Food is fashion: Halter tops and haute French one day, bling and sushi the next. American-Chinese restaurants began to fall from favor about the time men started wearing earrings, and nowadays the dark, stodgy interiors and tired, predictable cuisine are like mutton chop sideburns to the alluringly clean face of contemporary Asian dining. These emporiums of egg foo yung have retained their most loyal legion of fans, but still — there are only so many Jews. When China won rights to the upcoming Olympics, I envisioned a potential re-embrace of the once-dominant American-Asian fare; then I witnessed the torturous tour of the torch and thought, maybe not. But upon paying a visit to Shing Wang Vegetarian, Icee & Tea House in North Miami Beach, I returned to the thought that General Tso just might grab the gold once again.
Shing Wang signals the arrival of Miami's first all-vegetarian Chinese restaurant and one of its few purveyors of Taiwanese shaved ice and bubble tea. The latter originated in the Eighties as a beverage predominantly sold outside of schools — a means for children to enjoy a sweet afternoon tea. During the Nineties, the drink achieved fad status throughout much of Asia, and earlier this decade ignited similar passions in some American cities — but not this one. It's made from powdered milk, sugar, tea, and one main flavoring ingredient (such as mango, taro, or green tea); viscous pearls of black tapioca are piled in the bottom of the cup. "Bubble" refers not to the tapioca but to a milkshake-like foam that forms on the surface from vigorous blending. Shing Wang calls its bubble tea "tapioca" (it can also be referred to as "pearl milk tea"), and it is delicious — we especially savored the red bean, mung bean, litchi, and strawberry flavors. As per custom, each is served in a large, transparent plastic container that's sealed with a thin cellophane wrap on top (via a cool two-reeled machine that looks like a film-editing device snatched from Willy Wonka). A straw — extra-wide to let those tapioca balls flow — gets poked through the cellophane. If you're wondering whether Taiwanese schoolkids might use these straws to shoot the gummy pellets at each other for sport: Yes, they do.
There are dozens of other alluring beverage options, from fruit juices such as plum, watermelon, and carambola, to hot teas like apple, green, and kumquat, to beers including Bud, Corona, and Tsing-Tao. Glasses of Chardonnay and Cabernet are on hand for $4 apiece, but I don't think that's what you want to be drinking here.
The little room is sparse, bright, and colorful. It is a self-service establishment, with Julie and manager Sussy ("chief of bubbles and beverages," she says) behind the counter. They are friendly, Taipei-trained in the art of shaved-ice desserts and bubble teas, and fluent in Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, English, and Spanish. Seriously. Chef/owner Sing Kelly occasionally escapes from the kitchen to check on guests.
How it works: Select your mock meat (beef, chicken, pork) or seafood (shrimp, scallops, lobster, and squid are listed on the menu, but only the first is currently available), each prepared from soy and wheat gluten products. Then pair it with one of a dozen-plus Chinese preparations such as black bean sauce, piquant ko-po sauce, or mixed vegetables; pepper steak or General "Tao"-style; and noodle or rice dishes. Mixing-and-matching can potentially yield more than 60 distinct dinners, not including separate vegetable and tofu offerings. A cup of miso soup comes with each entrée, as does a heap of jasmine or brown rice. The price for this hearty meal, at lunch or dinnertime, is a mere $6.95.
The fake beef looks just like the real deal, although texturally closer in slice form than in strips; the latter were rather spongy. The taste isn't quite steaklike, but when spiked with five-spice and other Asian accents, it fairly approximates the meat found in traditional Chinese stir-fries. The pork mimicry arrives as moist, meaty lumps imbued with mildly piquant flavor, chicken as thin slices of somewhat tasteless white meat (just like real chicken breast). Small beige cubes of ham in exemplary fried rice proved the purest parrotry of all, exhibiting the appearance, texture, and mildly smoky taste of roast pork. Vegetables that accompany the proteins vary from dish to dish, but most contain some combination of mushrooms, onions, peppers, bok choy, snow peas, green beans, water chestnuts, baby corn, and broccoli.
Wide ribbons of soft, white chow fun noodles were fine but needed more sauce and zing. A few other items were likewise lacking in punch, including a crisply fried but blandly cabbaged spring roll, and pan-fried vegetable dumplings that passed muster — though you can find better elsewhere. Sesame balls of tender white glutinous rice flour and sweetened red bean paste were the best starter sampled, although they'd make a better dessert.
Shing Wang opened less than a month ago. Certain menu items haven't yet been launched, including radish soup, bean curd skin, and all seafood selections except shrimp. One can only hope the upcoming shellfish simulations come closer to the mark; the shrimp's texture was regrettably rubbery — to the point that only decorum stopped me from bouncing one against the wall and catching it on the rebound. I wonder if the kids in Taiwan have thought of this.
There is no shortage of dessert options, the most obvious being "slush ice" (kakigori), a snow cone that comes with choice of 13 syrup flavors (all homemade), including mung bean, litchi, banana, honeydew, and taro. "Taiwanese shaved ice" is a bit more complex. Patrons select four of 34 toppings that encompass fresh fruits (cantaloupe, kiwi), puddings (chocolate, almond), beans (red, mung), jellies (mango, lemon grass), peanuts, corn, condensed milk, six types of dried plums, longan sweet rice, barley, and so forth. Shaved ice can become a meal in itself — albeit a strange one.
Could these soy substitutes con a carnivore? Never. But vegetarians and vegans will deem it close enough, and most folks should appreciate it for what it is: fresh, flavorful, healthful Chinese food at an excellent price. And those who find faux protein not to be their cup of tea might very well discover that bubble tea is. Shing Wang brings yesterday's American-Chinese cuisine into the realm of relevant 21st-century dining. The torch has been passed.