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Friday, April 25, 2008

Ken's Seafood - New Chinatown highlight

There's been a lot of activity in Chinatown lately, with a few noteworthy openings and renovations. The corner of 10th and Race is looking much better these days: the old Ho Sai Gai is finally being fixed-up, but even more exciting, a couple of doors away at 1004 Race, Ken's Seafood Restaurant has opened.

Some of us know Ken from Xiao Guan Garden, where he guided us through the best parts of that restaurant's menu. The selections available at the new place are not exactly the same, but similarly there are fresh fish, still swimming in tanks, and other traditional Cantonese dishes. The tanks hold a few different kinds of live shrimp, dungeness crabs, lobsters, eels and several species of finned fish, and there are clams, scallops and oysters on offer as well. The menu also offers such splurges as shark's fin soup, and abalone.

There's a diverse English-language menu with plenty of traditional items, and a smaller one written only in Chinese, and even better, if you can convince Ken that you're really interested, there's even more that the kitchen can do that's not on any menu. Although one can order pork, beef, chicken and duck, seafood is a good place to start here. Whole fish can be simply steamed with ginger and scallion or sauced more aggressively, I find simpler is better with such high-quality, ultra-fresh fish. Just be aware, this live seafood comes with a price: a good sized whole fish may cost between 20-30 dollars, the exact amount determined by weight. But it's worth the cost, the freshness is so evident that afterward you may only crave seafood that is still swimming when you order it.

Most seafood can be prepared various ways, ask for suggestions and pick whatever sounds best to you. Ken recommended some very large, red, live shrimp gently steamed with garlic. Prepared that way, they were sweet, tender and delicate. There are smaller, almost translucent shrimp that are good salt-baked.

There are clam dishes that one doesn't see too often at other restaurants. We sampled ribbony clam bellies, stir-fried with yellow chives.

Even better were Razor Clams, Hong Kong style. The long, thin clams were just barely cooked to an ideal tenderness, joined by crumbles of salty pork.

We were still feeling a little carnivorous, so we asked for Salt-Baked Porkchops. The chops arrived hot and juicy, a light, crispy coating carrying some salt and pepper, creating the impression of a perfect fried chicken. It was quite delicious just like that, but we were also offered a small bowl of soy spiked with hot peppers that added an interesting spin. Although this is primarily a seafood restaurant, they clearly do some good work with pork, and we saw a duck going by that caused us to contemplate distracting the waiter and claiming it for our own. There were several deep-fried dishes going to different tables, and judging from the pork chops, this chef knows his way around a frier.

To help celebrate his opening night, Ken sent us some plump, fresh oysters, and they were great, simply adorned with just the slightest drip of lemon.

Also worth noting was the house special soup, which had a deep, rich flavor, sweetened a bit by lotus root and some fruit.
If opening night is any indication, we've got another excellent choice in Chinatown, serving serious, traditional Cantonese food. Ken's is BYOB for now, expect a liquor license eventually. If you've got a large group, or are in the mood for a party, there are three private room upstairs, each fitted with a high-tech karaoke system and large flat-screen video monitors. We'll skip the off-key singing for now and concentrate on more of the pitch-perfect food emerging from this kitchen.

Ken's Seafood Restaurant
1004 Race St
Philadelphia, PA

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