Year of the Monkey 

Celebrate the year 4701 with great Chinese cuisine.

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Thursday, Jan. 22, ushers in the Chinese New Year of 4701. And 2004 happens to be the Year of the Monkey. I have a special affinity for this Chinese New Year, dating back to my own birth. My mother never quite forgave my dad when the first words out of his mouth after I was born were: “My gawd, he looks like a little monkey!”

And it turns out that my father was prescient: I was indeed born under the sign of the monkey. In Chinese culture, I’m told that the monkey is a symbol of energy, determination, loyalty, mischief and winning attitude. And although only one of those terms really seems to describe yours truly, my life has definitely been infused with plenty of monkey business.

Since all the really fun fireworks are outlawed here in Utah, the next best way to celebrate the Year of the Monkey is to dine out at one of your favorite local Chinese restaurants. Or, more accurately, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Here are a handful of the best spots to ring in the Year of the Monkey.

Since moving to Utah from New York City a dozen years ago, my favorite Chinese eatery has been Little World on State Street. And it certainly ain’t because of the ambiance, I can assure you of that. Little World is so bereft of décor, in fact, that for me to recommend it, the food really has to be great. And it is. Someday I’m going to coerce Dr. Ding, my acupuncturist, to dine with me at Little World so that he can translate the Chinese menu. I’m told that Little World’s Chinese menu has treasures that don’t appear on what one colleague calls their “round eye” menu. Nevertheless, I’ve found a few treasures of my own on the English menu, including the eggplant and anchovy hot pot, beef tripe in black bean sauce, and a rich soup of won tons, beef organs and flat Chinese noodles. I also love the pepper shrimp at Little World and the clams with black bean sauce. And for the New Year, take home a Peking duck from Little World to snack on.

Since opening about a year ago, Hong Kong Tea House and Restaurant has become first on my list of Utah Chinese restaurants. The soothing décor and red-lacquer tables remind me of upscale restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Vancouver Chinatowns. And so does the food. The dim sum served at Hong Kong Tea House during lunchtime is terrific, as are dishes like crystal prawns, spicy chicken with string beans, and hot Szechwan bean curd. And don’t pass up a wonderful special at Hong Kong Tea House: whole deep-fried flounder topped with garlic. It’s simple and sensational.

Xiao Li does a nice job of presenting traditional Chinese fare in an elegant setting with great service. For me, one dependable culinary barometer at Chinese restaurants is their hot and sour soup. If they don’t get that staple right, there’s not much hope for the rest of the menu. Xiao Li’s hot and sour soup is right on target, as are the pan-fried dumplings and house special tofu. Other terrific Xiao Li dishes include moo-shu pork and the spicy shrimp and scallops with garlic sauce. Nice wine list, too.

There are people who insist that Bountiful’s Mandarin restaurant serves the best Chinese food in Utah. And if the wait for a table on weekends is any indication, they might be right. But on weeknights, you can usually dine at Mandarin without waiting, and for the Chinese New Year, Mandarin is celebrating with a special eight-course menu for parties of four or more ($20 per person), through Feb. 5. The special menu includes items like dan dan noodles (my favorite), beef and asparagus with black bean sauce, mango chicken and salmon spring rolls with sambal aioli, all prepared by Mandarin’s kitchen staff of Hong Kong and San Francisco-trained Chinese chefs. Special wine and beer pairings will also be available, and on Jan. 28, Master Lu and his troupe will perform the traditional Chinese Lion Dance at the Mandarin.

Up in Park City, the best Chinese restaurants are tucked away in strip malls and business complexes. But finding your way to China Tea Garden and Szechwan Chinese Kitchen is worth the trouble. At China Tea Garden, I’m fond of the hot and spicy Mongolian beef dish and the not-quite-as-hot chicken in orange sauce. For a milder Chinese treat, try the shrimp with lobster sauce. I’m addicted to the plump, thick steamed dumplings at Szechwan Chinese Kitchen at Kimball Junction and also usually walk out with a take-home order of its pork lo mein. Other tried and true Szechwan Chinese Kitchen dishes include the zippy eggplant with hot garlic sauce and the must-have Kung Pao tofu.

Here’s wishing you happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Monkey: Gong xi fa cai!

HONG KONG TEA HOUSE & RESTAURANT, 565 W. 200 South, 531-7010

LITTLE WORLD, 1356 S. State, 467-5213

MANDARIN RESTAURANT, 348 E. 900 North, Bountiful, 298-2406

XIAO LI, 307 W. 200 South, 328-8688

CHINA TEA GARDEN, 1811 Sidewinder Drive, Park City, 435-649-9833

SZECHWAN CHINESE KITCHEN, 1612 Ute Blvd. (Kimball Plaza), Park City435-655-8916

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