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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cooking With a Deft Hand : Crowds aren't flocking to the newly renamed Fu Ling 88 Chinese restaurant. They don't know what they're missing.

July 23, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday for Valley Life

Most of Southern California's authentic Chinese restaurants are found in the San Gabriel Valley suburbs, where names like Alhambra and Monterey Park have become passwords for good eating. Pickings may be slim in Granada Hills, but the situation is definitely not hopeless.

Fu Ling 88 recently changed its name from Chef Tien, although Chef Tien remains in the kitchen. This is surely the only Granada Hills Chinese restaurant with a separate menu written in Chinese characters, implying that the restaurant does cater to a limited Chinese clientele. I'm not surprised. What I have tasted here isn't much different from what you get in the San Gabriel Valley.

Tien cooks with a deft hand, so he must feel somewhat betrayed by the fact that the restaurant is generally more empty than full. Maybe it's because this old-fashioned dining room is not well-appointed: tacky vinyl booths, a ceiling paneled in Chinese wooden tiles and glass-topped tables. The ceiling adds atmosphere, but it also contributes to an overall dreariness. Whatever is keeping the crowds away, they don't know what they're missing.

The first thing many try here--barbecue spareribs--is par for the suburban course. The ribs are of good quality, but too much oil and a sticky marinade is bound to remind many of the retro-Chinese ribs most have outgrown. Catch a whiff, though, of perfect pan-fried dumplings--crisp, golden brown and subtly perfumed with leek, garlic and rice wine--and the ribs become a distant memory.

Forget egg rolls and shrimp toasts at this restaurant. Dumplings and Shanghai-style cold dishes have a lot more soul and raw appeal. Shanghai steamed dumplings, fat little pockets of dough that burst with juice when you bite into them, are one of the most irresistible snacks I have yet run across. The filling, minced pork with spices, is soft and dense; the skin is firm and doughy. Dip your dumpling in rice vinegar and the restaurant's superb, Hunan-style chili paste. Then pop the thing whole into your mouth.

Now try a cold dish, maybe wine-marinated chicken, steamed until tender--it's mild and flavorful. Aromatic beef, a.k.a. five-spice beef, is basically soft lean brisket perfumed with anise and ginger, obscured by a flurry of cilantro.

Specialty dishes are quite good, too. One the restaurant calls orange-flavor chicken is terrific. Chef Tien takes pieces of chicken breast and pan-fries them in pure peanut oil with a lightly floured, orange-flavored batter. The dish is nothing like the cornstarch-heavy version found at most San Fernando Valley Chinese restaurants.

Twice-cooked pork--steamed and sauteed--with plenty of vegetables in a hot garlic sauce is a true peasant supper. Here, it lacks the brio and hotness it should have, but chunks of wonderfully trim, juicy pork stand the dish in good stead with the spicy cabbage and winter vegetables that the dish calls for.

True treasures are found on the menu's back page, a dozen odd dishes written in Chinese characters. If you don't have a Chinese friend to help translate, you are on safe ground asking the waiter for Sichuan smoked pork with green garlic, tea-smoked duck or the stuffed bean curd sheets. All three are worth a sizable detour.

Sichuan pork is smoked and served thinly sliced with a veritable mountain of leek-like green garlic.

Tea-smoked duck is half a duck for only $8.95, fragrant with camphor, tea leaves and ginger. If it weren't quite so fatty, it would be the equal of any duck in the city. Bean curd skin is a curious creation. The dish consists of five "beggar's purses" of the skins, stuffed with minced straw mushrooms and sliced bamboo shoots in a rich brown gravy.

Beyond that, there are good, simple dishes to bank on. Braised string beans are turned out lightly with crushed garlic. Kung pao dishes are properly piquant, with crisp peanuts and lots of peppers. Just don't get sentimental and go for dishes like chop suey, fried noodles or egg foo young. You can get that stuff almost anywhere in these parts.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Fu Ling 88, 17823 Chatsworth St., Granada Hills.

Suggested dishes: wine chicken, $4.25; steamed dumplings, $4.25; orange-flavor chicken, $9.25; Sichuan pork with green garlic, $8.95.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, till 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Cost: Dinner for two, $20 to $35. Beer and wine only. MasterCard and Visa. Street parking.

Call: (818) 360-3997.

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