Chinese Village and Bamboo Garden add different twists to favorite dishes
For some time I’ve marveled at the coexistence of two adjacent Chinese restaurants on Capitola Road. The atmosphere in each is distinct, from the decor to the seating, and although the three quarters of the two menus are similar, I found the preparation styles, ingredients, and flavors very different. The lightly cooked fresh vegetables at both establishments were excellent.
In the Chinese Village parking lot, median strips were planted with Asian herbs. Inside, owner Sally Wong, still wearing her apron, was enjoying her mid-day meal at the counter. Her experience in the kitchen spans many decades. The restaurant, which opened in 1976, has been at its current location for about15 years.
The long rectangular dining room is split by a varnished wood divider topped with living plants and poinsettia, offering privacy between the sections. Windows deliver plenty of natural light.
Sixteen Lunch Specials ($5.75) are available from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Choose from familiar dishes such as Kung Pao Chicken over rice and Chicken Salad with spicy mustard or peanut dressing. Other lunch specials ($5.75 to $8.95) include boneless House Special Chicken and Garlic Scallops over rice.
Family-style dinners for two or more ($8.95 to $12.25 per person) include appetizers and three to four main dishes.
As it was lunch time, a cup of soothing hot and sour soup hit the table before I had even sat down. The steaming soup with chili-flecked, tart, starch-thickened broth included tofu, and slivered bamboo shoots.
I loved the uniqueness of the green iced tea ($1.75), which was kept perpetually full.
Garlic Chicken ($8.25) featured white meat with strips of bamboo shoot, colorful broccoli, zucchini, and chili flakes with a nice garlic aroma and flavor. While not particularly spicy, fiery bites of seared, whole, dried red chilies tickled my tongue.
Heavily battered chunks of Hunan Beef ($9.25), sprinkled with sesame seeds, were chewier than beef jerky. The dish included whole hot red chilies in a generous amount of syrupy red sauce which was sweet and mildly spiced, and was poured atop a bit of squiggly deep-fried rice sticks.
A dozen and a half peeled Salt and Pepper Shrimp ($12.95) were delicious. They were lightly coated with a peppery batter and sprinkled with salty bits of sautéed, minced garlic, green onions, and dried chilies, which I adhered to the fried crustaceans with the nicely spicy oil-based chili paste from the jar on the table.
Chinese Village Restaurant, 3780 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz, 462-1933. Full bar. Open daily from 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Visit chinesevillagecapitola.com.
Little girls were practicing their ballet moves when I walked into the spacious Bamboo Garden dining room during a quiet time just before the dinner rush. The fatherly chef emerged from the kitchen to take my order, and, of course, I let him know I like my food spicy.
Bamboo Garden specializes in Szechwan and Cantonese recipes. House Specialties include Hot Pots ($7.50 to $9.75), Sizzling Platters ($7.75 to $10.25) and Peking Duck ($9.50). Lunch specials, 32 of them, range in price from $6 to $7.25.
As I waited just 15 minutes, employees tended to business, each one greeting me with a happy “hello”. Rosewood-colored chairs faced burgundy-clothed, glass-topped tables, neatly aligned in the open square room with a tall vaulted ceiling. Minimal decor gave the room a clean, fresh feel. As a final touch of friendliness, an outgoing and mannerly 10-year old carried my boxed feast to the car, warning me to keep the soup from tipping.
This huge container of Hot and Sour Soup ($6.75) was still steaming when it safely reached my destination. The broth, more syrupy sweet than I like, was flecked with just enough chili to give it bite. It was loaded with tofu, carrot, bamboo shoot, tomato, green onion and crunchy water chestnuts.
Nuggets of chicken thighs in the Chicken with Garlic Sauce ($7) were joined by numerous crisp vegetables, each cut large for a burst of flavor. Sugary carrot and onion, trees of broccoli, and earthy celery sat in rich juices and were nicely loaded with minced garlic. I didn’t notice much heat in this family-friendly and healthful dish.
Wide, thin strips of Hunan Beef ($7.50) were fried, but just until tender, painted with a honey coating, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served on a bed of crisply fried rice sticks. The meat was just a bit chewy, not overly breaded, with a sauce that was just a bit sweet, and with just a hint of heat.
A dozen very large Salt and Pepper Shrimps ($9.75) were still in their shells. The light batter was mostly lost in the peeling process. They were tossed with sautéed vegetables for a substantial and tasty dish, albeit not particularly spicy.
Bamboo Garden Restaurant, 3744 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz, 462-3888. Beer and wine. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.