Rick and Maureen, who have been my friends for years, are real squares. When he wears his bow tie and she has her hair permed, they look as if they stepped right out of a '50s sitcom. They couldn't be called adventurous eaters, but recently they became a bit daring and "discovered" Chinese cuisine. Although Maureen once thought of haute cuisine as an extra pat of butter on frozen peas and Rick still considers microwaved popcorn the ultimate in gourmandise, Chinese food offers them an irresistible temptation: It's a good value.
A new Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park is usually more than just a good value--it can be a cultural event, particularly when it is as exceptional as First Chaur Jou Seafood Restaurant. My wife and I had been enraptured by their dim sum, so we suggested to our friends that they join us there for dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant has a tank for live seafood with a giant turtle flapping around in it, and apparently my friends draw the line at turtles. As soon as Rick spotted the poor creature he looked ready to bolt for the door. Maureen had no reaction until it dawned on her that the turtle was not a pet.
I assured my friends repeatedly we would not be having turtle for dinner, and we were led to a comfortable table. Suddenly, they were taken in by the cavernous main room, which is among the most imposing you will ever see in a Chinese restaurant. The walls are crisscrossed with dark brown wooden slats and inlaid with bronze carvings; the ceiling is lofty, the effect airy and palatial. Rick remarked that if the food was half as impressive as the atmosphere he would be satisfied.
When a Chinese restaurant is intended solely for Westerners, you rarely find anything exotic on the menu, or even on the premises. Some Chinese restaurants are actually afraid to serve squid. First Chaur Jou pulls no punches. Nor should it. It has a stunningly talented chef, Mr. Hong Chen Chen, and Chaur Jou's long culinary history backing him up.
Chaur Jou (a.k.a. Chiu Chou and Tochiew) is actually a part of a northeastern Canton province inhabited primarily by fishermen. They have a separate language and a distinctive regional cuisine, which naturally includes many ways to prepare seafood. Because of the area's poverty, many Chaur Jou migrated by sea to various places in southeast Asia, where they have been more prosperous. Chef Hong, in fact, had a restaurant in Saigon until 1975, but left, along with many others in Vietnam's Chinese community, when the Thieu government fell.
Hong was lucky enough to bring his whole family out. Our friendly waitress, one of Chef Hong's six children, soon came to the table and recommended a wine called Dynasty ($6.50), a Chinese vintage from Tianjin. None of us had heard of this wine, much less tasted it, and we were pleased to discover that it resembled a California Gewurztraminer.
My friends, however, still needed reassurance about the menu. We began on slightly familiar ground with an appetizer of deep-fried crab-meat balls, a Chaur Jou specialty. They are flaky and creamy like Maryland crab cakes, and they are hard to stop eating. This allayed my friends' fears so much that I decided to order a more unusual second course, seaweed fish balls and shrimp balls soup. This soup is wonderfully tangy and filled with a flotilla of tasty little minced fishcakes; Rick wouldn't touch it.
"I'm not eating anything with seaweed in it," he said. We all told him he was being a bad sport. "Look," I finally said, "if you don't like it, I'll let you order the rest of the dishes." "OK, OK," he said, spooning up a shrimp ball. He tasted it and his face changed. "Hey," he said, "it's awesome."
One never knows what Rick means by that word, but I sensed the ice was broken. A plate of tender sauteed scallops followed, then a hot and spicy salt-and-pepper squid. They disappeared quickly, as did our phoenix tail shrimp. These shrimp, stuffed with a mixture of minced crab, scallop, chopped cilantro, and mashed taro before being deep fried, are another regional specialty.
One more surprise awaited us. I didn't think the Chinese could top Peking duck, but Chaur Jou kim-lin duck may have done it. Chef Hong removes and shreds the breast of a whole roast duck, stir-fries it with two kinds of Chinese mushrooms and fresh bamboo, then coats it all with rice crumbs. The rice crumbs are then re-covered with squares of the crisped skin, and the legs and wings are put back in place. The duck, which looks like it has just popped out of the oven, is then served with little steamed buns for the cracklings and a highly seasoned barbecue paste. The whole meal was good, but this dish made believers of my friends.
I know that because as we were walking out the door Rick really loosened up and took off his bow tie, and Maureen stopped to take a last look at the turtle. I wondered what Maureen was thinking. I knew it was not about working for Greenpeace or Save the Whales.
First Chaur Jou Seafood Restaurant, 755 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park. (818) 289-9299. Open 7 days , 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine served. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for 2, $30-$40.