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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cheerful China Fresh Is Exotic and Tasty : The sweet-and-sour dishes and hearty soups on top of the karaoke promise a delicious meal and an entertaining night.

September 02, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What a wonderful name for a restaurant. It conjures up the exotic as well as the tasty. You can find both at this Thousand Oaks restaurant, but it takes a mindful choosing from the offerings on the menu. If you're not careful about how you order, you might end up feeling like a 5-year-old who went overboard on the sweets at a birthday party.

The first time we ate at China Fresh, we arrived for a very late lunch and hurriedly ordered off the list of chef's specials. We ended up with a most cloying meal. The only thing that induced me to return was a magnificent won-ton soup with a clear, noble broth, chock full of sweet, crisp snow peas, fresh spinach, bamboo shoots and carrots. It also had fine plump shrimp and hearty homemade won-tons. A bowl of this soup once a day could be the secret to a well-lived life.

Aside from this soup, though, I came away with the impression that the restaurant capitalizes shamelessly on the insatiable American taste for sweet--or sweet-and-sour--foods. The sweet and pungent shrimp ($8.95) was fine and would have been pleasing if it were the only sweet dish on the table. But we also had lemon chicken ($6.95) and crispy beef ($8.95) to contend with. The lemon chicken had been deep fried and coated with a sauce that resembled lemon curd. The crispy beef wasn't bad; it had a wonderful, tangy orange flavor. It also was the color of ripe pomegranates and had the crunchy texture of crackers.

One dish we ordered that couldn't be called sweet, mu shu vegetables with pancakes ($5.95), was disappointing because the pancake (or flour tortilla) was dry and the plum sauce generic. Still it's not really fair to show up 15 minutes before the 3 p.m. closing time. I knew they were in a hurry to get out of there because the food flew out of the kitchen in record time and slammed down on the table. By the time we left, the staff had sat down to their own meal. What did it consist of? Won-ton soup and rice with a very plain green vegetable topping. Hmmm.

When I returned the next time, my goal was to avoid anything sweet. I failed, but nevertheless had a much better meal. The "spicy" items on the menu tend to be sweetened (and not very spicy), but they don't give as big a sugar rush. The trick is to order the spicy dishes and ask them to make them truly spicy, not sweet.

Hot and sour soup turned out to be quite decent, slightly on the sour side. The more it cooled, the better its divergent flavors developed: soft whirls of egg drops contrasting nicely with the crisp, julienne water chestnuts.

Sliced braised fish turned out to be good quality fish, fried and coated with a heavy, pinkish sweet sauce, redeemed by wonderful thick-sliced, almost crunchy onions. Hot spiced eggplant (sweeter than spicy) proved to be really tasty, with big pieces of tantalizing eggplant, green and red peppers and black mushrooms. Fried rice ($5.95), with the royal gamut of shrimp, chicken, beef, carrots, peas and egg, was as good as this dish gets--comfy, satisfying and filling.

After my second visit, I no longer believed it was possible to come up with a meal devoid of sweet dishes. But the third time I went there, the restaurant surprised me with a perfectly wonderful dinner. Sizzling rice soup turned out to be a twin of the won-ton soup, the same lovely broth and succulent fresh vegetables. At the table the waitress slid a rice cake into the soup, which sizzled as it disintegrated and gave off a distinctive, toasted sesame flavor.

From the dinner specials we ordered shellfish in garlic sauce. It consisted of a platter of savory clams and fleshy orange mussels in their shells, floating like boats at low tide in a thin, spicy garlicky sauce among onions and green peppers.

I don't think green beans ($4.95) can get any better than the ones we had that night: so fresh and appetizing, gleaming with the oil they had been braised in, and dotted with mild, salty bits of garlic.

Crispy duck ($8.95) was also an exemplary dish. Surprisingly greaseless, meaty and tender, it had a thin crisp crust, layers of flavor and cracked bones to eat around. It came on a bed of lettuce--to absorb the grease that simply wasn't there--and was accompanied by a savory plum sauce that tasted like a gingery chutney.

China Fresh also has a substantial number of special dishes on the dinner menu, including Peking duck, catfish and other whole fish that can be ordered a day in advance. This gives the cooks a chance to get to Chinatown for the ingredients.

The restaurant has a cheerful, easy informality, perfectly in keeping with its mini mall location. Nothing about the decor suggests anything Asian. If anything, it's pure American. To add to the cultural concoction, they offer hard-core karaoke opportunities four nights a week.

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