It's Still The Best Chinese Restaurant

Posted: February 21, 1988

With the beginning of the Chinese New Year 4686, the Year of the Dragon, last week, there is no better time to visit the best Chinese restaurant in South Jersey - Uncle Lui's Peking Mandarin in Cherry Hill.

There are many excellent Chinese restaurants in the Camden/Burlington Counties area, but the best without question is the Peking Mandarin. Moreover, the influence of owner/chef Uncle Lui extends far beyond his own restaurant, for many of the region's best chefs and restaurant owners once served an apprenticeship at the Peking Mandarin.

It has been 10 years since Uncle Lui opened a tiny shopping-center restaurant in Barrington, but whether in Barrington or at its present Cherry Hill site, his restaurants have presented memorable dishes notable for the graceful, wine-touched sauces that enhance the fresh ingredients.

A move to Route 70 near Garden State Park changed the traditional Chinese decor at the Peking Mandarin to a graceful, contemporary decorative scheme, but the superb food remained unchanged. A recent visit produced one great dish after another, and although I was recognized as a restaurant critic, I know

from prior visits that the food I sampled was the standard fare.

Dinner begins with a dish of cabbage, green bell peppers, carrots and hot chili peppers in a sweetened marinade, a complimentary appetizer that has become an Uncle Lui trademark; crisp noodles come with hot mustard and apricot dipping sauces.

Seafood hot-and-sour soup ($6.25 for two) - a rich broth with delicately balanced hot-and-sour flavors and loaded with king crabmeat, shrimp, deep scallops, mushrooms, bean curd, scallions, mu-er (the so-called "tree ears" mushrooms), egg and bamboo was nothing short of remarkable.

Sauteed pheasant ($5.95), an unusual and sumptuous appetizer, was wafer- thin curls of pheasant meat with snow peas, red bell pepper, bamboo and scallions in a tangy rice wine-based sauce redolent of ginger and soy, garnished with a gorgeous flower carved from a single beet. A giant, double- wrapped Phoenix roll ($2.95) bursting with shredded chicken, small whole shrimp, bamboo shoots and chopped mushrooms in a crisp skin was coated with moderately spicy hoisin sauce.

Mongolian beef ($10.95), which I first sampled in 1978 at the old Peking Mandarin, remains a favorite entree - thin strips of incredibly tender beef, scallions and snow peas in a sweetened hoisin-based sauce enhanced with chicken stock and soy.

Volcanic duck (also $10.95) was moist meat without the skin, lightly dusted with flour and deep fried, then flamed at table side in dark rum poured from a hollowed lemon half. While the outside was slightly crispy, the inside was tender and rich in flavor. The dish was garnished with crunchy clumps of broccoli, fresh parsley and a beet flower.

Shrimp in black-bean sauce ($9.25), not on the menu but readily available for the asking, brought nine huge, tender shrimp, sweet onions and both green and red bell peppers in a delicate sauce filled with tiny black beans. A wonderful complimentary side dish called escargots Shanghai-style was steamed flour rolls, a traditional but seldom-found Chinese treat.

For dessert, caramelized fruit ($3.75) - the best of any local Chinese restaurant - was a specially ordered platter of batter-dipped bananas and pineapple fried in honey and sugar, then plunged into a bowl of ice water. The thick crust was chewy, but the inside soft; the pineapple juices give an added jolt of flavor.

The large dining room sparkles in gold wallpaper imprinted with the peach- colored flowers of a Chinese plum tree. Brown banquettes at tables set with tan cloths and dark brown cotton napkins are crowned with exotic flora in elaborately decorated Chinese porcelain planters. Overhead, giant chandeliers with hidden blue and orange lights attest to a Chinese decor that was almost daring when introduced several years ago.

UNCLE LUI'S PEKING MANDARIN

Rte. 70, Cherry Hill, 665-7559.

Open: Menu served 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., until midnight Fri. & Sat., noon-10:30 p.m. Sun.

Price range: Appetizers average $5, entrees $15.

Credit cards: Major cards.

Nonsmoking section: No.

Facilities for handicapped: Yes.

Atmosphere: Gracefully contemporary.

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