CHINESE food, once the most exotic of all "foreign" foods available in the United States, is now ubiquitous. Chances are good that there's a Chinese eatery near you - maybe called Lucky Dragon - regardless of whether you're in a city or the hills of eastern Kentucky. You know what's going to be on the menu, you know how it's going to taste, you even know each of the 12 Chinese astrological signs that appear on those paper place mats.
So, in a neighborhood pockmarked with trendy places like Fells Point, you might walk right past Ding How (Chinese for "the best," proclaims the menu), assuming it's a garden-variety Chinese place with greasy egg rolls and plastic Buddhas on each table.
If you step inside, however, you're in for a pleasant surprise. The food hovers between good and excellent, and the sleek, bright room is a spacious, comfortable place to eat. Diners sit in cozy bamboo armchairs at tables ample enough to hold several dishes, glasses and condiment jars. Prices are very reasonable. And there's nary a paper place mat in sight - just linen tablecloths.
Owner Henry Cheng opened Ding How 11 years ago after closing a similar restaurant in Washington. The Shanghai native focuses somewhat on serving dishes prepared in the style of southeast China cuisine, which tastes sweeter and more delicate than that served in the country's three other major regions (Sichuan in the center, Canton in the south and Beijing in the north). A perfect example of this is a light, sweet dipping sauce that comes with an appetizer of dumplings; it's a delicious mahogany-colored brew of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, salt, mashed ginger, scallions, chilies, and sesame oil diluted with water.
Practically nothing we had at Ding How bore a trace of grease. Eight lightly fried meat dumplings looked and tasted more like the steamed versions that I prefer, but had just enough crunch to please the fried-food fan of the group. Vegetable spring rolls came wrapped in crispy, golden-brown crusts.
The showstopper of the night was the crispy beef entree, which originates in Sichuan. Sesame-crusted slivers of beef as crunchy-sweet as pralines contrasted well with shredded carrots and scallions. Coming in a close second was the rainbow shrimp, a pretty dish of adequately sized shrimp, shredded snow peas, red pepper and sliced shiitake mushrooms cooked in a creamy white ginger sauce. And, under the classics category, moo shu pork, with finely shredded cabbage and papery-thin pancakes, upheld its status as a reliable favorite.
Many of Ding How's offerings have been tweaked to fit an American audience. If you're willing to try something more authentic, order the Chinese rice pudding for dessert. The round cake of cooked sweet rice filled with grainy red bean paste and dusted with sunflower seeds had interesting texture, but was far too sweet for us. (We preferred the not-too-authentic dessert of fried banana chunks.)
Whatever adaptations Cheng has made to please his audience are done well. The food was lighter and better seasoned than comparable offerings at other Chinese restaurants I've tried. No overwhelming portions either; only one of us left with a doggie bag.
Overall, Ding How may make you re-evaluate a cuisine that you've taken for granted for a long time.
631 S. Broadway
Open: For lunch and dinner seven days a week
Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $5.95; entrees $6.95 to $17.95
Credit cards: All major cards