing us Dongbei-style food, something I only heard of a couple of years ago when I visited a fellow foodist in Queens, New York.
The area is in Northern China, home of cold winters, more wheat than rice, and some fermented foods like cabbage. If this sounds faintly familiar, I can tell you the food fits right into our climate. It’s not quite yeast rolls and sauerkraut, but the discerning eater can find similarities. The non-discerning will simply find good stuff to eat.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe is small, modest in price, and tastefully decorated. It’s on the south side of the Olive Boulevard strip that’s home to many Asian businesses. The menu is fairly short for a St. Louis Chinese restaurant, and is in the process of being revised. Several things that are on it are no longer offered, including, unfortunately, the lamb ribs, a version of which I’d had in New York and swooned over. Too hard to get lamb ribs here, say the guys who own the place.
This time of year is a good excuse to go for soup, and the offerings here are hearty ones, none of your chicken-broth-with-a-few-vegetables sort of stuff. Sour cabbage with pork belly is a soup, although the menu doesn’t use that word, the sour cabbage being very traditional. This isn’t sauerkraut, but less acidic, more finely shredded, almost citrus-y to go with the robust flavor of the pork belly – which was, by the way, pretty lean for the cut of pork from which bacon is made – and chunks of potato, which are easier to grow in northern China than rice. It’s thick, and about as hearty as you’d expect from pork and cabbage. Only slightly lighter is the chicken and mushroom soup, thick with noodles and very mushroomy.
“Clear noodle with sesame sauce” is not the sesame noodles found on many Chinese menus, the small noodles with a sauce that is the color and almost the consistency of peanut butter. It’s a nicely arranged salad-ish dish where the julienned cucumber, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, a little pork and a shower of cilantro wait for the diner to pour over the sesame sauce and mix it all together. The serving is generous and the results are so good it’s hard share without begrudging one’s fellow diners. But resist that urge, there’s more. (Dongbei servings are always large; that, too, fits right in our local tradition.)
The sizzling plate in the title of tofu on sizzling plate was, indeed crackling and spitting merrily when it arrived. A brown sauce, slightly sweet and laced with ginger, was nubbly with bits of ground chicken, plus carrots, peas and green onions. The fingers of tofu had been lightly battered and quickly fried, the better to hold the sauce and give a little more texture.
That same batter, so light one wonders about rice flour, surrounds curling finger-sized piece of fish in the simply named hot crisp fish. It’s double hot, not just in serving temperature, but in spicing as well. A couple of handfuls of dried hot peppers are sliced and cooked in the oil with the fish, so that even if one doesn’t eat the peppers, some residual flesh, and thus capsaicin, which is what makes chili peppers hot, is on the breading. It’s pretty sharp, a slow-growing heat that abates some, and returns more vigorously with each succeeding piece of fish. Hot food lovers should be blissful.
Twice-cooked pork uses thin slices of nice lean pork tenderloin, also battered and deep-fried before being swathed in a fruity, acidic sauce, tasting of pineapple and more. It is, of course, a take on sweet and sour pork, but this is remarkably better, not just in its freshness and handsome appearance but in the ratio of sauce to meat and tenderness of the meat.
On our first visit, a dish topped by what appeared to be a cloud went by. “What’s that?” we asked. “Sweet potato,” explained the server. “Next time,” we promised, and so we did. Listed as honey crisp sweet potato, it would convert the most reluctant. The cloud was spun sugar, the technique of taking sugar melted to a liquid and then stretching it out. As it cools, the thread hardens. The same sugar had been used to coat chunks of sweet potato on the plate and the cloud of threads that topped it. Untidy to eat, yes, but very rewarding, perhaps even irresistible. This isn’t, by the way, some tourist bait; spun sugar has been in Chinese kitchens since the Ming Dynasty, often using the syrup to make confectionery animals for children for holidays.
It’s a small place, diners are often waiting for a table, which gives them time to admire the subway-tile décor and the New York City signs creating the black and white décor. Service is pleasant and accommodating. There’s a sort of buffet on one wall, for a do-it-yourself run with the ma la soup, something I haven’t tried yet. Ma la is spicy, so be prepared if you are interested.
I could happily work my way through the whole menu based on what I’ve tasted so far.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe
8148 Olive Blvd., University City
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes