Pagoda Inn in Northridge took me by surprise. I hadn't expected to find quite so elegant a restaurant in the small Porter Ranch Shopping Center at Tampa Avenue and Rinaldi Street.
The subtle mauve and gray decor is accented by tasteful Chinese art and green plants. Although above average in size, there are enough soft surfaces to absorb sound and keep this a low-key restaurant where it's easy to converse.
Twenty-five elongated, translucent lanterns, decorated with pink and red roses, create an impressive chandelier in the main dining room. A scaled-down version illuminates the smaller dining room in the rear, set aside for smoking patrons. There is also a small private party room that accommodates eight to 12 people.
The main section of the menu offers plenty of tried-and-true appetizers--chicken salad, egg rolls, paper-wrapped chicken and steamed dumplings. The restaurant's version of minced chicken in lettuce leaves is called chicken in cage, served for four, with flawless lettuce cups and ample chicken in the filling.
Chili oil served on the side lets you control the hotness of the Sichuan won ton, but we still found this dish a bit disappointing. The boiled won ton have only a minuscule bit of pork and mixed vegetables tucked inside.
I use moo shu pork as one of my barometers when judging a Chinese restaurant--both in the way it's prepared and the skill with which it is served. At Pagoda Inn, the vegetables in the filling were nice and crisp and the waiter expertly wrapped the mixture in the thin pancakes spread with plum sauce.
The soup, seafood, pork, beef, fowl, vegetables, chow mein and fried rice sections of the menu include an ample assortment of common Mandarin and Sichuan dishes. All the food is prepared using vegetable oil and attention is paid to keeping it low in sodium, fat and sugar. No monosodium glutamate is used.
Where the restaurant really shines, however, is in its specialty selections. The crispy beef is lightly battered and served in a sauce spiced with garlic, peppers, orange peel and ginger root. It arrived at the table with a beautifully sculpted cucumber and carrot garnish.
The sizzling seafood delight lived up to both those adjectives. Shrimp, scallops, lobster, abalone and crab meat were combined in a white wine sauce with baby corn, bright green snow peas, sweet red pepper, two types of mushrooms, broccoli florets, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.
Other favorite specialties include the ta chien chicken, black pepper sizzling beef steak, sweet and pungent shrimp and lemon chicken.
Three dinner combinations are offered for parties of two or more. The Mandarin, at $10.95, includes hot and sour or won-ton soup, egg roll, fried won ton, fried rice and one entree selection per person from a choice of eight.
At $13.95, the Pagoda dinner features war won-ton soup, egg roll, paper-wrapped chicken, fried won ton, fried rice and a similar entree choice. The $16.95 seafood dinner has shrimp sizzling rice soup, egg roll, fried shrimp, paper-wrapped chicken, fried won ton, fried rice and a choice from eight seafood selections.
Two luncheon specials are offered from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Both feature soup of the day, chicken salad, egg roll, rice, seasonal fruit and one entree choice. Ten selections are offered at $4.95, another 10 at $5.95.
Naturally, tea is served with all meals. Champagne, Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, plum wine and Wan Fu are available by the glass. Twenty-two wines are offered by the bottle.
Although four desserts are listed on the menu, we found the restaurant's complimentary fresh orange a very satisfying finale to our meals. The fruit is removed, sectioned and replaced in its shell, and served along with fortune cookies.
Pagoda Inn, 19348 Rinaldi St., Northridge, (818) 368-0299. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Lot parking. American Express, MasterCard , VISA and Diners credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Entrees $7.95 to $24.95.