It's always a bummer when my parents suggest going out for Chinese food. That usually means a trip to the local House of Cornstarch, with its menu full of dishes dumbed down for American palates. Authentic Chinese food has vibrant flavors that stand in stark contrast to the blasé pap dished out by lesser purveyors.
One of the better examples of modern authentic Chinese fare in San Diego can be found at Kearny Mesa's China Max Seafood Restaurant. Located in a strip mall (natch) that also houses Spicy City, China Max boasts a menu that features some items you might not expect to find at a Chinese restaurant.
One such item is the Black Pepper Steak. Other Chinese restaurants might serve this dish, but I've never seen it done China Max's way-taking a de-boned porterhouse and quick-cooking the chunks of tender beef, plating it around the bone and dressing it with an audaciously peppery glaze.
This same treatment, minus the de-boning, is given to lamb chops, in the Lamb With Black Pepper Sauce. My date and I sampled that dish on a recent visit, along with the Pan Fried Crabmeat Cake and Golden Sands Shrimp.
Our meal started with the crabmeat cake appetizer. These are lightly fried, dense with crabmeat and short on other fillers. Seasoned with Chinese mustard, they have a sharp horseradish flavor and a wonderfully creamy texture with a lightly crisp exterior.
Coming out next was the lamb, which was great. Here, eight small lamb chops are pan-fried and glazed with that same wonderful black pepper glaze. The meat, extremely tender and juicy, is served on the bone; the intensely peppery sauce works very well with the strong flavor of the lamb.
The only downside to the lamb was in figuring out how best to eat it. Chopsticks aren't good for cutting meat, so we just picked up the chops by the bone and ate them as finger food. That was apparently amusing to a group of young Chinese people at a nearby table who were staring at us, laughing. If you order this dish, perhaps you should ask the server how it's meant to be eaten.
Lastly, our server presented the Golden Sands Shrimp, a dish of large shrimps, salt-leached and coated with a batter made from kosher salt, egg yolk and garlic.
Salt leaching is a method employed in Chinese cooking to draw water out of shrimp, which prevents the shrimp from getting mushy. The result is an appealing firm texture.
I enjoyed this dish, but my date didn't. The sand-textured coating was a bit much for her. First-timers might want to avoid it.
China Max's prices are moderate to high, with most entrées priced around $16. Some dishes are more expensive, with abalone and shark's fin items fetching particularly high prices. China Max is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday.