Fine Asian Dining for the Dark Season
I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I walked into the China Pavilion on Anapamu and Chapala the other night for dinner, but the place was packed, and boisterously so. Although it was just a Tuesday evening, tables were filled with couples, families, business associates, and what had the aura of a sorority function or bachelorette party in the corner.
Maybe it’s always that busy at what many consider the tastiest Chinese joint in downtown Santa Barbara (and in Montecito for that matter), but I’m going to bet the place — and other Chinese restaurants — get a bump in business during the dark season, when the time shifts back and the sun sets super early, as it began to do a couple weekends ago. That’s because Chinese restaurants, by and large, are typically more dimly lit than other places, offering a place to either hide away or engage with friends and family in a more intimate setting. The latter notion is enhanced by the sharing of food that so often goes with the Chinese eating experience. But maybe I just don’t eat Chinese food enough, at least since Jimmy’s closed.
Whatever the reason, I found myself seated in a booth with the bulky menu and specials list before me. I’d never been to either this place or the one that’s been on Coast Village Road for a long time, but I’d always heard that this was classy Chinese eating. And if it’s survived so long in Montecito, I assumed that to be true.
After debating whether to get the prix fixe menu for $20, which features four courses including dessert, my associate and I decided we weren’t hungry enough. So instead, we settled on the calamari with garlic pepper salt as our appetizer. While I opted for the hot tea, she settled on a small bottle of hot sake, throwing a little Japanese into the mix. (Though they do also feature a Taiwanese rice wine, but it was by the bottle only, for $29. The small bottle she ordered was just $4 — quite a steal for booze of any strength or quality.)
When the breaded calamari arrived, topped with sliced bell peppers and scallions, a request for some dipping sauce was uttered. That was the move of the evening, for when the waitress returned, she had a full span of five sauces presented in a lengthy, stylish tray. She explained each one, from the plum sauce and hoisin sauces to the hot mustard, sweet and sour, and soy. Our dipping began, and before long, the calamari, which was just thick and succulent enough, was gone.
For our entrees, she opted for the orange peel chicken veggie style, which was not exactly on the menu. They did have the generals chicken in a soy variety, but not the orange peel. It didn’t matter, for the chefs were easily able to throw the orange peel sauce upon the slices of sauteed soy, which were enhanced by Szechuan peppers of that black-red variety. I chose the mimosa spareribs, an original concoction of, you guessed it, champagne and orange juice. But making the recipe sweeter, the champagne was carmelized, leading to a slightly crunchy exterior and most interior, much like the more familiar sweet and sour pork. Each entree, as expected, came with rice.
When we were finally done stuffing out faces, we looked at the special dessert option coyly: a Pavilion-style banana spring roll, where the banana is treated with cinnamon and Grand Marnier, they rolled in a Chinese crepe, fried, and topped with powdered sugar. We just couldn’t pull the trigger though, and got our check instead. The damage? A mere $35, not including tip. Altogether, a very acceptable evening feast for not too much cash. And best of all, we got our first taste of enjoying Chinese food in the early days of this dark season. I’m ready for plenty more.
The Details: China Pavilion is located in downtown Santa Barbara at 1202 Chapale Street on the corner of Anapamu. Call 560-6028. The other location is at 1070 Coast VIllage Road in Montecito. Call 565-9380.