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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Working for Your Dinner : Fortune West has a capable kitchen and appealing decor. But finding the few 'honest' dishes it offers takes some effort.


When somebody asks, "Where can I get good Chinese food in the Valley?" I usually respond, tongue firmly in cheek, "Which valley?" The San Gabriel Valley has the best Chinese food around. As for the San Fernan do Valley--well, it's dominated by a style we must call suburban Chinese.

The other day, I ate at a place called Fortune West, a mid-size restaurant hidden in an inconspicuous mall just east of Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Ventura Boulevard. It has a capable kitchen and a friendly staff, but in the suburban Chinese tradition, you will have to work to find the few honest dishes on this menu.

Like every suburban Chinese restaurant, Fortune West is reasonably well-appointed. A handsome bar divides it into two dining rooms. One of them, used primarily for lunch, is all vinyl booths, glass tabletops, artificial flowers and office lobby art. The other, employed mostly in the evening or for private functions, is far more elegant, like a Middle America supper club, complete with table linens, live plants and comfy leather chairs.

Grocery-store music, Christmas lights and novelty napkins with funny sayings on them don't seem entirely out of place in a restaurant like Fortune West. If they don't exactly put you in the mood for Chinese food, that's just as well, because if you come to a place like this with your taste buds set for bok choy , squid or live fish, you're bound to be disappointed.

Our waitress, who was born in Hong Kong, seemed mildly amused when we told her the real Chinese dishes we wanted. "Why don't you just go to Monterey Park?" she asked.

Finally, one of us got the bright idea to ask if there was anything on the menu that she had a craving for. At that, she brightened and suggested a dish called Hunan chicken strips. The menu describes this as boneless chicken breast cut in strips with spinach, sauteed in spicy vinegar sauce. Her enthusiasm made us hungry. A minute later, she returned to inform us that the kitchen was out of spinach.

My advice, even though the regular menu is enormous and would seem to offer a world of choice, is to take your chances with the blackboard specials. The onion-flavored pork chop is one good bet on the regular menu, but don't hope for anything resembling the spicy salt pork chops you find at obscure cafes on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. The good flavor of the meat is somewhat masked by a sweet, oniony red sauce.

Onion pancake, pan-fried chow fun and spicy lamb, all from the blackboard menu, are a lot better: Even the names make your mouth water. The onion pancake, it turns out, is a heavy, tasty, multilayered wheat pancake with bits of leek speckling the outer surfaces, pan-fried for extra crispness.

Chow fun is normally served with a thick gravy, but on request, the kitchen will serve it fried dry. It's a lot better that way, too: chewy rice noodles in a mild oil ooze. Unfortunately, we had ours with shrimp that tasted as if they had lost most of their flavor between the freezer and the table. You might try ordering chow fun with barbecued pork, which is so good it could have come straight from Chinatown.

And thank goodness for spicy lamb--lean slices of lamb, nicely fried with julienned bamboo and chopped leek. This is an honest farm-style dish, not spoiled with heavy sweetening, that you could imagine eating on chilly Chinese winter days. If only all the dishes on the menu were similarly spared the sucrose treatment.

The waitress was honest, anyway. She wrinkled her nose when we asked her if there was any fresh fish, and put us off several of the sweeter dishes.

The restaurant actually has a good lunch idea in something it calls a dim sum combo, half a dozen different dim sum snacks such as shiu mai , steamed pork buns and steamed dumplings served with soup. And there are a few reasonably simple and resolutely Chinese items on the lunch menu as well, such as sauteed string beans in chile sauce, twice-cooked pork and spicy eggplant, all served with steamed rice and bland bowls of egg flower soup.

When I asked a Chinese friend who dined with me which dish he liked best, he replied, "The rice." I think I know what he was trying to say.

Where and When Location: Fortune West, 12733 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Suggested Dishes: onion pancake, $4.50; spicy lamb, $10.95; string bean Sichuan, $7.75; Hunan chicken strips, $9.50. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 4 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Price: Dinner for two, $20 to $35. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Call: (818) 760-2868.

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