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Larry La is fulfilling the classic American dream. He started with a small Chinese restaurant modestly situated a few steps down from Connecticut Avenue above Dupont Circle. City Lights of China gradually built a reputation for good cooking - fresh ingredients, clear and bold favors - as well as for genial service. Soon La was driven to expand. And to expand again. The place was an ever-growing success, and weekend diners could expect a long line for tables.

La and his staff weathered the pressure well, and the service remained consistently gracious. Even more important, the cooking was always enticing. It would have been a challenge to find more crisp, juicy or carefully carved Peking duck. Eggplant developed a whole new generation of admirers once news of City Lights' garlic-sauced version spread. And I've known ex-Washingtonians whose first goal when they returned to town was to reacquaint themselves with La's garlicky stir-fried spinach.

The more elaborate dishes were as pristine as the simple ones. Crispy shredded beef was crackly fried strands of meat and matching vegetables, its chilies tamed by just enough caramelized sugar. The flounder duet displayed stir-fried moist fish and crunchy vegetables, on top of the fish's frame fried to a crisp.

Then La turned over the management to others. He sold out and moved on...

La, in the meantime, couldn't stay on the sidelines. He made plans to open another restaurant, and word got around. Thus, when he opened Meiwah in February, it was a hit right from its first lunch...

...The atmosphere is far different, though. Meiwah is a glossy twostory dining room with its name in neon. It's modem and sleek, though a touch homey as well. La has moved up from a basement to wraparound windows...

... To the extent that Chinese food is about texture, Meiwah is a culinary success. Asparagus has its own menu in this season, and whether pan-fried or salt-baked, the green spears are perfectly firm without any rawness.

The jumbo shrimp - pan-fried in the shell, with butter sauce or spiced salt - burst with juices, and whole fish are pearly and moist whether fried Hunan-style, steamed with black bean or ginger and scallions, or stir-fried. Fried spring rolls flake at the first bite, and sesame noodles have the firm, wiry texture of pasta that's not been cooked a moment too long. Stirfried meats, whether thinly shaved lamb, julienned pork or sliced pepper steak, are soft as velvet.

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