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Fresh & amp;amp; Tasty 

by SUSAN HAMILTON and ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & DINING Triple Alliance


Chinese food, buffets and alcoholic beverages are all popular -- especially in the Inland Northwest. Put them together and it's a winning combination. TOP OF CHINA BUFFET has held diners' attention for several years with such a tempting combination. Now the north-side eatery offers new menu items, a new chef and new management.





"We have 120 food items, including sushi, prepared daily by our chef, who has 20 years of experience," says Paul Li, Top of China's owner.





New chef Kon Moua, who previously rolled sushi at RAW, has made Top of China's corner sushi bar a captivating spot. A variety of colorful rolls are available, as well as tofu pockets (deep-fried little morsels trimmed with seaweed). Moua has also brought his grilling experience to Top of China, offering meat skewers and beef specialties at the buffet.





Diners can also indulge in the Chinese, Japanese and American buffet items. Mussels and lemon salmon are two new dishes, as are wonton seafood salad and chicken with hoisin sauce. Perennial favorites Szechwan pork, General Tso's chicken and teriyaki beef hold prominent places at the buffet. There's even a variety of pizzas on the line, where the all-you-can-eat lunch is $6.75 ($11 for dinner).





"We have the only all-you-can-eat crab legs in town," Li says, and the tasty crustaceans draw quite the crowd. He adds, "Now the bar is more connected to the restaurant, so customers can order drinks with their meals."





Top of China's classic Asian offerings are also available on its menu, including appetizers like Crab Rangoon and fried wonton, soups from seafood to egg drop, and varieties of fried rice, chow mein, lo mein, egg foo young and moo shu. Chef specialty dishes include Hunan duck and "happy family," featuring squid, jumbo shrimp, beef, chicken, roast pork and vegetables in a spicy sauce. Kung Po chicken, roast pork with garlic sauce, hot and spicy shredded beef and shrimp with lobster sauce round out Top of China's menu. With price points from $2 to $12, there's something to tempt everyone's palate, along with those accompanying drinks.


-- SUSAN HAMILTON





Top of China Buffet, 21 E. Lincoln Rd., is open daily from 11 am-9 pm. Call 468-9988.





CASUAL It's Mondo, Dude


As a downtown office denizen, I'm always on the lookout for places to pick up a quick lunch, so I was glad to see TACO DEL MAR in its new location on the third floor of River Park Square.





Here's how it works: You pick a menu item (taco, burrito), then pick your variety of tortilla (corn, flour, tomato, spinach). Choose a filling (fish, ground beef, shredded beef, carne asada, pork, chicken), beans (refried, black or Pinto), then pick options like cheese, pico de gallo, chopped or shredded veggies (lettuce, tomato, cabbage, jalapenos), and add your sauce selection. The meal is assembled before your eyes, Subway-style, and slid toward the register.





On my first visit, I tried two soft tacos: one with a chunk of Alaskan white fish at center and one with carne asada. The fish was lightly battered and fried -- crispy outside, flaky inside. My server recommended adding cabbage, a little pico de gallo and a dash of white sauce, and then wrapped the whole thing up in a softly steamed corn tortilla for a successful blend of flavors and textures. The carne asada was more steamed than grilled, which made the soft flour tortilla a bit soggy and fall-apart-y. Still, the whole thing was tasty, once I grabbed a fork.





The first Taco Del Mar opened on Seattle's waterfront about 15 years ago, serving burritos and fish tacos like the founders remembered from beachfront shacks in Southern California and Baja. A flat-screen TV behind the counter plays surf footage on a continuous loop, setting the mood. The concept spread, and now there are more than 250 Taco Del Mar stores across the country.





Many of Taco Del Mar's offerings emphasize lighter, healthier ingredients -- like whole-wheat tortillas, black beans and veggies. Crispy (i.e., fried) tacos are also an option, for those less concerned about fat and calories.





Definitely not on the lighter side is the Mondo Burrito: one and a half pounds of tortilla-encased meat, beans, cheese and veggies. I sampled the shredded-beef variety on a whole-wheat tortilla, adding in black beans, rice, cheese, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and the mild version of the habanero sauce. The shredded beef had a nice flavor and texture, the whole-wheat tortilla stood up to the test of holding the filling -- and I had lunch for three days.


-- ANN M. COLFORD





Taco Del Mar, on the third floor of River Park Square, is open Mon-Sat 11 am-9 pm, Sun 11 am-5 pm. Call 232-2002.

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