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RESTAURANT REVIEW : 6-Year-Old Chang's Understands Brentwood, Down to the Wholesome Menu

February 05, 1989|CHARLES PERRY

What is it to be a Chinese restaurant in Brentwood? Easy to find, that's what. You can see just about anything there is in Brentwood by a swift perusal of about half a dozen blocks of San Vicente Boulevard. Ask me a hard one.

All right, restaurant-wise, what is it? Ah, that depends. If you're Chin Chin, you're a hot new attraction with people coming from all over town just to wave chopsticks over your platters. If you're Chang's, though, you're a 6-year-old place that has to suffer the indignity of being almost directly downstairs from the hot new attraction. Not the most comfortable situation in the world, earthquake paranoia aside.

Chang's is in a sort of lobby or semi-public area off the street in (or--depending on how you look at it--under) a large office building.

It holds pride of place in this lobby/street area because a sizable chunk of it belongs to Chang's alone: an enclosed patio with glass paneling, where diners can enjoy a little fresh air and the endlessly enthralling sight of San Vicente traffic. It's heated, so they can sit here at night, too. (If it's really a cold night, though, warm pants are recommended; the draft below table level can be a problem.)

Here's another thing about being a Chinese restaurant in Brentwood: knowing your clientele. Having a pretty little patio is part of it, but catering to Brentwood's special interests is another. Chang's boasts that it uses no MSG at all, and it features a 10-dish Special Wholesome Menu, to say nothing of a Chinese Health and Fitness Fare menu consisting mostly of steamed meat or seafood, plus steamed eggplant.

Chin Chin may be newer, but Chang's has this sort of thing fully figured out. As a result, of all the Chinese restaurants I've ever been to, Chang's has the highest necktie quotient at lunchtime.

Let's look at the Wholesome Menu. It's pretty acceptable, for a wholesome menu. There's a quite good spicy dish called Szechwan rainbow chicken with bell peppers in a slightly peppery vinegar-and-catsup sort of sauce, as good as anything in the Szechwan category on the less wholesome side of the menu. There's a salad-like item of minced chicken cooked with peas, carrots, bits of mushroom and a whole lot of fried pine nuts, served in an iceberg lettuce leaf, and it's also pretty good.

The Peking-style sesame beef is dauntingly chewy, however, though the flavor is OK, if a bit heavy on the licorice-like flavor of star anise. The chilled eggplant, though, is strictly for people on strict diets: a whole peeled eggplant, sliced and steamed and flavored with nothing but garlic, soy and vinegar. It's wholesome but dreary, and Chang's seems unaccountably proud of it, putting it on the Wholesome and the Health and Fitness menus.

The regular menu is a little better, on the whole, and there are sometimes surprises on it. Jicama, for instance; not a very usual Chinese ingredient, but it fits very well. For instance, one of the best dishes here is the Mandarin garlic chicken, a little bit sweet and sour (and garlicky enough for the best of us), with unexpectedly juicy diced jicama in it for texture.

Mostly, though, this is a very familiar menu. The kung pao chicken is better than most: plentiful, spicy, and full of cashews, peanuts and highly blackened peppers. Shredded pork in Singapore hot sauce (actually, as I got it, it was sliced pork) is mildly hot in another sauce distinctly flavored with star anise. There's a lot of broccoli artistically laid around in what I pray is authentic Singaporese fashion.

But there are losers here, too. The beef with black and white mushrooms, in effect a beef moo goo gai pan , is made with nondescript beef: "Like yesterday's pot roast," as somebody said. The effect is rather like a leftover dish with meaty gravy and lots of mushrooms, and not terribly Chinese--possibly French or even, I don't know, Swiss.

The appetizers offer even less surprises than the main menu, though the foil-wrapped chicken is particularly good, meaty and moist and full of five spices, and the barbecued spareribs are meatier than most. The fried won tons are the unfilled kind, a sort of Oriental potato chip to dip into a sweet and sour sauce. Desserts are strictly apple or banana fritters, litchis or fresh fruit.

But Chang's is committed to Brentwood. It delivers locally. And you can wear your best necktie and not feel out of place.

Suggested dishes: barbecued spareribs, $5.50; Mandarin garlic chicken, $7.95; Szechwan rainbow chicken, $12.50.

Chang's Restaurant, 11726 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood. (213) 207-2295 or 207-2898. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. , Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. , Sunday for dinner 4 to 10 p . m. Beer and wine. Free valet parking at dinner time. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $29 to $64.

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