Restaurant Reviews

Whose Rim is it, anyway?

"Pacific Rim" is a geographical term only in the restaurant trend-watcher's lexicon. For my own elucidation, I turned on the light-up globe left over from my son's pre-adolescent Age of Reason--the time when they want to know where everything is and how everything works--and let my fingers do the walking around the glowing edge of the world's biggest ocean to see exactly what "Pacific Rim" is supposed to mean.

There's Japan, definitely on the "rim" of the Pacific, and accounted for on all "Pacific Rim" menus. There's China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore. Whoa--then come some problem areas. Antarctica, now that's an obvious glitch. (In a few years, when it all melts, we won't have to pretend it's a continent anymore, anyway.)

But what about Borneo? Australia? South America? Mexico, Oregon, Canada, Alaska? There they are, perched on the "Pacific Rim," and they're always left out of the Pacific Rim dining concept. Which leads me to believe that "Pacific Rim" is a politically correct term for the outmoded word "Oriental," which smacks too much of racial stereotypes. (The "P.R." term, as I understand it, started in California, which would seem to back up the P.C. theory.)

Anyway, wherever it is on the map, there's no doubt that "Pacific Rim" is a legitimate dining trend, unlike Caribbean cuisine, which swept the Caribbean and not much else a few years ago. Some places, like Anzu, fuse the rim of the Pacific into one big melting pot, so the culinary influences overlap and blend into one another. But most restaurants take the route Cathy's Pacific has and offer one-stop shopping for the favorite five food groups along the Pacific Rim--a dish here, a country there.

A new restaurant at Preston Royal, Cathy's Pacific has a menu offering Vietnamese rice paper rolls, Thai satay, Singapore-style prawns, and California-Japanese sushi rolls (oh well, California and Japan are almost the same) amid a menu of mostly Chinese stir-fries. (No Vegemite in sight.) In addition, there's an entire section with 'round-the-world appeal: "Cathy's Light and Healthy Specialties." Owner Catherine Liu's made a name for her health-conscious cooking at Cathy's Wok, her Plano restaurant, and in her cooking classes; each dish on this page of Cathy's Pacific menu lists a fat and calorie count as well as the price.

This used to be a Mediterranean Rim restaurant, and the move halfway around the world didn't change the decor much. In a corner of a shopping center in an affluent, aging neighborhood, it's the kind of Oriental--sorry, Pacific Rim--restaurant that has fancy folded napkins at each place, and where you have to ask for chopsticks.

Cathy herself, trim, pretty and just a tiny bit aloof, makes the rounds like a study hall teacher as much as a hostess, greeting each table, memorizing the faces, noting who's been here before. Pretty Pacific Rim girls pose in Western settings in the nice, Old Master-ish murals and paintings on the wall. By contrast, the adjoining "express" take-out shop is an antiseptically clean design, with lighted photos of the various dishes available stuck up on the wall like X-ray pictures in a lab. I haven't tried it; it's open for lunch, but this is a neighborhood that could use some Chinese--or even Pacific Rim--take-out. No one's given Bucky Kao over at Royal China a run for his money in years.

We waited till Cathy's received its wine and beer license before going for dinner, and we asked for a Tsing Tao as soon as we were seated. Beer seemed required by the complimentary bowl of fried noodle strips, glistening with oil, a rich irresistible nosh for which, thankfully, there was no fat or calorie count given. There were only two Tsing Taos left, according to our thoughtful and foresightful waiter; he brought us one and hid the other for later.

That first visit, we started with lovely Vietnamese spring rolls, each an entire, uncut cylinder of soft, translucent, and slightly rubbery rice paper with a comet's tail of green onion trailing out the end, packed tightly with bean threads, shrimp, cilantro, cucumber, and lettuce. Surely this is the coolest, freshest taste in the world--or at least along the Rim.

Potstickers--dumplings--are usually steamed till they stick to the pan; here they were sauted instead, giving a fatter, richer taste to the single golden side. The crimped wrappers were inelegantly thick, almost doughy, giving them a hearty homemade taste livened up with the usual ginger-spiked soy sauce. Chicken satay also seemed sauted instead of grilled, and neither of the thick skewered strips tasted much of marinade or any seasoning, so the sweet, not hot, peanut sauce was essential.

But our entres, from the "Chef's Specialties" list, were disappointing, better reading than eating. "Two Flavored Prawn" is described as "a wedding or birthday must...Everyone's favorite!" "Cathy's Pacific Special Beef" is "a wonderful special occasion dish." But the prawns--otherwise known as shrimp--were in one of those sticky, saccharine sauces that might substitute for birthday cake, but become cloying as a main meal. The beef, dredged lightly in soda and fried, forming a sheer brown crust, was too sweet, too.

On our second visit, we tried other appetizers: a terrific cup of clear brown hot and sour soup, swirling like primordial ooze with threads of chicken, vegetable, and egg. The Thai chicken salad, actually from the California side of the Rim, was a pile of pale, julienned iceberg lettuce and slivers of carrot topped with some thin slices of grilled chicken. Our waitress forgot the peanut dressing, which, when she remembered it, made the whole dish worthwhile.

One of my favorite Chinese inventions, the minced chicken--smoking hot--had reduced the underlying lettuce leaves, in which it was meant to be wrapped, to compost. But we asked for fresh lettuce and rolled our own bundles; the salad-like mixture of beautiful, uniformly tiny chicken and vegetable chunks was savory and light, the lettuce cold and juicy, the perfect textural contrast a perfect example of the genius of Chinese cooking.

And entrees were better on our second visit, too: The clay hot pot of braised Japanese eggplants and pork had cooked to a dark jam-like texture with tender bits of pork and shiny purple vegetable skin. This was one of the healthy selections, though fortunately you couldn't tell by tasting. "Royal Crisp Scallops" had been dredged lightly, then wok-fried to a bare crust, with the delicate meat left soft as a dumpling. Thai chicken in a curry sauce erred on the side of Chinese subtlety--its blended sauce had gentle aromatic overtones of chili and mint, but I expect more action than this from Thai food. Not harshness, just excitement. This Thai chicken was more like the Masterpiece Theater version.

In fact, the whole Pacific Rim at Cathy's Pacific is far from the edge. Instead, the kitchen seems to add up all the Rim cuisines, then divide them to end up with the average. At Cathy's Pacific, the Rim is mainstream.

Cathy's Pacific, 5950-A Royal Lane, 739-3251. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday noon-9 p.m.

Cathy's Pacific:
Minced chicken in lettuce roll $4.50
Thai chicken in chili-curry-mint sauce $9.95
Singapore Chili Prawn $12.95
Cathy's Pacific Special Beef $11.95
Braised Japanese eggplants with tender pork in clay pot $9.95

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Mary Brown Malouf