- Photo by Will Lee
- Phoenix Chinese Café
It would come as no surprise to anyone to say that Chinese food in San Antonio is lacking in options. Kung Pao chicken is delicious, but sometimes you just need something more. When I first relocated my Houston-based Hong Kong palate to SA, I must have chewed through 100 pounds of greasy Chinese food before I found my two Oriental oases, two restaurants head-and-shoulders above the field of cheap pretenders: Phoenix Chinese Café and Kim Wah Chinese BBQ. Both specialize in a form of authentic Chinese cuisine known as “Cantonese” and feature very similar menus with near-identical dishes.
Cantonese food is found throughout southern China and is the prized native cuisine of Hong Kong. Think of it as Chinese food before it left its roots and immigrated to America. Like all new immigrants, Cantonese food is pretty shy around strangers. So while both restaurants sell “normal” (read: Americanized) Chinese as their mainstay, they’ll provide you their secret Cantonese menu if you know enough to ask.
In fact, you’ll find that their authentic Chinese menus are about four times as extensive as their American counterparts, offering endless variations on beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, and vegetables.
The more complicated the dish, the simpler the name. A brilliant steel pot of eggplant, simmered in a rich, thick garlic brown sauce with minced pork, bell pepper, red vinegar, fresh watercress, and cilantro will run you about $7.95* (Garlic Eggplant with Pork, found under the category of “Hot Pot”). A slow-roasted duck with browned, salted skin, literally flamed with a hand torch to encase the moisture of the poultry in its own prison of crunchy skin? $8.95 (Crispy Duck, filed under “Duck,” price reflects a half order).
Not only are the prices and portions extremely reasonable (which is very much in the spirit of Hong Kong), but the food is legitimately good as well. The classic way to order (read: how my parents do it) at these restaurants is to do a “surf-and-turf family-style.” A well-balanced meal includes a dedicated vegetable dish (try the Stir fried Hollow Vegetables w/ Garlic), a seafood dish (try the classic lobster), beef (sizzling black pepper steak), and tofu (pick any one; they’re all delicious). Always order one more dish than the amount of people in your group. With prices that range from $7-$12 per plate (lobster is more, obviously), you can easily feed a party of four for the same price as a burger and a beer anywhere on the River Walk.
If you’re just in the mood for some damn good noodles, try the Beef Ho Fun for $7.95. Also known as Beef Wide Noodles, it’s a wide, flat rice noodle that is either cooked “wet” in brown sauce, or stir-fried “dry.” Both versions are classically served with Chinese Broccoli and slices of beefsteak. This is the ultimate dish by which all Cantonese restaurants are judged. In Hong Kong, a restaurant’s worth is defined by how well they can make Beef Ho Fun. Variety is the spice of life; I recommend trying both just to see which one you prefer.
I’m proud of San Antonio for having these two restaurants. Even though they tend to “keep it like a secret” (shameless Built to Spill reference accomplished), it is more than worth it to take a chance on the real deal. Worse case scenario: You can always order Cashew Chicken next time, right? •
All prices are taken from Phoenix Chinese Café. Prices at Kim Wah are similar, give or take a dollar.
Phoenix Chinese Café
11821 West Ave
Kim Wah Chinese BBQ
7080 Bandera Rd