Chinese food is an American staple. It is also arguably the most degraded foreign cuisine in the land. So the question always is: Where can you get real Chinese food?
I wasn’t looking to answer that question when I happened to drive past Chang’s Chinese Restaurant in west Miami-Dade County, near Florida International University. I just wanted a place to have lunch.
A quick online search revealed customer raves, some written by Chinese diners. Indeed, when I walked in, I was the only non-Asian in the place.
I ordered the salt-and-pepper tofu, which was highly praised by online reviewers. The tofu was crispy outside and very tender inside, the seasoning piquant enough to give this otherwise bland food some bite and substance.
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A casual conversation with the gentleman overseeing the room, a Hong Kong native, revealed that the tofu was homemade.
Also, he pointed out, the frog on the menu arrived live in the kitchen, and the fish came from that tank right there.
These delicacies and others are posted on two boards on the wall, in Chinese. When I inquired with a server, she replied, “the specials,” and said no more. I took the mystery as a sign of Chang’s authenticity; I was not wrong.
The Chang family, from Canton province, opened the Miami restaurant in 1979, serving the usual Americanized Chinese dishes. In 1995, Tony Chang took over, changing the menu to traditional Cantonese, based on recipes he learned from an uncle who was a chef in Hong Kong.
The “new” Chang’s emphasizes fresh seafood, including razor clams, sea bass, oysters and scallops. The latter two are served on the half shell with homemade black bean and XO sauces to accentuate the briny sea flavors.
I tried soft-shell crabs; not traditionally Cantonese, but in season at the moment, plump and juicy. Another customer feasted on a big plateful of snails.
Seasonal vegetable dishes are written in Chinese on another board: snow-pea tips, Chinese broccoli, green or yellow chives, and another vegetable that current Chang could not spell in English and I could not figure out when he said it in Cantonese.
In the kitchen, Chang has five helpers, all Chinese. He ordered two special stone burners from Hong Kong to turbocharge his wok temperature. He puts the burners on full blast for a Cantonese dish the menu calls roast chicken, which Chang cooks by continuously ladling rocket-hot oil over the bird until it’s done.
“We cook in small batches,” Chang said. “And I make all my own sauces.”
A curious corner of the menu offers a handful of Platos Latinos. Chang said his clientele is hot for his maduros and tostones, as well as his palomilla steak.
I took his word for it, instead sampling some stir-fried beef cubes with black pepper sauce and sliced garlic; braised chicken with Chinese wine in a clay pot; and conch with yellow chives, as well as a plate of a leafy, tropical water spinach the chef called ong choy.
It was all very fresh and delicious, with none of the thick, syrupy sauces I’ve come to expect in many U.S. Chinese restaurants.
Yes, Chang’s makes concessions to the American palate, like egg foo young, chow mein, even — the horror! — chop suey. And at the end of the meal, you get a fortune cookie.
I will go back for the pork intestines cooked with jalapeño and the spicy fried rice that Chang said is a must-try.
I have never been to China, but I have dined on Chinese food both cheap and expensive. None of it measures up to what I’ve had at Chang’s.