Emerging from the movies one rainy night last spring with a ravenous appetite for Chinese food, I headed two blocks north to Shun Lee Palace, a neighborhood institution known for good, pricey food. After studying the menu I realized “pricey” was an understatement, and headed next door to Shun Lee Cafe. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.
In comparison to the Palace’s dramatically dragon-lady red/black decor, the Cafe is cheerfully black/white checkered. The first thing I noticed were some strange-looking animal-shaped lamps all around the walls and hanging from the ceiling, surrounded with what looked like random numerals. Perusing this odd lighting while waiting for my food to arrive, it suddenly hit me that the animals are the symbols of the Chinese zodiac, and the numbers surrounding them are the years they represent (Year of the Ox, Year of the Dragon, etc). By pure coincidence I found myself sitting right underneath the rams-head-shaped lamp representing the Year of the Goat, my own Chinese zodiac sign. It was a fun way to start off the dining experience.
The Cafe’s menu is somewhat less extensive than the one at the Palace, which didn’t present a problem (why anyone would want to eat something the Palace serves called “Ants Climbing a Tree” I will never be able to comprehend), but they still offer 17 kinds of soup, 4 kinds of rice, duck or pork barbecue, 8 cold appetizers (jellyfish, anyone?), 3 kinds of soup and 24 entrees. Amid all this the dim sum carts circulate the restaurant constantly, with over 50 different items, baked, steamed and fried. You won’t leave the Cafe hungry.
Service at the Cafe is prompt and professional. The water materialized at my table almost instantaneously to take my order. Besides wonton soup, I decided to try something called Szechuan Alligator, which the menu describes as “crispy chunks of tender alligator showered with Szechuan sauce”. At $13.95 it was’t going to blow my budget, and if it turned out tasting godawful, it would still be something to talk about over the water cooler at the office the next day. Surprise – it was delicious. It’s hard to describe exactly what it tastes like, but no, it doesn’t taste exactly like chicken – it tastes exactly like alligator. The meat is tender and juicy and cooked to perfection. The total bill came to less than $25.00 with the tax and the tip.
Since that first rainy night, I’ve returned to the Cafe three times, and tried their beef with twin onion (tender beef cooked with green and white onions in brown sauce), their Hunan ostrich steak (sliced ostrich steak cooked with red bell peppers and Hunan peppers, and their dim sum, which is scrumptious. About half the entrees at the Cafe are either Szechuan or Hunan cooking, which means they are pretty hot, but you can order the spice altered to your taste.
Prices at the Cafe are affordable indeed; the entrees run between $12.50 and $14.40 and the dim sum is $6.25 per serving. Four servings will fill you up nicely for $25.00, or one serving makes a good alternative (or addition) to soup.
The Cafe is located on West 65th Street right across the street from Lincoln Center. Parking is almost non-existent, but the #1 subway line is half a block away, and the #5, #7 and #104 buses stop within a block of the restaurant.