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Thursday, July 25, 2002

Westside harvest

Posted on Thu, Jul 25, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Shopping near the West Oaks Mall a few weeks ago -- on my 27th trip to the hardware store for a home renovation project -- I spotted an unusual sign: "October Rice," it said, "a Chinese Cuisinery."

Open since last September, the "cuisinery" is nestled in a strip mall between a uniform store and a bar-stool outlet, so you might not expect to find more than garden-variety food. And with only five little tables in a small space, an open kitchen and counter service, October Rice doesn't look like a sit-down restaurant.

But, appointed in lovely shades of light and dark woods, and deep-blue lighting fixtures, the atmosphere seems to convince people coming in for take-out to stay. The counter and tables fill up quickly with people enjoying skillfully crafted renditions of familiar dishes.

The menu is beautiful, printed on creamy paper with elegant type, but the prices are more than reasonable.

The food sticks to the standard Chinese fare that you'd find on most menus but makes credible use of well-chosen and well-prepared ingredients. October Rice makes a savory hot-and-sour soup ($1.75), with strips of chicken and tofu cubes in a broth sharp with vinegar and spices. "Chinese ravioli" ($4.50) are deep fried wontons filled with chicken -- a bit too crisp on this visit but still a pleasant combination of flavors and textures. Chicken teriyaki ($3.75) is oven-roasted and brushed, not drowned, in dark sauce and served with crisply saut?ed vegetables.

The "festival of the sea" special combined plump shrimp, tender and moist stir-fried scallops and a chunk of lobster in a surprisingly light soy/wine sauce that didn't cover up the taste of the seafood ($11.95). The "sweet & sour" chicken ($6.95) hearkens back to days when chefs actually used pineapple and pickles, instead of sugar syrup and vinegar, to create the two contrasting flavors. Bravo for that. The wok-fried tofu ($6.25) is soft bean curd and vegetables seared in garlic and soy sauce, a much-needed alternative choice for the veggies among us.

In another unexpected move, food is served in take-away containers with plastic cutlery -- but they're the sturdiest containers I've seen. (I'm still using them.)

In Asia, rice is traditionally harvested in October, when much-needed rains from the monsoon season have ended and the 100 days of growing are over. Even in the U.S., October rice harvest festivals pop up all over Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. So October Rice alludes to an important time of the year for an important resource. Plus, it's a wonderfully lyrical name.


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