I don't know how many people make up the Conejo Valley branch of the Chen family--Chen being among the most common names on the Chinese mainland--but I do know that six of them work at the family's Szechwan restaurant in Thousand Oaks.
At least a few Chens seem to be there all the time, which may explain why so many of the restaurants' dishes come out beautifully done, and why so many of the customers are greeted by their first names.
For more than 10 years, in its storefront location in a Vons shopping center close to Highway 23, Chen's Szechwan restaurant, under third-generation chef Tony Chen, has been dishing out what may be the best Chinese food in the Conejo Valley. The one caveat is that Chen's is also a restaurant in which the customer needs to be a bit selective.
But if you're not, that's OK. Because if there is a dish you don't care for, one of the Chens will graciously take it away and bring another.
One day there was a hang-up in the kitchen and an appetizer dish was delayed. The waiter brought to our table a bowl of hot sour soup. The soup was rich, filled with shredded pork, Chinese mushrooms, bamboo shoots and bean curd. It had wonderfully contrasting flavor. The soup, the waiter said, was "while we're waiting, no charge."
Though the negatives are few at Chen's, they are mostly on the appetizer side of the menu. I would certainly avoid the paper-wrapped chicken ($3.95), because it tends to dry out. The BBQ spareribs ($5.95), although large and meaty, can be tough and also dry. And the homemade dumplings ($4.95)--which differ from the restaurant's potstickers ($5.95) only in that the potstickers are fried--are large and heavy, and the meat inside is so congealed it drops out as soon as the dough is penetrated.
And let me warn you off sweet and sour pork ($6.95). It's dull, lacking the clash of flavors so apparent in the hot and sour soup.
On the other hand, all of the Chen vegetables, in any dish, come cooked to just the right crispness. The shrimp in the seafood dishes is never overcooked and the hot, roasted peppers, even for people with tender palates, are not injurious. In fact, for a couple of dishes I asked for extra pepper.
One of their best dishes is the dynasty chicken ($7.95), large chunks of boneless chicken, deep fried and crispy, served in a Szechwan sauce, complete with green onions and mushrooms, over a bed of crisp, sauced broccoli.
Another favorite for me is the smoked tea duck ($8.95). This is a dish of sliced duck that has been boned and from which all the fat has been removed. Then it is stir-fried, with sliced ginger, carrots, celery and other spices.
Chen's tries to avoid serving dishes that have so much sauce the food just seems to wallow and die in excess liquid. Shrimp sizzling rice ($9.55), for instance, should be crispy and should not sit too long in sauce. The dish comes out perfectly--the rice is still crisp and the shrimp taste as though they just came from the sea. A very slight aroma of burnt kernels indicated that this particularly rice had sizzled a bit too long.
Asparagus is in season, and occasionally the restaurant does a whole list of asparagus dishes. I tried mine with chicken ($10.95) in a garlic sauce, with what tasted like a dash of citron. I don't know when I've had a better dish of this sort.
As with so many Chinese menus, the vastness makes selection sometimes difficult, but I'll make it easy. If I had to choose just one dish, it would be the Chung-king lamb. It is outstanding. Slices of lamb are served with a Chung-king sauce, with water chestnuts, carrots, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. The key is a base of ground soy beans with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and wine, which unite to give the dish a grainy texture with a slightly sweet tinge.
Tony's special ($9.95)--pan-fried noodles and a combination of chicken, beef, mushrooms and shrimp, baby corn and other vegetables, served on a sizzling plate--is satisfying and tasty.
I could go on. But this list should satisfy anyone, at least until we're on a first-name basis with one of the Chens.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Chen's Szechwan, 2024 A E. Avenida de los Arboles, Thousand Oaks, 492-3583. Open seven days, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Reservations accepted, major credit cards accepted, full bar. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$30.