Some restaurants are like a child, beginning life weak and small, then blossoming gradually into healthy adulthood. That is what happened to Chinese Expression, a restaurant that started out on the wrong foot or, more accurately, with the wrong food four years ago, when it was called Chinese Express. On top of that, the location was poor--a side street branching off Wilshire Boulevard in an area that goes dead at night.
But life is full of surprises. And Chinese Expression has not only survived, it has become one of the town's better Chinese restaurants.
Its strong point is a very good chef, Mark Shing, who is from Hunan Province. Shing first tried the fast-food approach, serving precooked dishes from steam tables like that sad stuff you get in a company cafeteria. It was a waste of his talent. Most customers would have given up. But one spoke up. Restaurant owner Susan Teng, Shing's cousin, listened. And now Shing has a proper showcase.
Recent renovation, a sign of the new prosperity, has dressed up the room with smart-looking, French-designed black plastic chairs, subtle gray linens, mirrors and illuminated Chinese opera masks that stare impassively overhead. Outside, bright pink awnings and a row of ficus trees with tiny lights attract the eye.
The menu, which emphasizes Hunan, Sichuan and Mandarin food, has many familiar dishes. But the wisest course is to explore the list of specialties. These include wonderful dishes like garlic shrimp--a pale, translucent presentation of shrimp, sliced water chestnuts, celery and a scattering of fat garlic cloves. To chew or not to chew on the garlic is a question of whether an important appointment follows dinner.
Shrimp with orange peels appeals like candy. The sauce is sweet, syrupy and hot, and a light coating on the shrimp gives the effect of a crunchy dessert like Chinese fried bananas. Chicken a la viceroy, a Hunan dish, has the same appeal. The dark sauce is sweet, sour and hot, and the chicken is sprinkled with chewy sesame seeds.
In some Chinese restaurants, "hot" dishes are merely tepid, a courtesy to the tender American palate. But at Chinese Expression, "hot" guarantees tears and sniffles. Hunan chicken with its spicy black bean sauce is one example. Another is "hot spicy" cabbage, which is full of charred red chiles. Coated with a glistening vinegar-flavored sauce, the cabbage remains so fresh in color and texture that it seems to have barely touched the wok.
Fans of lemon chicken will find an exceptional version here. The thin lemon slices that make the dish look pretty are soaked in rich sauce like the chicken and are as tempting to eat as candied fruit. The chicken is not listed among the specials, which shows there are outstanding dishes in the rest of the menu too.
The best part of all this good food is that eating it need not induce guilt. Chinese Expression cooks without MSG and follows American Heart Assn. guidelines in producing dishes that are low in sodium and cholesterol. Ninety percent of the dishes contain no added salt, Teng said. Low-sodium soy sauce is employed. Meats are trimmed of skin except for crispy duck, the highlight of which is the crisp skin. Stir-frying is done in a minimal amount of vegetable oil. And on request, food will be cooked so it is salt- and virtually oil-free. Shing's technique is to saute in oil, then rinse it off.
Nor will the dinner bill cause a heart attack. Prices at dinner range from $9.95 downward. Shrimp with orange peels is $9.50; Hunan chicken, chicken a la viceroy and lemon chicken are each $6.95, and the hot spicy cabbage is $5.95.
Chinese Expression, 706 S. Detroit St., Los Angeles (near the corner of Detroit Street and Wilshire Boulevard, one block west of La Brea Avenue) ; (213) 932-0518. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner from 3 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Accepts Visa and MasterCard. Free parking in the lot next to the restaurant.