NORTH HILLS — Part of food's magic is the way a transplanted cuisine changes to suit local tastes. Chinese cuisine is the most chameleonic of all, as will be noted by anyone visiting the very good Jin Hung Won in North Hills.
Chinese emigrants have evolved distinctive cooking styles in each country they've moved to. As a result, the Chinese of Vietnam cook quite differently than their counterparts in Japan. Very little a Bangkok Chinese family eats looks like anything you'd see on a Chinese table in Seoul.
At Jin Hung Won, the kitchen is influenced by Korea, which happens to be my favorite non-Chinese-speaking country for a good Chinese meal. I've never had a bad dinner in a Korean-Chinese restaurant, and I don't put that down to chance. Korean Chinese clearly have a distinctive style, at once tasteful and forceful; they use oil sparingly, apply chiles with gusto and favor clean, unmuddled flavors.
From a short distance, you may not even realize that Jin Hung Won is a Chinese restaurant. It's located in a Korean strip mall, a long, slightly neglected-looking development where all the storefronts are emblazoned with signs in the blocky (and, once you get to know it, logical) Korean script.
Inside the restaurant is a large, well-scrubbed, almost sterile-looking series of dining rooms, the only real decoration being a Renoir print on one wall and a large Chinese screen hidden in a corner. The language you hear being spoken is Korean; clientele is largely Korean Americans, who come to order the special cold noodle dishes (posted on the wall, also in Korean script) and enjoy the home-style Chinese dishes.
Begin a meal here with a plateful of light, ethereal \o7 suei chow\f7 , literally "water dumplings." These steamed dumplings, which come eight to the order, feature an airy filling of lean pork and chopped green vegetables sealed in a light, chewy noodle skin. Enjoy them with kimchi, the spicy, partially fermented cabbage that appears at every Korean meal. Kimchi automatically comes with everything here, no matter what you order, but in practice you might have to ask for it if you do not look Korean. ("I thought Americans didn't like pickles," apologized our waitress.)
Noodles are terrific here too, especially the ones posted on the wall. Ask for \o7 cha jiang min\f7 , which are sticky wheat noodles in a mysterious-looking brown sauce. The sauce is really no mystery--it's full of dried tofu, minced bamboo and chopped mushrooms. \o7 Champon \f7 is a huge bowl of ramen-type noodles, fish cakes, shredded pork and vegetables. The soup is flavorful on its own, but if you are daring enough, you might want to add a spoonful of the fiery house chile sauce, which turns it into a special treat. (I repeat: if you're daring enough.)
The richest section of this menu may be the poultry dishes. Spicy crispy chicken might share the name of a sandwich served at Jack In The Box, but any resemblance ends there. This chicken has crackling skin and tender, juicy meat that falls off the bone--and it's bright red from having been dipped in a hot chile sauce. For $9.95 you get half a Chungking-style duck, which is basically Peking duck without the trimmings. Fried chicken with hot sauce is like something you might find in Texas, a batter-fried bird dipped in more of that same killer hot sauce. There is even a dish called stewed chicken with cayenne pepper, but the wrinkle in the nose of the waitress convinced me it was going to be \o7 too \f7 hot for our group.
Standard Chinese restaurant dishes are not ignored, and quite a few of them are far more tasty than their cliche names might suggest. Shrimp with green peas, for example, is a dish you might pass right by unless you knew the shrimp were squeaky-fresh, the peas green and crisp and the sauce lightened by billowy clumps of egg white. Pan-fried fresh scallops are nicely browned and straightforward in flavor, and vegetable favorites such as black mushroom with bamboo shoot are aromatic and crunchy.
Adventurous palates can take on oddly textured delicacies like sea cucumber with braised pork, while those who like rustic Chinese food will be pleased by a dish such as stewed meatballs--half a dozen fine, fatty pork meatballs with heavily browned crusts. I never eat here without having this dish. The meatballs come in brown sauce with cabbage and bok choy, making a perfect supper with a mound of fluffy white rice.
By the way, the back page of the menu is full of Korean dishes. I suppose somebody must order them, but I've never seen them on anybody's table. Just for the record, they're typical Korean fare such as barbecued short ribs, broiled mackerel, farmhouse-type dishes like \o7 bin dae ttok \f7 (a griddled mung bean omelet/pancake) and a variety of spicy soups.
This is America, remember. We've got it all here . . . if you just know where to look.
WHERE AND WHEN
Location: Jin Hung Won, 9102 Sepulveda Blvd., North Hills.
Suggested Dishes: Water dumplings, $6.25; \o7 cha jiang min\f7 , $5.25; spicy crispy chicken, $8.95; shrimp with green peas, $9.95; stewed meatballs, $8.95.
Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Price: Dinner for two, $20-$35. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. MasterCard and Visa.
Call: (818) 893-6656.