Chef Liu in Scotts Valley offers a wide selection of Hunan, Cantonese and Szechuan specialties, including an incredible Hot Pot.
I had high hopes for lunch when I encountered a practically packed parking lot at Chef Liu. Opening the back door, I slid into a warm and decidedly fragrant room.
Although previously known as Mei Garden, the restaurant has not been related to its namesake on Ocean Street for more than a decade. Last year, to avoid confusion, the owners gave it a new and eponymous name.
Daily lunch specials ($6.50 to $7.75) are all served with soup of the day, but we decided to order from the extensive list of specialties.
Three huge eggrolls ($3.75), their thin flaky skins glistening with oil from the deep fryer, were stuffed with cabbage and carrots and served with a vibrant red, vinegary sweet and sour sauce, and some familiar sinus-clearing Chinese mustard.
Chili flakes were suspended in the cups of Hot and Sour Soup ($1.75). Tofu, toothsome tree fungus and slivers of bamboo shoot joined lacy clouds of beaten egg in the tart, translucent broth.
I savored thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth meat from reusable plastic chopsticks. This platter of gingery Mongolian Beef ($9.25) included bamboo shoots, green onions and airy fried rice sticks.
The Special Chow Fun ($8.45) was made with fresh, chewy, wide Cantonese ho fun noodles, which were still folded into little rolls. They were fried with pink-tinged BBQ pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and strips of white onion.
Not oily like the three previous dishes, Garlic Chicken ($8.45) was a blend of tender meat and still-crisp carrot, broccoli, green beans and water chestnuts with visible mince of fresh garlic. The mildly sweet sauce was indeed spicy, but not overly so, and very satisfying. I occasionally added more heat with the wonderful chili sauce at the table. This dish is typically the benchmark against which I first measure a Chinese restaurant and the recipe at Chef Liu's stands with the best I've eaten.
A hissing and sizzling sound approached from my left, emanating from the Special Tofu Clay Pot ($11.75). Chicken, shrimp, pork and cubes of fried tofu were cooked with at least eight different fresh and colorful vegetables coated with a thick garlic-studded sauce. Seldom do I find a new addition to my list of cravings, but Chef Liu's Clay Pot is definitely in the rotation.
Chef Liu, 4303 1/2 Scotts Valley Dr., Scotts Valley, 438-5772. Beer and wine. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Although I reported that Lightfoot Cafe occupied the restaurant that was "previously Backstage Lounge," the space next to the Rio Theatre remains Backstage Lounge, and is still available to host your special parties and holiday dinners. Backstage's owner David Jackman (also of Chocolate) is collaborating with chef Mike Martinez and Lightfoot Industries for their upcoming suppers.
Lightfoot Industry's Suppers at Backstage Lounge, 1209 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 234-9482. Taking on-line reservations for Saturday December 4, Saturday December 11, and Sunday December 17. Visit lightfootind.com.
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