Best Chinese in Sacramento? CF Cheng's

CF Cheng Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Update 4/9/13: A regular customer friend has told me that the entire staff has turned over, including the chef. The food is no longer as good. This review is now outdated.

Typically when you want to go out for great, truly authentic ethnic food, you go where the natives eat (so to speak). For Chinese, that usually means somewhere in the south area, maybe on Stockton or Freeport Boulevards. These will be the places where they have taped up photos of the dishes on the wall for the non-Chinese customers because the menus will all be in Chinese and the servers don't speak English. The tables will be filled with Chinese patrons eating dishes made with jelly fish, strange vegetables, and parts of animals that most Americans would never consider eating.

Recently I was taken to "the best Chinese in town" by my new co-worker, Flora. She is a Chinese immigrant and has recently moved here from Los Angeles and it soon became apparent she was a foodie. She's been making friends among the Chinese community in town and they are the ones who told her of CF Cheng' Natomas. After trying it herself a couple of times, she agreed and took me to treat me to dinner.

CF Cheng's is located off Arena Boulevard not far from the arena itself. It's in one of those complexes where there is also a Massage Envy and a Mel's Diner. The style is Cantonese. The restaurant itself is small, clean, and new.  It is only able to seat about 40 people. My coworker had called to make a reservation for two, something I thought a bit odd for a small Chinese restaurant. But, she says, it is often packed with a long wait and she figured she better call to see if they would take a reservation.

We were lucky in that the place was half empty for a late dinner. We took a seat and soon the waitress brought us drinks and the menus. Flora had been told by another of our coworkers to order a particular pork belly dish and set about locating it on the menu. She found it and pointed it out, but I couldn't find it on my menu. I then realized - I'd been given the non-Chinese menu! She had the one geared to Chinese. Mine had the typical American Chinese items such as Mongolian Beef and Sweet and Sour Pork. Hers had the dishes with goose intestine and jelly fish.

 I told her to make all the selections but she insisted I pick one. After our order was taken we enjoyed the soup of the day. No egg drop or hot and sour, this one was a tomato cabbage soup with bits of beef. A nice change from the normal.

So much food for the two of us! First to come out was the chicken with jellyfish. This was the only dish that I was a bit wary of. I had to wonder how does a seafood go with chicken?! I was also surprised in that it was a cold dish. Flora said it was more of an appetizer, although you couldn't tell that by the quantity. Be careful eating this dish (and others too) because this had been chopped by cleaver. If you've ever ordered a duck from one of the Asian markets, you've seen it done. They hack away at the carcass with a cleaver to chop it into smaller pieces. No gentle carving here. This means you must be wary of chicken bones. The chicken itself tasted just like a salty, cold rotisserie chicken, even though it had been obviously boiled by the appearance of the pale, tacky skin. The jellyfish was sliced into thin strips and lent a slightly chewy texture to the dish, although no really discernible flavor addition. I liked it, but must admit that I preferred the chicken over the jellyfish bits - more of a texture thing.

Next to come out was the dish recommended by my other coworker - pork belly with salted greens. Driving over, Flora had asked if I ate pork belly and my response had been, "Who doesn't!?" Flora said that this was made with dried, salted vegetables and asked if that would be alright. I'm not too familiar with dried Chinese ingredients, although I've seen them in the Asian markets. I was game and found that, once re-hydrated, there wasn't much difference. The pork belly was soft and tender after having been braised in the salty broth, definitely soy heavy. The large slices sat atop a mound of sauteed greens with the dried greens forming a dark brown layer on top. The dish was rich due to the luscious fat from the pork belly.

My dish came out next. I had picked one of my favorites, salt and pepper shrimp with green beans. It's a regular order when I go to Macau Cafe, although there they pair the shrimp with asparagus. The shrimp and beans are coated with a light tempura batter, fried, and then quickly tossed with salt and jalapenos (and sometimes garlic). This version was deliciously salty, but I would have preferred more heat from the jalapenos. I love the one at Macau because they chop up the jalapeno and leave lots of crispy jalapeno and garlic bits on the plate for you to enjoy as well.

By now I was feeling pretty full, but knew I needed to leave room for the last dish. Flora was excited to pick a dish with lobster and soft noodles that she had had before. Out came a large platter of noodles with  a chopped lobster on top. As with the chicken, this one requires some care while eating to avoid bits of shell. This had a rather mild, ginger stir fry sauce and definitely benefited from adding hot chili oil, as recommended by Flora. The added heat and sweetness of the chili oil made this a great dish, so definitely add it.

I might not be Chinese, but I've always been picky about selecting restaurants. I hate cheap Chinese, the kind found at the $10 buffets with the American dishes like chow mein and sweet and sours. I might not go for the chicken feet and goose intestines, but I much prefer authentic dishes. CF Cheng is definitely a find for those willing to be more adventurous but have been too shy to try those hole-in-the-wall places on Stockton Boulevard. They will definitely feel more comfortable here. 

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