subject: Café 88
take-out vehicle: bento box
I love places like Café 88. Quiet, kinda off the beaten path, and really good. For those who haven't been, Café 88 is the newest restaurant of the former owner of Ming Dynasty. As many times as I've seen her, both at Ming and Café 88, I'm ashamed to say I don't know her name, but she's probably one of the nicest people in town. And now, freed from her standard Americanized-Chinese food shackles (and the pressures of a larger restaurant—Café 88 has only 24 seats), she's also one of the better Chinese food cooks in town.
By "standard Americanized-Chinese," I'm referring to all the types of dishes that most Americans think of when Chinese food is mentioned: Kung Pao this, Hunan that, and of course General Tso's whatever. There's none of that at Café 88. Instead, Ms. Nice Lady at Café 88 (NLaC88) prepares just two kinds of food: dim sum and bento.
I can't comment on the dim sum because I haven't yet tried any yet. Why not? Because the bento rocks.
Despite being a Japanese idea, Ms. NLaC88 fills her bento boxes with very traditional Chinese fare, most of which revolves around chicken, pork, or tofu. On this visit, I opted for the Amazing Chicken (yes, that's what it's actually called). While "amazing" might be a tad strong, the Amazing Chicken certainly didn't disappoint. Ms. NLaC88 described it to me as marinated, pan-seared dark meat chicken with a slightly spicy sauce (she compared it to the Wonderful Chicken, which was deep fried white meat chicken and not spicy at all).
Perhaps due to the marinade, or perhaps the nature of dark meat chicken, the two pieces of Amazing Chicken I received were very tender. The sauce had only a hint of chili but good flavor nonetheless, but most of it soaked into the bottom of the sticky rice next to the chicken (though that gave me a good excuse to eat more of the rice, which also boasted a bright yellow slice of mildly-pickled daikon).
With the chicken came two vegetable sides: one serving of stir-fried bok choy, carrots, and mushrooms, and one serving of fried Asian eggplant (it had a thin, light purple skin, but even after a little research, I couldn't tell if it was a Chinese, Japanese, or Taiwanese varietal).
The stir-fry was simply prepared. The cabbage was by far the dominant flavor, but it was light, crunchy, and a pleasing contrast to its aubergine neighbor. The eggplant was soft and sweet except for the occasional bite of its crisp skin. It was sauced with a soy-based brown sauce and accented with chopped red bell peppers. I couldn't decide whether I liked it more than the chicken...but as I write, I'm leaning towards "it was better."
As I left with my dinner, I asked Ms. NLaC88 why she named her restaurant "Café 88." She explained that 8 was a lucky number in Chinese culture and wanted to be "double lucky," and smiling, she motioned to the menu behind her: just about everything was priced $x.88.
I guess it never hurts to have some luck, but with Chinese food like hers, I doubt she'll need it anytime soon.