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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A So-So Taste of China : The new Encino Chin Chin offers a few good dishes and waiters who get misty-eyed over the excellent noodles with peanut sauce.

October 16, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eating at the Encino edition of Chin Chin reminds me of when I was living in Tokyo and got to watch "King Kong Versus Godzilla" on the local all-night movie channel.

In the Japanese cut, Godzilla wins.

There's probably a lesson there, though I'm not sure what it is. I do know that most of the really important things in life--like baseball, movie endings and Chinese cuisine--get doctored up plenty on both sides of the Pacific Rim, with little respect for tradition.

We Californians have been monkeying with this venerable cuisine since Jake Gittes worked as a Chinatown gumshoe, but I have to confess the wild response to the current incarnation leaves me altogether perplexed. Chin Chin is, after all, a known quantity. Owner and founder Bob Mandler is the man responsible for making Chinese chicken salad a household name in Los Angeles County, the man who elevated the fine art of Chinese grazing to undreamed-of plateaus. The Encino Place Chin Chin is his fifth.

You've seen this before. Just picture the subtle mystery of a Chinese teahouse, with women hawking their wares from shoulder-held bamboo baskets, dishes clattering, chopsticks rattling, tablecloths stained blood-red from tea leaves. Now juxtapose the image of a white-tiled, mirror-lined food factory with prime yuppie mall placement directly under a Ben & Jerry's, where Valley Boy waiters get misty-eyed over, like, the excellent noodles with peanut sauce and dessert courses starring fortune cookies dipped in white chocolate of tanning-oil quality. Where is Godzilla when we really need him?

I don't mean to be mean-spirited here. There are a few things to like about Chin Chin. It's quite a cheerful place, for openers, even if the chefs do appear to be slaving away in the open kitchen. And OK, I'll say it--some of these dishes are quite good. Hunan chicken, for one; fried won tons, of all things, for another.

And then there's the show. After you've ordered, stay close to the kitchen to watch them create your fabulous chicken salad. This is why you've come, right?

The pantry man puts the salads together, piecework style, from plastic-wrapped, portion-controlled packages of cut-up chicken meat. After unwrapping the chicken, he fishes a handful of fried rice noodles and won ton crisps out of an enormous stainless-steel tub, then adds the requisite amount of shredded lettuce. The whole thing ends up in a huge glass bowl, mixed up with toasted almonds and a reasonably sublimated red ginger dressing.

Well, it beats the salad bar at a Wendy's, that's for sure.

Now you're ready for a few of the dim sum, which the Chinese refer to as yum cha , literally "drink tea."

I was actually surprised by how good a few of these were, especially the deep-fried won tons with their dense, dark-pink pork fillings, the lightly bronzed chicken pot stickers and the slightly more classic ha gow --steamed dumplings with a rice noodle skin and a minced shrimp filling.

There are a lot of noodle dishes too, but none are likely to impress you as much. The, like, excellent noodles and peanut sauce is mostly starch, with crushed peanuts pasting it all together. Perhaps if the peanuts were the basis for a spicy, sophisticated sauce, the dish would work better.

I particularly regret to say Max's noodle is a letdown. It's the familiar lo mein soup with roasted pork, chicken, pea pods, things like that, but the soup itself is so bland you're bound to find yourself spicing it up with soy, chili oil and any of the other condiments at hand.

C how fun is a better bet. These mouth-watering rice noodles mingle nicely with sliced steak, bean sprouts and onions. Add some chili paste, available on request, and it even resembles a Chinese dish.

There are also several Cantonese-style standards, should you have a yen for a full dinner: shrimp with lobster sauce, garlic chicken, Cantonese beef, etc. The best one might just be minced chicken in lettuce cups, an extremely tasty mixture of stir-fried chicken, pine nuts and a confetti of red and green peppers.

But an even better bet is the Hunan chicken from the roasted meat section. The spicy chicken, cut up with the bones, is redolent of ginger, garlic, cilantro and dark soy. It's not quite what I'd call authentic, but there's hardly anybody who would find it disrespectful to tradition.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Chin Chin, 16101 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: Har gow , $4.95; fried won tons, $4.25; chow fun , $7.50; minced chicken in lettuce cups, $7.50; Hunan chicken, $4.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.

Price: Dinner for two, $15-$30. Beer and wine only. Valet parking under Encino Place. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Call: (818) 783-1717.

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