China Canteen

808 Hungerford Dr.



Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. daily.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $7 to $10.

Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.

Tired of the same old orange beef and kung pao chicken? Here's a Chinese restaurant where you can try dishes you've never had before, and at rock-bottom prices. But the adventure doesn't come easy.

Most of the unusual items are on a menu on the wall -- handwritten in Chinese with no translation. And most of the staff, although eager to help, can't really explain the dishes on that menu. One solution is to relax and put yourself in their hands when it comes to choosing. Another is to visit when owner-manager Andy Chang is on duty. He can guide you through the strange territory on the Chinese menu and design a meal to your liking.

If you're not after adventure, you'll still do well at China Canteen. The standard Chinese restaurant dishes are prepared very well and served in immense portions.

Among the appetizers, the Szechwan pickled salad is excellent: a peppery, tangy marinated cabbage reminiscent of Korean kim chee. The Szechwan dumplings are delightful, very delicate won ton in a pungent, flavorful sauce with sesame oil. The pan-fried pork and scallion crepes are oily but delicious. Actually a beautiful soup, the Szechwan noodle appetizer is a meaty, spicy broth with wheat noodles, bits of red pepper and a touch of briny flavor from slivers of salted fish. (Note that there's an entree-size beef version for only $4.50.) The seafood soup (from the Chinese menu) has an egg-drop base with shrimp and scallops -- nice but unremarkable.

When it comes to entrees, a highlight from the Chinese menu (and a bargain at $6.95) is the marvelous jumbo pork ball, a generous hemisphere of lean ground pork that's slow-cooked for hours with spices and Chinese cabbage so that the vegetable is completely infused with the meat flavors. This is what meatloaf ought to taste like and never does.

Another standout (and another bargain at $9.50) is the delicate steamed whole fish, covered with scallions and served in a mild, soy-based, ginger-flavored sauce that lets the natural flavor of the fish shine through.

If you like hot and spicy dishes, ask for the beef dish on the Chinese menu that's served in a metal chafing dish. The beef is fatty by Western standards (the fat is very tasty nonetheless), but the sauce is a gem -- fiery hot, complex, zapped with lots of garlic and cilantro.

On the standard menu, don't miss the wonderful Cantonese roast duck (on special at this writing at a remarkable $6.95 for half a bird): tender, lean, crisp-skinned, beautifully flavored and fragrant with anise. Even something as simple as yu shiang string beans is done flawlessly. The beans are plump, fresh and cooked perfectly, and their sauce, blessedly unthickened, is nicely laced with garlic.

Don't ignore the Chinese restaurant standards, either. The house crispy noodles, for example, are excellent -- a mammoth portion, nicely singed on one side for crispness with plenty of beef, chicken and shrimp in a good, ginger-laced sauce. And the moo-shi pork, also in gigantic portions, is exemplary, with crisp vegetables, fluffy egg and plenty of meat.