Boom: A wave of sweetness.
BOOM: A blast of garlic.
KA-BOOM: A wall of heat.
And that's only from one bite. We pause a moment to appreciate the rush, and then, with chopsticks in hand, we pluck another bite from the bowl, raise it to our lips, and let the pyrotechnics begin anew.
"It's like fireworks for your mouth," says Suitably Impressed Companion as we work our way through a platter of stir-fried string beans in garlic sauce at Li Wah, the spacious Chinese restaurant at Asia Plaza. "It's just one explosion after another."
So true, insightful one. Just try to get that kind of action from most Western foods. In contrast, a properly prepared Chinese dish spans aromas, tastes, and textures ranging from the soft and sweet to the sharp and fiery. At Li Wah, adventurous diners discover a veritable arsenal of flavorful eating.
Although the 400-seat restaurant is in the heart of Cleveland's Chinatown, its appeal extends well beyond the Asian community. Even diners who don't know their hoisin from their hóng chá, who grew up thinking Chinese food was something Mom poured out of a can on PTA night, are attracted to the restaurant's good-tasting food and comfortable, contemporary surroundings. As a result, Li Wah's guests are a diverse mix -- everyone from Cleveland cops to white-collar office workers, from university students seeking cheap eats to multigenerational Chinese families gathered around a steaming soup pot.
The kitchen is open nonstop from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m., and its culinary offerings fall into three fairly traditional groupings. From morning until early afternoon, the focus is on dim sum, little appetizer-like portions of food paraded around the dining room on metal carts. The assortment is vast -- from the familiar potstickers and spring rolls (notable here for their extraordinarily frangible wrappers and aromatic fillings) to the downright exotic (think chicken feet, beef tripe, and turnip cakes). To order, simply watch while the dim sum lady lifts the lids on the various offerings, and point to what you want; she'll keep a running tally of your choices and see that they are reflected on your bill. During one lunch visit, steamed shrimp, neatly packaged in a wheat starch wrapper, were mild and understated. Incredibly creamy squares of freshly made braised tofu, topped with chopped shrimp, were moist and light as a cloud. And fat, chewy sesame balls, filled with creamy lotus-seed paste, rolled in whole sesame seeds, and deep-fried until golden, were nearly as toothsome as candy. Each dim sum serving generally contains three or four pieces and is intended to be shared; four or five servings would make a generous brunch for a small party. In true teahouse fashion, pots of green tea are served throughout the meal; just lift the lid when a refill of boiling water is desired.
Beyond the dim sum, Li Wah offers a lunch menu with a focus on noodles and rice. (Chinese typically eat these dishes at midday or as a snack, but rarely for dinner.) There's skinny mai fun (wiry, dried-rice vermicelli); fettuccine-like lo mein (braised soft noodles in the shape of spaghetti, with a texture nearly like meringue); and a variety of noodles in broth -- all tossed with add-ons that range from tofu to crabmeat, from pickled cabbage to pork. Portions are enormous, often piled into nine-inch glass pie plates, to be passed around the table. A vegetarian dish of lo mein noodles topped with emerald-green braised Chinese broccoli and a forest's worth of rehydrated black shiitake mushroom caps was woodsy but mild. On the other hand, braised soft noodles, with mostly tender whole scallops and unfortunately rubbery conch slices, in an intense, buttery black bean sauce, was a dark rumbling of flavor, set against the bright crunch of pea pods, onion, and red, green, and yellow pepper. Salty bits of fermented black beans lent a final zap of piquancy.
After 3:30 p.m., however, the dim sum carts are parked, and the lunch menus go back on the shelf. They're replaced by giant dinner menus -- massive bilingual tomes divided into groupings of soups, seafood, fish, pork, beef, poultry, shark's fin, and bird's nest dishes. Owner Donna Hom describes the menu's orientation as Hong Kong-style, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. A page near the front of the menu does offer "American Chinese Specials," with items like pepper steak, chicken chow mein, and egg foo young; however, unless you are under 10 or over 70, these familiar dishes are not what you came here for. Instead, consider the minced chicken and corn soup, jumbo shrimp with satay sauce, or salt-baked squid. Delicate wonton soup, with firm, fresh noodle dumplings in a clear chicken broth, was just right as a starter for a timid companion; more adventurous and rewarding was a bowl of amber-colored hot-and-sour soup, its aggressive sharpness tempered by shredded mushrooms and tofu.
A vegetarian choice of bean curd and vegetables was subtle and vaguely sweet, with pea pods, sheer carrot strips, black mushroom caps, and more of that custardy braised tofu. For contrast, we ordered a distinctively spicy dish of beef with hot sauce and an avalanche of vegetables, including bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, peppers, mushrooms, and ears of baby corn. And as a final treat, we decided on one of the evening's specials -- a half-order of rich Peking Duck, with its distinctively crisp skin and succulent meat. Many Chinese restaurants require that diners order this labor-intensive dish up to 24 hours in advance. But at Li Wah, a whole order of Peking Duck, served in two courses, is part of the standard menu, so advance planning isn't required. As it turned out, the half-portion was more than ample, consisting of a whole wing and leg; strips of boned breast and its separated skin, evenly sliced and stacked in tidy piles; and a half-dozen housemade Mandarin pancakes, like small tortillas, wrapped around a filling of meat, skin, slivered scallion greens, and hoisin sauce. Crisp, rich, sweet, hot, and chewy all at once, the little roll-ups were especially appealing.
For those interested in washing down their abalone and fish maws with something more fortifying than tea, Li Wah offers a number of alcoholic options. While the drink menu, featuring fruity, old-fashioned concoctions like Mai Tais, Singapore Slings, and Piña Coladas, garnished with maraschino cherries and served in faux coconut shells, put us in mind of Trader Vic's circa 1949, such sweet drinks actually go down pretty easily with spicy Asian fare. Kirin and Tsing Tao beers also help refresh the palate. Then there's the handful of mostly inexpensive wines, including sake, plum wine, liebfraumilch, and white zinfandel, which would do in a pinch, although it would have been a pleasant surprise to find a modest West Coast riesling or two on the menu to boot.
Despite the occasional language barrier, service at Li Wah was generally fast, friendly, and good-natured. For instance, although we had trouble explaining our need for a receipt to our lunchtime waiter, our dinner server was so pleased by our enthusiastic eating that -- after bringing steaming hand towels, the ubiquitous fortune cookies, and wobbly cubes of cool, fruity coconut- and mango-flavored gelatins -- she graciously served us bowls of tender tofu in a light sugar syrup, compliments of the house.
Now, that's what I call a grand finale.