At Ben Pao I was issued a pager, the kind that vibrates instead of beeps, to alert me when my , table was ready. "We want to have that total harmony thing," explained the hostess. When mine went off it shuddered across the bar in a none-too-harmonic fashion. Not that it was any competition for the fire trucks roaring in and out of the station across the street.
While waiting I tried a pate tangerine drink and a tangy lemon-ginger squeeze. Ben Pao does right by all those hilarious Tiki Lounge-style concoctions layered with rum and syrup and decorated with big chunks of pineapple. In fact, despite the arty photos and soothing lighting, Ben Pao offers a standard Melman nostalgia trip back to old-fashioned Americanized Chinese. -Leah Eskin
STEAMED LEMON CHICKEN w/chives We debated hot versus mild chicken and ended up spinning an order of each around our table's lazy Susan. This one is tender and sweet, tossed with big chunks of fruit and delicate snips of chives.
TONY'S AMAZING CHICKEN Lumps of chicken and a few clumps of fresh spinach lounge coyly in their slick bath, seemingly oblivious to the fiery menace of the Thai pepper fins jutting up out of the deep.
GAI CHOY MUSTARD GREEN HEARTS W/FRAGRANT GINGER Not the dark leafy greens, but the pate turgid stalks, equally pleasingly bitter, yet crunchy.
PAN FRIED WRINKLED STRING BEANS By the time we got to the cutely wrinkly beans, I was feeling suspicious. Though the usual pork bits have given way to toasted garlic bits, it's basically the same limp shiny beans you can order at any redroofed Lotus Petal or Mandarin Garden or Buddha House.
WOK-SEARED SALMON W/CRISPY SPINACH Flaky salmon heavy with an intoxicating roast of garlic and peppers, both traditional red and unorthodox serrano. The "crispy" spinach is almost a clever idea-flash fried so that it retains its intense color but crinkles up into a curly, crunchy treat. Unfortunately the crispy critters trap pockets of oil, making each the nutritional equivalent of a french fry.
FLAT NOODLES WITH CHICKEN OR BBQ PORK This confirmed my doubts. Perfectly nice, fat flat, noodles oiled with soy, accompanied by scallion strips and handsome squares of smoky pork. A respectable rendition of an all-too-familiar recipe.
By the time the guy in the tassel tie was offering us dessert, I had that gross Chinese restaurant feeling--the one that makes you crave a whole bowl of grease blotting white rice. We settled for unfortunate cookies--the kind with no middle-which are served with an external fortune from your favorite category (success, cosmic, happiness, love, or family). I like exerting some control over my cookie destiny, but the soothsaying was somewhat shopworn. From the happiness division: "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is liking what you get." Not sure I got a full serving of either at Ben Pao.
Cleverly solving the Monday-night problem, Ben Pao, at 52 W. Illinois, is open every evening. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11, Sunday 4 to 9. Phone: 222-1888.