To reach the Heart of China requires a journey through two cultures. As the name indicates, the restaurant is Chinese and emphasizes Mandarin and Sichuan food. The menu includes the same dishes as other Mandarin restaurants. But the location is Korea Town, and that guarantees a difference.
The Heart of China opened recently on the second floor of a shopping center on West 8th Street. Its windows look out on a flurry of neon signs that illuminate a variety of businesses, among them a Korean soup cafe. The scene is busy, colorful and foreign, reminiscent of side streets in Hong Kong, Taipei or Seoul. The restaurant offers a quiet refuge from this, even some elegance with its rosy hues and dark-framed Oriental chairs.
The owners are the Hsu family, who are Chinese from Korea. Daniel Hsu is the chef, and he knows how to cater to Korean tastes without being so obvious as to accompany meals with kimchi. This spicy cabbage pickle is provided as automatically as soy sauce at some Chinese restaurants in the area.
The Heart of China offers a great deal of seafood, some very, very hot dishes, and noodles made there. Often you will see customers making a meal of noodles in oversized bowls, as people do in Korea. One of these bowlfuls, chow ma mein, is headily Korean, which means the noodles are soaked in brilliant orange-red broth that is superhot with chiles. Tame, traditional Chinese chow mein and pan-fried noodles are available too. No matter what their form, the noodles are worth ordering. Their silky, light texture is wonderful.
Several dishes must be requested in advance, but that does not mean they are expensive. Chrysanthemum bean curd is only $7.95. The bean curd is ground and formed into small "dumplings" that are steamed and served in a translucent sauce based on chicken broth. Tiny dice cut from black mushrooms, carrots and green onions speckle the top of each dumpling and canned white asparagus ring the platter.
In my opinion, the bean curd outclassed a more costly ($19.95) dish of abalone, chicken and nappa cabbage in a similar delicate sauce. Fishy-tasting canned abalone is not my idea of superior food.
The shrimp at Heart of China have been unfailingly fresh. (But I wish whoever cleans them would work harder at removing the sand veins.) Prawns a la Sichuan was more robust, even a little coarse, compared to the versions you might find in Monterey Park or Hong Kong. This does not mean the dish lacked all merit, however. More to my taste were the fried shrimp with garlic sauce, which might upset others with its abundance of hot dried chiles.
Minced chicken, eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves, is delightful. Sizzling platter specialties include Peking ten pen beef, which translates to thin pieces of rib eye steak doused at the table with a sauce reminiscent of teriyaki. The bean sprouts that accompany the beef have an intriguing charcoal-grilled flavor.
Lion's head casserole, a pot of pork meatballs, nappa cabbage, black mushrooms and aromatic broth, fairly cries out for cold weather or an enormous appetite. This sturdy Shanghai dish is one of several casseroles on the menu and must be ordered in advance.
Clipped to the menu is a list of specials explained only in Hangul, the Korean writing system. I couldn't read the list and neither could the Chinese waiter, but he had memorized the dishes. That made it possible to order a stir-fry of pork with Chinese chives. The chives resemble green onions but lack the strong onion bite, making a light and very pleasant dish.
Heart of China advertises a "complete" wine list. Gallo varietals dominate, but there are other choices such as Paul Thomas Crimson, which is a dry style blush wine made in Washington state from rhubarb; Grand Cru Dry Chenin Blanc, Chinese Shao Hsing and Japanese plum wine.
Heart of China, 3528 West 8th St., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 380-4688. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking Friday and Saturday nights.