Variety is the Spice

dining_guangzhoAt Guang Zho, fresh ingredients are infused with flavors from Peking, Hunan and Singapore

For five years now Guang Zho has been filling Live Oak neighbors with Chinese food from its restaurant on Portola Road. The menu boasts more than 150 dishes, some more familiar than others. And for vegetarians, they are happy to substitute a high quality textured vegetable protein in almost any dish.

The funky brick building is reminiscent of an old burger joint drive-in, but inside, soothing pastel colors of pink, mint and forest green set the stage for a relaxing meal.

A large window shed light onto one dining room. I sat in the second where the knotty wood ceiling is nicely varnished and colorful embroideries of botanicals decorate the walls.

Lunch specials ($5.95 to $6.95), which are served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., include soup and rice. Twenty popular dishes are offered including Kung Pao Chicken, Ginger Beef, and Ma Po Tofu.

I prefer to order a la carte and sample numerous flavors in parallel. The thick, translucent broth of the Hot and Sour Soup, spicy enough to clear my head, held crunchy matchsticks of water chestnut, beaten egg, and strips of tree fungus.

Chicken with Black Bean Sauce ($7.95) included chunks of tender white meat and soft vegetables which were dotted with dark, salty, fermented soybeans. I enjoyed some Hunan hot sauce from a canister on the table; a salty purée of cooked fresh chilies that was devilishly and deliciously spicy.

Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce ($7.95) was stir-fried with soft, matchstick vegetables in a rich, dark, garlic-scented sauce. The Fried Rice Noodles Singapore-style ($7.95) featured strands of vermicelli which were heavily seasoned with curry powder giving them a turmeric-yellow hue. It included strips of barbecue pork, bits of omelet and shrimp, with colorful threads of carrot, onion and bell peppers.

My favorite dish of the day was Hunan Beef ($8.95). The paper thin strips of meat had a crisp exterior, as if rubbed with cornstarch and fried with whole dried chilies. It was both tender and chewy. Bits of garlic floated in the sweet dark sauce which was peppered with sesame seeds. Bright bouquets of al dente broccoli adorned the platter.

Familiar trapezoidal red and white boxes held our order for take-out. These timeless containers, now without metal handles, perfectly protected the integrity of the rich sauces.

I was pleased that in every dish the vegetables were all lightly cooked retaining their colorful crunchiness. Two baskets held the makings for Sweet and Sour Pork ($7.75). Lightly battered and fried nuggets of meat were piled atop large pieces of onion, bell pepper, carrot and fresh pineapple. Its vibrant, silky, sauce, the color of apricot jam, was shipped separately to guarantee fresh-from-the-kitchen crisp chicken.

The fragile Dumplings with Hot Sauce ($6.95) didn’t travel as well, but were delicious just the same. Sixteen steamed, snow white, won ton-wrapped packages of minced meat were topped with coarse hot sauce and pungent fresh garlic.

Tender strips of Mongolian Beef ($8.35) were flecked with chili peppers, as were morsels of Hot and Spicy Chicken ($8.35). I appreciated the little containers of Hunan hot sauce.

Guang Zho Chinese Restaurant, 3150 Portola Drive, (next to 7-Eleven), Santa Cruz, 465-0988. Beer and wine. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

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Ristorante Italiano offers recession-busting specials on Mondays, when lunch for two totals just $15.95. Pick the same or different entrées from more than 20 choices including home made lasagna and spaghetti with meat or marinara sauce.

Spaghetti Margherita is one of my favorites. Fresh tomato, garlic and basil are tossed in olive oil and butter with pasta and parmesan, and then topped with melted mozzarella. Pasta Caprese is similarly sauced with the addition of pine nuts and green onions.

Pasta Parma is baked in a casserole with prosciutto, parmesan and peas in a rich cream sauce.

Crispy fried calamari is served with soup, salad or french fries, as are the sandwiches. The vegetarian Caprese sandwich is stuffed with fresh mozzarella, basil, tomato, pesto and avocado.

The Classic Caesar Salad comes topped with blackened chicken (Ristorante makes an excellent version) or salmon.The Spinach and Chicken salad is enormous and tossed with sweet mandarin oranges and pecans in a smooth honey-Dijon dressing. Insalata Noci is also excellent with apple, grapes, glazed walnuts, and blue cheese in a raspberry vinaigrette.

If you can’t make lunch on Mondays, every weekday lunch hour offers an enormous half sandwich and soup or salad for just $6.95.

Ristorante Italiano, 555 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 458-2321. Full bar. Serving lunch on weekdays 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. with a limited afternoon weekday menu, and dinner nightly from 5 p.m.

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