Where China meets Japan
Despite the name, when you enter Lucky Liu’s you feel as if you have entered a small Japanese restaurant. It is an attractive place with a spare decor, wooden floors, simple tables and a four-seat sushi bar. Then the menu arrives and it is an even divide between things Japanese and things Chinese. Korean restaurants often serve sushi as does the occasional Thai place, but this is the first time I have encountered a Chinese merger. The menu is extensive touching all the usual regional Chinese standards. The Japanese side, while just as lengthy, actually is more limited. Beyond sushi and sashimi the other items are restricted to miso soup and a few appetizers. The prices are quite reasonable, especially the many lunch specials, and this is probably the only local place that delivers sushi to your home.
Japanese appetizers are superior to the Chinese. The seaweed salad
($4.95) is thin slivers over slightly larger ones of cucumber. It is
very simply noted by its crunch and hints of sesame flavor. Tako su
($6.25) also promises cucumber but only is slices of tender octopus
with a garnish of daikon threads with a pool os sauce, a combination of
soy sauce and the delicate citrus of punzu. Both items are sound
Japanese starters. On the Chinese side there are BBQ ribs ($4.95).
ribs are large enough and the sauce has a novel tanginess, but the meat
is very scarce. Definitely pass on the steamed dumplings ($4.95). The
minced pork filling is passable but the dough is leaden.
The maki, or hand roll, sushi can be very inexpensive. That old standard, California roll, is $3.50 with its filling of avocado and surimi. The “Special Rolls” ($9.95-13.95) are where the sushi bar gets more creative with names such as Fire Dragon, Milwaukee Summer and Brady Corner. The rolls are also considerable larger. The selection of nigiri sushi and sashimi is merely average but the quality is good. Toro (fatty tuna) and Suzuki (striped bass) have already disappeared from the menu. But the old standbys like maguro (tuna), Hamachi (yellowtail), ika (squid) and tai (red snapper) are all fine at $4.25 for two pieces. One caveat though: The wasabi paste has an odd sweet flavor that just seems wrong.
The entrees are where the Chinese half of the menu gets to shine. Ma po tofu ($8.75) is listed as a vegetarian item, the standard version usually includes pork. This stripped-down version is just cubes of silky-textured tofu topped with chopped scallions. The sauce is the key, a deep brown with ruby overtones. It is rich with bursts of hot pepper spice. The missing pork is not even noticed. The best values are in a section titled “Liu’s Specials.” These entrees include a tasty vegetarian spring roll plus a choice of soup. The hot and sour soup arrives in an attractive bowl. A standard Japanese miso soup is also an option. Salt and pepper squid ($11.25) is Cantonese, lightly battered pieces with onion, bell peppers, dried red peppers and a few slices of fresh jalapenos for good measure. Still the spiciness level is low. Bacon pan-fried shrimp ($10.25) might not seem very Chinese but they are well worth ordering. There are eight large shrimp with a light batter coating. Each is topped with a strip of bacon. It is served over a medley of Chinese vegetables from water chestnuts to bok choy and even Thai straw mushrooms, which feel at home here. The sauce is dark with the color of soy sauce, but it is not overly sweet or salty. In fact it is light and as good as the sauce of the ma po tofu.
There also is a small bar, which seems aimed more at sushi customers. Think Japanese beer and sake versus Singapore slings. The young servers do a fine job. Tables are usually available as much of the business is carryout. While Lucky Liu’s is not the best Chinese or Japanese restaurant it is competent enough in both categories.
Lucky Liu’s, 1664 N. Van Buren St. (414) 223-1699 $-$$ Credit cards: MC,VS,DS Smoke-free Handicap access: yes
Photos by Tate Bunker