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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Old-School Sizzle

By B.A. Nilsson

CCK

299 Central Ave., Albany, 433-2658. Serving Mon-Thu 11-10:30, Fri 11-11:30, Sat 11:30-11:30, Sun 11:30-10. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Chinese and Japanese

Entrée price range: $4.35 (small roast pork) to $20 (sushi-sashimi combo)

Ambiance: very casual

On one side, a pair of pandas frolicking beside a waterfall. On the other, scenes of wartime carnage on the TV screen. A yin and yang of peace and pugnacity. Intimidated by the extensive menu at CCK, I let my gaze wander from one display to the other. Each time a server passed, I grabbed a glance at the plates. Steamed dumplings went by. Lavish meat dishes flanked by emerald broccoli towers.

We sat at a booth, one of a half-dozen booths that run alongside one wall of CCK. The others were filled, as was one of the two large, round tables in the middle of the room, each topped with a lazy Susan for easy item exchange. Ours were the only non-Asian faces in the room.

CCK is on a stretch of Central Avenue peppered with small eateries. Van’s Vietnamese is a few doors away; a Latin-American Grill is nearby. Opened early last year to serve a combo of Chinese and Japanese fare, CCK went through a change when Ocean Palace closed and its owner, Peter Chan, took over here.

As with Ocean Palace, there’s a renewed emphasis on seafood. Your view of the kitchen is obstructed by large fishtanks (although we spotted no denizens within the night of our visit), with the occasional flare of wok-fire glowing through.

This is an old-fashioned type of restaurant, which means only that it harkens back to that Pleistocene, pre-Chinese- buffet era. Once seated, we’re confronted with a stainless steel teapot, hot with tea; a bowl of fried noodles with the usual dipping sauces. Chinese zodiac placemats. A menu with seemingly endless offerings, and a specials board on the wall. And, of course, those pandas, that waterfall, the TV set, silent, its subtitles incomprehensible to me.

I felt at home, which isn’t surprising. This kind of Chinese restaurant is probably the most American of all restaurants, outstripping even McDonald’s in its ubiquity. I could already taste the hot and sour soup I was about to order.

The specials board suggested cherry bass with black beans ($15), Chinese mustard greens with BBQ pig ($9), sizzling beef with black pepper sauce ($12), BBQ pig with fried bean curd in hot pot ($10), and chunks of salted flounder with hot pepper ($15), among other items. It would be the sizzling beef for me.

My daughter was able to stay within the American realm by ordering crab Rangoon ($3.50), a deep-fried pocket of crab- tinctured cream cheese, and General Tso’s chicken ($9), which turns out not only to have been invented in New York but originally had none of the broccoli and wasn’t as sweet. Those were characteristic of General Ching’s chicken, another American dish, that got conflated with General Tso’s.

Does it matter? Authenticity is elusive and evanescent, and yesterday’s bastardization gets legitimized by tomorrow’s nostalgia.

Unfortunately, even General Tso gets kneecapped these days with bland, sticky servings. CCK’s version is crisp and generous with spicy dried-red-pepper hulls.

Here’s how our dinner went, much to the amusement of our servers. My hot and sour soup arrived first, a brew that was both spicy and vinegary. Three more soupbowls then arrived. It turned out that the starter my wife ordered, watercress and pork soup ($7), is a large portion, and of course we wanted to share it.

Watercress was a worthy companion for the soft pork slices; the broth was very light, the seasonings gentle. But I, too, had ordered another soup. My strategy was to taste it and then have it wrapped, but when the small tureen of pork noodle soup ($12) arrived, how could we not explore it? A darker, richer broth than the last soup also yielded mushrooms, broccoli raab alongside sliced pork and thin noodles. This is something to enjoy on its own, as a meal in itself.

I knew that sizzling beef was ahead, and it arrived with the promised fanfare, its metal plate so hot that the serving spoon was still dancing. Chewy beef slices, onions and pepper in a thick sauce aren’t the most chopsticks-friendly, but I’m no virtuoso with them, either. Whatever the case, the entrée delivered a hearty, robust flavor.

My wife, the chicken connoisseur, faced a dilemma: She wanted a serving of chicken with mushrooms, but three varieties are offered. Price isn’t a determining factor: They’re $8.50 apiece. “Which would you recommend?” she asked our server.

The woman probably doesn’t get asked such a thing very often, and took a moment to consider it. “Black mushrooms,” she said. “Those are Chinese.” So perhaps there is a quest for some manner of authenticity lurking within our culinary melting-pot.

Although we didn’t compare the chicken with black mushrooms to the other versions, it proved to be a very good presentation with a nice confluence of flavors. But she couldn’t finish it, even with the help of her family. My fortune cookie for once actually promised a fortune—literally—so with that and our bags and bags of leftovers, we left, happy as those pandas we passed on the way out.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op is joining 70 other co-ops around the country to host an “Eat Local America” challenge—challenging people to try to consume 80 percent of what they eat from food grown or produced locally. The challenge begins tomorrow (Friday) and continues through Sept. 15, and all you have to do to participate is sign a large poster at Honest Weight Food Co-op and keep track of your own progress. The Co-op defines local food as that which is produced within 100 miles of the Capital Region, and the store itself denotes the local food it stocks with a blue ribbon. Jessica Allen-Hayek, the Co-op’s outreach coordinator, notes that eating locally produced food is “good for the economy, because money from each transaction stays in the region.” It’s also good for the environment “because the food doesn’t travel far, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.” Best of all, it tastes better. You can learn about Eat Local America initiatives at eatlocalamerica.coop; to learn more about Honest Weight Food Co-op, visit honestweight.coop. . . . Grilled steaks and steamed lobsters are the culinary centerpieces, along with music and drawings for prizes as Schenectady Day Nursery holds its summer benefit from 5 to 8 PM on Aug. 21 in Schenectady’s Central Park. John and Karen Mantas, proprietors of Mike’s Hot Dogs, are catering this event for the eighth year. Advance tickets are $40 and get you a choice of a steak or lobster dinner that includes potato, corn, cole slaw, beverage, roll and dessert. A surf-and-turf combo is $65, and the children’s hot dog menu is $5. Tickets are available at the Open Door Book Store on Schenectady’s Jay St. Takeout will be available and you can refresh yourself at the cash beer and wine bar For more info: 370-4662. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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