I stumbled upon a local San Diego food blogger’s web site--mmm-yoso.com*--and was astonished that the most recent review was for Red Lotus, a Chinese restaurant just up the road from our campground in Santee, CA. Always on the lookout for good Chinese food, we made a note to check the place out.
The day arrived and we walked in at about 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. NFL football (I don’t remember what game) was playing on the flat screen mounted on the back wall. Flanking the TV were two large black framed mirrors and off to the side was a fish tank stocked with large and multicolored fish. There were large colorful prints hanging on one cream colored wall, while another wall had been painted a vibrant red. The color scheme contrasted nicely with the dark wood tables and chairs.
While only open for four months, the Red Lotus has gathered a following among internet users. One Google poster described the restaurant as: “Red Lotus is the bomb, son! The menu has everything you could want made from the heart with family love; Mr. and Mrs. Lieng see to the kitchen with over forty years combined experience in Chinese cuisine, while the Lieng sons work in the dining room with great customer service. The eldest brother…works as a skateboard talent manger by day and in the restaurant by night…Me and my roommate drive out every week, I enjoy the vegetarian menu, and my roommate has vowed to eat every one of over eighty items on the menu!"
The food at Red Lotus concentrates on Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine. You will find a number of menu staples like hot and sour and wonton soups, egg rolls, pot stickers, Chinese BBQ ribs, and the ever popular pu-pu platter. You can fine egg foo young, chow mein, and chop suey. You can find Mongolian beef, Kung Pau beef/ chicken/ shrimp, orange beef, moo shu pork, and fried rice. But you can also find a wide array of out-of-the-ordinary appetizers, soups, and entrees.
On that visit, we began by sharing an order of the spicy fried calamari appetizer.
I am not sure what the coating was made from, but I do know that it was spectacularly thin and crisp with almost an audible cracking noise when bitten into. The tender squid pieces sat on a bed of scallions, red bell peppers, and sliced hot peppers. The calamari bites were delicious by themselves, but when combined with the relish, they reached an advanced state of deliciousness.
Chuck’s choice of entrée was the Ku Ting Crispy Shrimp—lightly battered and fried shrimp in a spicy and sweet sauce that contained a number of large dried chilies and a generous amount of candied walnuts. While a sweet flavor predominated, there was also a background hint of vinegar that kept the dish from being too sugary.
My choice was something that I had never before encountered—the Pau Ho or Hot Burned Pork. This is a dish that you will either love or hate. I loved it. And I couldn’t begin to tell you how it was made. My best guess is that thin slices of pork were battered and then stir fried until crisp. If you can imagine stir fried jerky, that is the closest I can come to describing the dish’s texture. And it came in a sauce that, like Chuck’s, was medium spicy and both sweet and mildly sour. The pork was served on a bed of crispy rice noodles that became coated with the sauce and added extra crunch to the meal.
We so enjoyed that lunch that we returned for a Second Act. That day, Chuck ordered the Sesame Triple Delight – battered chicken, beef, and shrimp in a honey sauce very similar to that on his Ku Ting Crispy Shrimp. This time, it was his meal that came atop the crispy noodles. I only tasted a piece each of the chicken and the beef, but both were tender and moist under the thin coating.
My lunch was the Szechuan Hot Braised Delight—chicken and shrimp in a spicy chili sauce and surrounded by crisp broccoli flowerets. When I wrote about the Ginger Café in Gilroy, CA (10/9), I quoted the About.com description of yin and yang: “People commonly think of yin and yang as opposing forces. However, it is really more appropriate to view them as complementary pairs...A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found in any Chinese dish, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in color, flavors, and textures…It also reinforces that it is not so much the individual ingredients, as balance and contrast between ingredients in each dish, that is important.”
My lunch on that day matched my understanding of yin and yang. There was the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, and tart in the chile sauce. And the soft and tender chicken pieces and the tender and moist shrimp were balanced by the crisp broccoli.
I am sure that Mr. Lieng had “velveted” his chicken pieces, and the shrimp were perfectly cooked. I know that this is going to sound weird, but I think that biting into a perfectly cooked shrimp is like biting into a natural casing hot dog. At first you experience the snap of the natural casing. Then you savor the softer meat inside. A great shrimp also snaps at first bite before you savor the juicy and tender shellfish.
We met Mike, the very personable son of the owners, on our first meal at Red Lotus, and he greeted us by name on our second time. This attention to his customers was apparent as he greeted and talked with others who followed us.
He spoke with reverence and pride about his father's attention to detail in the kitchen, especially as he talked about his father's creative dishes that were beyond the traditional restaurant dishes.
To say that the Lieng family impressed us with their food and hospitality would be an understatement, and we give the Red Lotus the ultimate 5.0 Addie rating.
We gave a wave to Mr. Lieng in the kitchen, thanked him, and wished him well as we left.
*As in, "yoso-silly," "yoso-hungry," "yoso-full," or best of all, "mmm-delici-yoso!!!!!"