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Cheap Eats

Chinese home cooking

(Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2010

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The walls of the Wonder Cafe, a minuscule storefront in Watertown Square, practically glow in a vivid and cheery orange. Proprietor Sue Chen picked it herself, says her daughter Elizabeth Eng.

“It’s her favorite color,’’ Eng explains — and that’s the same principle that governs the Cantonese and Mandarin specialties that the family dishes out, all with a truly wonderful freshness and quality that’s attracted a loyal fan base since the 16-seat place opened 10 months ago.

“It’s literally all Mom’s cooking,’’ says Eng, “so it’s what me and my siblings were eating growing up.’’

That was in Cambridge, but Chen’s recipes taste far more like genuine Chinese-in-China home cooking than most restaurant food here. Chen hits the wholesale vegetable market early each morning, she says, then supervises the chefs who follow her recipes: no MSG, very little oil, light but flavorful sauces, and delicately balanced spices.

The result: vibrantly full-flavored green beans, pea pods, and broccoli in the aptly named “green jade,’’ richly chicken-y sauce and tender meat atop the pan-fried Cantonese noodles (pictured), dense and satisfyingly chewy beef in the black bean chow foon — along with black bean sauce that, for once, truly tastes of earthy beans. In one sense this is simple food — food that tastes, simply and purely, of what it is — but it’s the kind of simplicity that requires sophisticated expertise to achieve.

Despite the focus on subtle Cantonese dishes, the kitchen also isn’t afraid of spice. Spicy salt and hot pepper dishes are just that. An appetizer of Szechuan wonton in hot oil looks deceptively like bland noodles, but the hidden heat builds to a rewardingly high pitch. Ma po tofu has a nice warmth, too (along with unorthodox but tasty mushrooms and green peas); even General Gau’s chicken kicks a bit.

The Szechuan wontons are vegetarian, as are many appetizers, entrees, and sides here; General Gau himself shows up again in the tofu sector, unusual territory for this familiar old warrior. There’s plenty of kid-friendly fare, too — bubble tea, minced beef with egg, even french fries — along with toys and games to speed the wait. (Takeout business is brisk; the Cafe delivers locally for $2.)

Desserts have a personal touch: The fortune cookies are chocolate, and besides the usual fresh pineapple, the menu lists tiramisu. Like the french fries, it’s there because one of the Eng kids requested it.

No question: There’s a real mom in this kitchen, and she knows how to make everyone happy.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at louisekennedy330@gmail.com.

WONDER CAFE

58 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617-923-0227, www.wonder cafema.com. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $2.75-$9.95. Entrees $3.95-$17.95. Desserts $1.95-$3.95.

Hours Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Liquor None.

May we suggest Spicy salt and hot pepper chicken wing, house special pan-fried Cantonese noodles, black bean sauce beef chow foon, green jade.

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