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Review Sun Dec 02 2007

Guest Review: Chi Café

This guest review comes from reader Rosamund Miller. If you'd like to submit a review of your own, please email it to drivethru@gapersblock.com.

I love Chinese food. Growing up in San Francisco, I ate a lot of it. Much to my mother's surprise and delight, my generally picky 6-year-old self had no trouble putting away a carton of ma pao tofu, mu shu pork or even scaly, mysteriously delicious chicken feet at dim sum. After a number of years in the culturally and culinary different Midwest, I've come to the conclusion there are four kinds of Chinese restaurants: really bad dives, really good dives, high-end places with average food, and the excellent but at times elusive middle. The middle has great food and surroundings to match. You can go for a nice dinner with visiting relatives or collapse into fried noodles at the end of a long night. Prices are reasonable. The food is the main priority, but atmosphere isn't too far behind.

Chi Café (also known as Mong Kok) is all this and more. Located in the two-story plaza of stores and restaurants sandwiched between Archer and Wentworth, the restaurant's cute, compact exterior gives way to a bright, surprisingly spacious inside. A cheerily incongruous chef statue greets you at the door, which opens to sparkling white tiled walls topped by sleek coral and turquoise waves. A relative newcomer to Chinatown at two months old, Chi Café is contemporary and attractive without being sterile, hip but friendly and unpretentious. The seating is mainly in the form of low, orange booths with black marble tables, complete with built-in drawers for utensils. Both times my regular eating partner and I visited, the tables and floors looked as if they'd been just scrubbed, contributing further to the fresh, airy feel of a place that remains cozy despite its modern décor.

The menu seems half snack shop and half more traditional sit-down restaurant, but manages to find a balance: there's a wide variety of dishes, but you don't get the sense it's trying to do too much at once. A mix of the recognizable and less familiar, choices range from Chicken Fried Rice and Noodle Rolls to Duck's Tongue and Chives with XO Sauce. We kept it fairly basic, starting with salt and pepper tofu and fried dough fritters. It arrived quickly, the tofu covered in chilies, garlic and scallions. It was wonderfully crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, filling without being heavy. The fried dough sticks were piping hot, good solo and delicious dipped in Sriracha.

Our server was efficient and pleasant, and our main course, prepared behind the glass pane separating the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant, came soon after. Our fried rice noodles with scallops and king mushrooms were a little soupy, but the scallops and mushrooms were fresh, garlicky and firm. The papaya-mango smoothie was perfect: thick, creamy and not too sweet, the mango balancing the richness of papaya. On a return trip, we ordered ginger onion chicken and a fried fish fillet. Chi Café does meat as well as starch: the half chicken wasn't overpowered by the surrounding cooked onions, and the fish's flavor came through its buttery, slightly sweet sauce.

Chi Café's appeal does not seem lost on others, either: each of the many times I've passed by it's packed with customers of all ages, from families to teenagers to elderly couples. I'm confident it will do well, even among its equally tasty neighbors.

Chi Café is located at 2161A S. Archer Ave., and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Gino888 / December 3, 2007 11:08 PM

If memory serves me correctly, I think this place is run by the former staff of Ken Kee, just a few paces away on the other wing of the Square, so the menu is similar, but, decidedly more chic and far more comfortable to sit and eat in. I wish they had picture menus, but, everything has been pretty good so far.

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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