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Squid, Soup and Soy Sauce: A Chinatown Dinner Party

OUT TO LUNCH

VIRGINIA Woolf once said, writers always leave the dinner out of dinner parties. Five of us went to Chinatown last week in search of both--both dinner and a party, that is.

What we found, up a flight of back stairs on the corner of Beach and Harrison Streets, was the Chinatown Eatery, a bustling cafeteria-style establishment that housed five separate restaurants. And us, for about four hours.

We drank the beer we had brought, and we talked and talked. The food was good, but was not the main event. Around us, the kitchens squeaked and groaned with activity. Groups of hungry eaters came and left, single men absorbed in Chinese newspapers ate their solitary dinners and departed, but we stayed.

After the kitchens had closed for the night, our four-hour dinner party finally broke up, leaving in its wake two empty six-packs and these memories.

I decided to go the Adventurous route and order squid, which was of course a mistake. Squid is sort of a standard weirdo; just strange enough to be repellent, but not actually exotic enough to warrant wading through.

The restaurant with the red and gold painted signs had the best squid selections, so I went there. The squid, which was chewy and seafood-like, saw more of my armpit than my stomach as I reached across the table to eat off other people's plates. Crowding with other people is really the point of this place anyway; long cafe tables, piled with bring-your-own beer bottles and crumpled napkins, tend to promote sharing. When other Reviewers got sick of sharing (which your friends may also do) I drank the free tea and watched the activity. Scallions getting chopped, crates of cabbage being delivered, video nasties beating the hell out of each other on the Vigilante machine. It's a great place; lots of foreign language, good inexpensive food, an Invigorating--yet not Painful--noise level, and not too long a flight of stairs. JPT

I can't recall much about the restaurants--except the alcohol. None of the five restaurants in the mall served any (which was one of my prerequisites), so we had to walk a block-and-a half to purchase a couple of six-packs of Molson Golden at Essex Liquors. Having accomplished my important task of the evening, I decided to disregard some of the more cosmopolitan tastes of my companions and opt for the most American-sounding of the restaurants, the Lucky Wok.

Having agreed to share entrees, I was a bit nervous about my choice, "chicken vegetable fried noodle." How could this bland little meal ever compare to curry chicken or squid? Fortunately, the squid was too chewy for most, and the chicken, though popular, was too spicy for my taste.

My vegetable noodles, however, were an overwhelming hit. The noodles were a bit thinner and crisper than standard Lo Mein fare, but the difference was appealing. Generous portions of scallions and mushrooms and lightly fried chicken rounded out the meal, and complemented the Molson well.   MJB

WHAT I love about Chinese food is that it's hard to make it really bad. Even if it's not the best food you've ever eaten, it's still fried rice.

When I ordered my dish at the open window of the apparently nameless restaurant next to the Thai food kitchen, I could see two boys sitting in the kitchen, shelling the peas that I would eat, and scrambling eggs in the hugest wok I had ever seen. Minutes after I placed my order, a supermarket blue-and-white ceramic plate full of "fried rice with pork and shrimps" was placed in front of me.

Heaped with brown rice, peas, scrambled eggs, pork, little shrimp, and--its only flaw--lettuce, the fried rice wasn't bad; it wasn't great, but it was fried rice.

It needed soy sauce, and the lettuce annoyed me, but what made it better than anything from a more conventional Chinese restaurant was the atmosphere--orange plastic tables, linoleum floors, bring-your-own beer, the clatter and sizzle of the open kitchens. The people sitting next to us were so close, I felt like I should offer them a bite. After all, there was so much on the plate, I couldn't finish it myself.   MRH

THE Moo Shi Chicken, from the Wua Pei, was the best I have ever had. It wasn't too slimy, and the chicken was fresh; the pancakes, delicious. I gobbled down two Moo Shi pancakes in a matter of seconds.

The fried dumplings were succulent. They were hot, with just enough oil to make them truly yummy. The boiled dumplings, much cheaper, proved the axiom you get what you pay for. You pay more for the fried dumplings, but they taste much better.

The scallion pancake, which they fried in the silver skillet in full view of the customers, tasted like a combination of the best pancakes from the Pancake House and an onion bagel. The dough was soft and tasty. The scallion pancake is a good appetizer to begin a meal with, and even better as an ending.   SAG

RED Thai Cuisine, the tiny kitchen at the far end of the Chinatown Eatery, is like the rest of the store-front restaurants, a congenial, family-oriented place. After the trauma of squid and other eastern exotica, something with chicken in it sounds appealing.

I order green curry with chicken, a spicy, soupy mixture of green vegetables--mostly green pepper--and nearly-white chunks of chicken. Contrasting with the plate of sticky white rice, the dish is both sweet and spicy. A combination of Indian food and Chinese food with an end result that is neither.

A beaming waitress, the same woman who took my order, brings the steaming hot food to our garish orange table within minutes. Many glasses of water and beer later, the curry is gone. Having successfully avoided eating any suspicious seafood, I am all the more grateful for the familiar green curry, which was cheaper and much spicier than its Harvard Square incarnations.

When we leave, the tiny Red Thai Cuisine kitchen is ready to close. The waitress picks out random tables to clean as the gleaming steel machines of the kitchen are slowly shut off.   SBG