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Chow Palace

August 18, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

As inexorable as the Angels folding each autumn, as indomitable as ivy in a flowerbed, the march of Asian malls continues unchecked down Valley Boulevard, and the seating capacity for Saturday dim sum breakfast in the San Gabriel Valley probably approaches that for a Dodger game. By decade's end, the street may be one solid stretch of Chinese restaurants, bakeries and herbalists, red and gold Grand Opening banners flapping in the hot wind, continuing to the parched banks of the Rio Hondo and then beyond to the Pomona Hills.

Already, the Chinese restaurants of Monterey Park can seem a little like ancient history, superseded by the newer, shinier San Gabriel places. Now the action is in Rosemead, just a little farther east, and there have probably been as many big-deal new restaurants in Rosemead in the last few months as there have been on the entire Westside.

Among the newest is 888, a terrifically elegant Chiu Chow-style Chinese seafood restaurant in a brand new Rosemead mall, with a dining room the size of two hockey rinks, chandeliers and fishtanks everywhere, and more wedding parties than you can shake a bouquet at. Squadrons of tuxedoed captains roam the floor, troops of waiters, legions of busmen. On weekends, the crowd for dim sum is so vast that it actually seems to recede into the horizon.

And though nearly all of the giant Chinese restaurants seem to be Cantonese seafood houses--with the exception of the big new branch of Lake Spring and maybe the late Great Chiu Chow Restaurant in Rowland Heights, which was recently replaced by another mega-Cantonese palace from the Ocean Seafood chain--888 specializes in Chiu Chow seafood, the cooking of the ethnic Chinese who migrated from China to Southeast Asia many generations ago. There are dozens of Chiu Chow noodle shops in the Southland, and a few fancier places, but 888 at dinnertime (lunches are fairly standard Cantonese dim sum) might be the best place to check out the formal cuisine.

Chiu Chow cooking is generally a simple cuisine: sour flavors, strongly salted foods, clear broths and fresh seafood unmasked by complex sauces. My first meal at 888, which included a sort of sharply garlicky terrine of beef shank, crunchy, tofu skin-wrapped dumplings of fresh crabmeat and taro ("crab balls"), a soft, anise-scented lamb stew, and sugar snap peas sauteed simply with oil and a touch of salt, seemed almost country French, like a good Monday-night menu at Berkeley's Chez Panisse.

Beyond the crab balls, the shrimp balls, and the minnows--"silver fish"--crisply fried whole in a coating of spicy salt, the Chiu Chow cold plate is a good place to start: symmetrically arranged slices of tender steamed geoduck clam, aspic-rimmed pork terrine, crunchy strands of jellyfish, cold halved shrimp in a sweet, citrus-based sauce. Fish noodles, lumpish strands of homemade chewy linguine with leeks and slivers of fish, are tossed in a very hot wok, so the dish is smoky, sweet, a little salty, with a subtle flavor of very fresh fish.

One soup, served in a bubbling chafing dish, holds a whole perch gently poached in the heat of broth, sharp with the flavor of Chinese celery and herbs, made complexly tart with sour plum. A thick, peppery shredded-duck soup has almost the flavor of a classic hot-and-sour soup but made vivid with the occasional blast of muskiness from dried orange peel; duck and sour plum soup has a slightly high, slightly sweet poultry/fruit taste that is almost like a blast from a Thanksgiving dinner.

888 does well with its "barbecued" poultry: roast chicken with the shatteringly crisp skin of Peking duck, served with a sour plum/fermented tofu dip the pale rose color of a 19th Century Japanese print; another roast chicken that had been rubbed with five-spice powder; extremely good roast duck. There is an astonishing dish of Chiu Chow-style braised goose, a specialty of the restaurant: neat slices of white meat and dark arranged in a heap, garnished with strips of fried bean curd served with a dipping sauce somewhat like a fruity Chinese vinaigrette, and probably worth the $20 per half goose it costs.

Desserts, if you remember to ask for them, can be pretty wonderful here, various sweet red bean soups, richly flavored hot taro puddings and cool mango gelatins that are just the thing after a multi-course Chiu Chow meal.

* 888 Seafood Restaurant

8450 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (818) 573-1888. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. Guarded lot parking. Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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