Thursday, March 1, 2012

Off the Map: It's Never Good When White Rice Is the More Appealing Option

A&M Crispy Beef -- Cafe Zen, Baltimore, MD
Cafe Zen

If there is one thing we have determined about Duff Goldman, it's that his taste fluctuates from the highest of highs (Morimoto) to the lowest of lows (Franklin Fountain).  Unfortunately, at this particular point in our Best Thing I Ever Ate journey through Baltimore, we are on a downward swing.
We've Evolved from Pig Slop to Dog Food
After an unsatisfying meal at Golden West Cafe, Vodka and her friend, Bloody Mary, head to Cafe Zen, a nondescript Chinese Restaurant along a strip of even less remarkable stores in yet another odd section of town.  At the heart of lunchtime on a Saturday, the place is empty save for one lone table, and the hostess gives us our pick of seats.
Happening Place You've Got Here, Baltimore
We sit ourselves in the back corner booth and order one serving of the Crispy A&M Beef, as recommended by Duff on the WITH CHOPSTICKS episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.  The dish is subtitled "candy beef," because it is supposed to be just as addicting as sugary snacks.
This Doesn't Exactly Look Like a Jolly Rancher to Us
With any luck, it is more appealing than the Cafe Zen bathroom, which is about as run-down and shabby as one can imagine.  In truth, the rest of the restaurant has not fared much better, giving the term "hole in the wall" new meaning, as there do appear to be actual holes in the wallpaper.
Why Preschoolers Shouldn't Be Allowed to Decorate Restaurant Walls
Our cups of water and plate of beef soon arrive, and we fear we are about to continue our pattern of having lukewarm dining experiences when devoid of alcohol.  There is a hefty portion of beef piled up on the plate, with very few carrot and celery shavings sprinkled on top.  The meat has an orange tint from the honey sauce, and the platter looks remarkably like a crispy beef entree that Vodka consumed at Shun Lee in Manhattan a few years back.

Sadly, Cafe Zen and Shun Lee are not exactly equal partners in the art of Asian cuisine.
Upscale Chinese Fare, This Is Not
Taking our first bites, our mouths are greeted by the slightly tangy sweetness that coats the best crispy entrees.  We chew through our strings of beef, waiting for the actual meat to appear under the thick coating of batter.

No meat is ever found.
Thanks for the Pile of Breading Though, Cafe Zen
By our second pieces, we realize that this crispy beef is suffering from two major problems: it is all but missing its main component (the beef), and it tastes burnt.  An overall hint of char remains on our taste buds long after each bite is swallowed, and we are becoming increasingly appalled.
If We Weren't Ladies, We'd Say Exactly What Those "Beef" Pieces Look Like....
While the dish that Vodka remembers from Shun Lee was shiny, smooth, vaguely crunchy yet tender on the inside, this "beef" (if we can even call it that) is sticky, hard, and remains in the crevices of our teeth like taffy ("candy beef," indeed).
What's the Zodiac Sign for "Awful"?
Less than halfway through the dish, we both begin scooping forkfuls of white rice in our mouths as a more palatable alternative, knowing that it's never a positive sign when the bland accompaniment is considered the more pleasant portion of a dish.
Anyone Have Any Butter and Salt to Go With Our Rice?
When we have leaned back in our booth benches in various states of disgust, the waitress comes over and asks how everything was.
Our Fortunes Should Have Warned Us About This Place
"It was... okay...," Vodka says in the decidedly cryptic tone that anyone with solid customer service skills, not to mention eyes to spot the mound of crispy beef remaining on our plate, would pick up on.

"Do you want to wrap this to go?" the waitress plows through, ignoring Vodka's obvious displeasure.
Does It LOOK Like We Want to Take This to Go?!
"No!" we answer.  After all, it was bad enough to taint our Cafe Zen experience with such so-called "food."  The last thing we want to do is tarnish our own refrigerators with the same burnt pile of honey-crusted mystery meat.
Vodka's Fortune = The Best Thing About This Place
Cafe Zen's A&M Crispy Beef: 2 stars

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