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A Golden Opportunity for Authentic Chinese Food

March 17, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's a pity that most of Orange County's Chinese restaurants still emphasize a "Chinese American" cuisine clotted with vegetable oil, corn starch and sticky-sweet sauces. Even a place as resolutely Chinese as Golden Phoenix feels it has to give us sweet-and-sour pork and egg foo yung. Happily, there are also more authentic Chinese options at Golden Phoenix.

The urbane Taiwan-born owner, Stanley Wang, has followed the rules here, rounding up the usual strip-mall Chinoiserie for decor: Mandarin lanterns, a lacquer screen, a couple of brush paintings and those narrow, lollipop-red vinyl booths that groan when you sit at them. But for anyone inclined to look past a pu-pu platter, Wang's menu is like a breath of fresh air.

Cypress, which this unassuming Mandarin and Sichuan restaurant has called home for 14 years, is well away from Westminster's Little Saigon, the area we usually visit to experience authentic Asian cooking in Orange County. Even so, Wang keeps his menu filled with cold dishes, Mandarin-style dim sum, preparations made with preserved vegetables, steamed fish--in short, the things many Chinese people go to a restaurant for.

Try one of the finely crafted cold dishes to start. Shredded tripe in hot sauce is the best tripe dish I've run across in some time: soft, firm and redolent of the perfumes exuded by ginger, garlic and chili. Even if you don't like the idea of tripe, give this a try. Wang's duck roasted in five-spice flavor is tender to the bone, with only the lightest hint of anise and aromatic spices. This cold platter is wonderful with an ice-cold Tsing Tao, the Chinese beer that Wang is likely to suggest.

At lunch, you can wander off the beaten path with fried rice cakes, glutinous triangles of rice fried with shredded meat and vegetables. There are boiled dumplings with a thin, chewy skin, a soft pork filling and a spicy red sauce that can be too oily. Golden Phoenix's version of the fried dumplings, known as kuo-te , which you eat splashed with vinegar, isn't the juiciest in the world, but it does have plenty of flavor. And the outsides are crisp, the filling properly dense.

Pork dishes are all good bets. Those who like it hot can try the traditional Hunan-style twice-cooked pork, where the meat is boiled and then stir-fried with Napa cabbage, black mushroom and red pepper. A milder and heartier choice would be stewed pork meatball with Chinese cabbage, better known as "lion's head" on menus that translate literally from the Chinese. These are huge, super-dense meatballs, braised to a deep brown on the outside and less fatty than you'd get in an actual Shainghai restaurant, where a heavy marbling of fat is practically a religion, meatball-wise.

The spare ribs with spiced salt are basically pork chops dry-fried in a crunchy batter flavored with curry and five-spice. The chunks of pork are nearly boneless (be careful when you bite down, though--they're not totally boneless). They come with spiced salt, though the dish is plenty salty without the addition.

And that's my one complaint with the cooking here. Many of the dishes show a senselessly heavy hand with salt--and this in a restaurant where the menu brags about omitting MSG.

You'll find a good number of favorite Chinese dishes on this large menu in some form or another. There are dozens of shrimp and fish dishes, including moo shu shrimp, kung pao shrimp (very fiery), sea cucumber braised in brown sauce and whole steamed catfish.

On the poultry side of the menu, there's a tea-smoked duck, though Wang shrugs and concedes that his chef deep-fries it ("a little"). You can get a whole roast Peking duck (if you advance order) for $25. If you don't budget for anything that ambitious, try crispy chicken at $6.75 and ask them to sell you a couple of pancakes on the side.

A number of vegetable dishes are quite good. The dry-braised string beans are crisp, mildly spicy and mingled with little blackened garlic cloves, tiny dried shrimp and nuggets of minced pork. Mix them with steaming white rice: an epiphany.

Salty sauteed spinach leaves come suspended in a pool of green nectar, missing greatness by an ounce or so (too much salt again). Eggplant in brown sauce is delicious, too, in spite of another oily sauce. But I'd steer clear of vegetarian combinations. The mixed vegetables, for instance, are blandness personified.

All of this is not to say that you can't order almond chicken, beef chop suey or chicken chow mein , because you can. I didn't and, after a visit or two to Golden Phoenix, you may not want to either. Once a fellow like Wang teaches you how to eat real Chinese food, chances are you'll never look back.

Golden Phoenix is inexpensive to moderate. Luncheon specials, served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m, Monday through Friday, are $3.75 to $5.05. Cold dishes are $6.25. Main dishes are $4.25 to $25.

* GOLDEN PHOENIX

* 9927 Walker St., Cypress.

* (714) 527-0957.

* Lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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