Sacramento, CA 95822
New Lai Wah, way down south on Freeport, is a remake of (naturally) the old Lai Wah—now bought up by the restaurant group that owns New Canton and a host of Bay Area restaurants (many named The Kitchen—but that name, in Sacramento, was taken). We went on a recent Saturday night and found it bursting at the seams with eager eaters and doing a brisk business in takeout as well. Since the food was among the freshest, most enjoyable Chinese cooking I’ve had in Sacramento, I’m not surprised.
Word is, the restaurant remake has spruced up the joint (I never made it to the old version), and all I can say is if that’s true, the former restaurant must have been very bare indeed. Sure, there are fish tanks (great for entertaining your antsy children—and be sure to check out the geoducks), pictures of the dishes on the walls and some modestly decorative light fixtures, but that’s about as fancy as it gets.
The menu is bewilderingly long, with glossy pictures of some dishes and a range from the ordinary (egg rolls) to the more unusual, like duck tongues, which I could not convince my fellow diners to get, and pork intestines in a clay pot, which I did not try. I typically try to hide my notebook when I’m out reviewing (or wait and furiously scribble notes in the car after I’ve left), but here I whipped it out just to keep a list of what to order.
We ended up with a big range, starting with potstickers, meandering through a “barbecue platter” with roast pork and crispy pork-belly skin, pausing at cod in black-bean sauce and fried asparagus and prawns with spicy salt, appeasing the kids at the table with pork chow mein—taking the server’s direction, we got stir-fried chicken with mixed mushrooms and ventured to the unknown ordering something called yee fu noodles with yellow leeks. It was a meal of happy chaos, much like the roaring-loud, buzzing restaurant itself, where dishes flew out of the kitchen and everything looked ultrafresh; the various bright vegetables seemed especially enticing.
The potstickers were perhaps the least satisfying dish; not that there was anything particularly wrong with them (though they were deep-fried rather than pan-seared, which I prefer), but they were simply more ordinary than everything else. Still, they had a yummy, savory pork filling, not too heavy or greasy, and the competition among our table of seven for the six pieces was rather intense.
The barbecue platter elicited more oohs and ahs. The red, sweet, dusky-spiced slices of roasted pork were surprisingly juicy and very flavorful. The crispy skin pieces—golden, slightly salty and superlatively crunchy on one side, with the thick, chunky slices striated with fat, like slab bacon without the smoke—tasted like essence of pork. As our friend said, it would be really easy to eat a lot of them if you weren’t thinking about the fact that you were essentially noshing on lard.
A lighter and very delicious dish emerged with the cod with black-bean sauce, with big chunks of multicolored bell peppers and onions providing a contrast to the subtle, soft-textured fish. The black-bean sauce was nicely calibrated with that low-key fermented tang—the dish was piping hot and obviously just cooked. One of the things I liked best about New Lai Wah was that every dish seemed like it had emerged from the wok about two seconds before we got it. I don’t know if that freshness was a function of the crowds or if it would be equally as fresh if the place were emptier, but this is not gloppy, steam-tray Chinese food.
The spicy-salted, batter-fried asparagus and prawns were a hit, even with the asparagus-hater at the table. They used huge, thick spears, which stood up beautifully to frying and tossed them with slices of red and green chili—piquant, sure, but not overwhelmingly hot. The prawns were sweet and meaty. I might quibble that the batter came out crisp but just a touch oily—but part of the pleasure of the dish is licking the slick of salt off your fingers.
The pork chow mein and yee fu noodles were a study in contrasts. The former were bold and bright, the familiar thick noodles tossed with chunky vegetables and smoky-sweet red pork; the latter, of thinner flat noodles, came lightly dressed with brown XO sauce, chubby enoki mushrooms and threads of leeks that added a subtle, springlike allium flavor. Both were made with care and that same emphasis on freshness that made the whole meal so enjoyable.
Finally, the chicken stir-fry with mixed mushrooms was a hearty, satisfying dish, with very tender slices of chicken and all manner of savory mushrooms tumbled together. Some of the mushroom pieces were so big and toothsome that it was hard at first to tell them apart from the chicken. The only mild disappointment was that the menu had said it had fresh snow peas, but the dish as delivered had nutty-tasting, snappy green beans instead—a perfectly fine substitution.
Although we were sated, we enviously eyed other parties’ dishes as we left: grass-green piles of baby bok choy! Platters of saucy lobster, waiting for shelling! Toasty-smelling sizzling rice for soup! I am pretty sure we’ll be back—but if we go on a Saturday night, we’ll call ahead.