C.F. Cheng2063 Arena Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95834
Dr. Gustavo Sosa, the father of Adriana, 18-year-old daughter Katie’s bestest friend since preschool, is a lover of Asian food. Actually, that understates things a bit. Let’s say his patronage has largely financed the makeover of Mai Pham’s Lemon Grass on Fulton Avenue. Recently, Dr. Sosa asked the proprietors of his favorite Chinese restaurant where they went for Chinese food. C.F. Cheng, they replied.
Not P.F.—standing for “prefab”—Chang but C.F. Cheng. It feels like there are two restaurants here at the Truxel Road and Arena Boulevard strip mall. Speak Chinese and every culinary pleasure of Hong Kong is accessible. No Chinese, it’s the “standard” menu, which nonetheless has 123 items on it, more than could be sampled in four months of daily visits.
While the “shadow” menu may be the real attraction for the Chinese cognoscenti, there’s plenty to like about C.F. Cheng without it. As for ambience, that’s not C.F.’s “A” game. There’s some faux wood wainscoting topped by distressed white molding. A bit of colorful art dots the walls and a jolly golden Buddha holding aloft a crown stands next to a droopy 4-foot-tall plant. The cabinet near the restroom appears to be particleboard with a wood veneer.
Service for the English-speaking patron can seem a bit curt. Even the fortunes are kinda quirky: “Cut through organizational impediments and get some real work done.” What is this, Dale Carnegie of Kowloon? Or Eckhart Tolle visits the Po Lin Monastery: “Learn to listen, not hear. Learn to love by loving yourself first.” Snatch the opium pipe from my hand, grasshopper.
None of that matters, because there’s a truly gifted chef backstage. Not the least of the chef’s gifts being able to whip up 123 different concoctions.
C.F. Cheng is exclusively about the food and, perhaps, a distant second, value. Dishes are fresh and well-flavored, although the eggflowerish beef and cilantro soup desperately needs some salt and chili sauce. But in the main, less salt is good. How many Chinese restaurants leave as a parting gift a walloping MSG headache an hour or so after a meal? Always better to err on the side of less sodium.
C.F. Cheng also says “no” to syrupy, gloppy sauces. The food is light, and a diner knows it’s newly minted because the mouth gets scalded unless the plate sits for a bit.
Speaking briefly to value: In terms of bulk, the large white plates are covered with entree and rice—go for the startlingly unoily pork-fried over the plain. A choice of two lunch entrees from a list of 15 options is a lousy $6.50. Go nuts and add a third for another $1. A half order of the beef and cilantro soup, three steamed chicken buns—there’s a truncated dim sum menu that allows for a wee bit of sluttiness—and shredded pork with eggplant, scallions and shoestring bamboo shoots plus Healing Malt Beverage tops put at $17.89. And half the soup comes home in Styrofoam; there is a brisk takeout crowd.
Thinly sliced Peking spareribs are a new discovery. There’s some hoisin happening, probably some five-spice down there under the sauce. Maybe a little ginger. It’s bright tasting—way more akin to Korean galbi than, say, sweet-and-sour pork, which in C.F. Cheng’s hands isn’t a sticky, sugary swamp.
The spicy string beans, another of the 15 luncheon options, are rollicking, and the Mongolian beef has a surprising kick as well. The Singapore-style vermicelli, with its signature curry flavor, one of the pricier items on the menu at $7.75, is a bit salty and, sad to say, does not share the same lofty plateau with the spareribs, shredded pork and eggplant or fried rice.
There’s a reason not judging a book by its cover is a cliché—because doing so inevitably leads to mistake or misfortune. The mistake here would be to pass up C.F. Cheng and its 40 seats thinking it’s just another grisly Chinese greasy spoon occupying a tiny corner of Tilt-Up Beelzebub. Thank you, Dr. Sosa.