Chang, a new Chinese restaurant in Grossmont Center, recently has been mentioned by a goodly number of enthusiastic East County readers, all of whom have discussed it in terms that suggested the place heralded the arrival of the New Age of Oriental cuisine.
One suspects that some of the fuss generated by Chang's emergence in the conservative East County restaurant scene owes to its style, which is contemporary and refreshing. The area is home to some of the county's oldest Chinese eateries, well-entrenched establishments that have adhered to the elaborate "palace-style" decor and mild Cantonese-American school of cooking popularized decades ago. In these terms, Chang is a change indeed.
So Long, Dancing Dragons
In the decor department, Chang has cast aside the dancing dragons, hanging lanterns and heavy crimson color scheme of other years, choosing instead a cool, updated style that hints at the Orient but could easily suit any other type of Southern California shopping center restaurant. (The redecorated premises formerly housed a branch of the diminished Piret's chain.) The deep, handsomely upholstered banquettes offer both privacy and comfort.
The menu also departs from the past, although it does so cautiously and with a certain revisionist attitude that inserts shrimp chow mein and moo goo gai pan among entries for more exotic dishes. Like a cross-town bus that stops on every corner, the menu makes its way past a variety of schools of Chinese cooking, not offering a really close look at any of them but at least giving a glimpse of many. That Chang attempts to cater to a very broad range of tastes does not seem inappropriate for a shopping center restaurant. For the same reason, though, fans of a specific type of Chinese cooking who already have a favorite establishment will not find Chang worth a trip of any distance.
Nighttime Is the Right Time
The greatest choice of dishes exists at night; the abbreviated luncheon menu, though not without merit, seems to have been written from a utilitarian point of view.
The dinner menu begins with minced chicken rolled in lettuce leaves, a favorite appetizer that few restaurants serve, even though it seems quite easy to prepare. A particularly savory creation that easily could double as an entree, this dish consists of a stir-fried mince of chicken, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and mushrooms. At table, this mixture is spooned into lettuce leaves smeared with sweetened bean paste, then rolled up burrito fashion. Guests pick these up by hand, retrieving the unavoidable spillage with chopsticks or forks.
Chang also offers a Chinese chicken salad, a recently popularized dish that it does not do well--the restaurant includes a heavy proportion of deep-fried chicken skin among the wisps of meat that garnish the shredded lettuce in sweet soy dressing. A much more amusing appetizer, although Chinese only by association, is the crab lagoon (most places call this crab Rangoon), or crisply fried won ton skins filled with crab meat and cream cheese.
Egg Rolls for Everyone
Egg rolls remain the standard Chinese restaurant appetizer, and because of this popularity and the tedious work required in their preparation, they unfortunately have succumbed to modern technology and can now be purchased frozen from mass producers. Many restaurants do so, making what once was a treat a standardized and dull experience. Chang prepares its own on the premises, however, and these are plump, golden beauties, bursting with vegetables, minced pork and whole shrimp. The restaurant also makes its own dumplings (served pan-fried, although they are most succulent when simply steamed), and does an equally good job with them.
No soups were sampled, but the menu lists quite a few, including such familiar choices as hot and sour, shark's fin and wor won ton, as well as the less common bean curd and spinach soup (a vegetarian specialty) and a creamy shrimp chowder.
Not So Hot
Relatively few entrees are marked by the asterisk that most Chinese restaurants use to denote hot preparations. This may be because the kitchen is not entirely comfortable with such dishes, as seemed the case with the Szechwan beef, a standard offered by most places that make any effort at all to serve the cooking of western China. This characteristically rich jumble of shredded beef, carrots and celery usually is heated by the wicked "black paper" peppers, which, though not themselves consumed, generate a heat that pervades anything with which they are cooked. Chang substituted crushed red pepper, an inferior choice altogether because it acts quite differently and adds a sourish flavor not appropriate to this dish.