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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fanning the Flames for Szechwan Lovers : The 13-year-old Thousand Oaks restaurant has mastered the Chinese cooking style that can be both spicy and subtle.

October 06, 1994|NORM CHANDLER FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've been told that before World War II, Szechwan cooking was almost unknown in China outside of the province.

However, when the Nationalist Chinese government moved to escape from the Japanese Army, it went to Chongqing in Szechwan Province, in the western part of the country. After the war, Chinese officials brought Szechwan cooks with them when they returned to cities like Nanjing and Shanghai. In 1949, many Szechwan chefs moved to Taiwan, when the Nationalist government fled the mainland and the Red Chinese Army.

Szechwan cooking is basically very hearty peasant food filled with the bold flavors of chiles, garlic, ginger and bean paste. After its culinary invasion into the United States in the '60s, Szechwan food became a craze. Nearly every Chinese restaurant worth its soy started adding hot peppers to various dishes to jump on the fiery bandwagon. Now that things have cooled off, we can enjoy this special cuisine at a fine regional restaurant--Chen's Szechwan in Thousand Oaks.

The 13-year-old restaurant is quite attractive, with soft lighting, turquoise and black chairs and booths, and etched glass dividers. The congenial servers will help you compose a memorable meal, and if you like things that ignite your palate, you only need to ask for your dish to be made with extra spice. For my taste, ice-cold beer and hot tea are the beverages of choice with this full-flavored food.

The bad news at Chen's, which we last reviewed more than 2 1/2 years ago, is the assorted appetizer platter, with the unappetizing name of pu-pu tray, ($7.95 for two), containing inedible rumaki, hard fried won-ton, nondescript egg roll, and overly breaded fried shrimp. The good news is that all subsequent dishes taste better after this disappointment.

I suggest starting with the excellent hot and sour soup ($3.95 for two) filled with lots of black mushrooms, or the fine imperial soup ($5.25 for two), which is chock full of crab, shark's fin and sugar peas.

The Szechwan shrimp ($9.95) have a wine-like taste and come with finely diced water chestnuts. They are tasty, but surprisingly mild despite a menu notation of "hot and spicy." The Dynasty chicken ($7.95) has a fiery brown sauce that contrasts nicely with the lightly fried chicken chunks and broccoli spears.

For an absolutely knockout dish, try the Szechwan scallops ($10.95); the thinly-crusted mollusks stay crisp in a phenomenal garlic sauce. Another taste-bud tantalizer is the Chun-pi chicken ($7.25), where cubes of chicken breast are enlivened with toasted orange peel and chiles.

Among the vegetable offerings, I especially like the green beans ($8.95) with minced pork in a fragrant sauce . . . braised bean curd with rich black mushrooms ($6.95) . . . and scallion-laden spicy eggplant ($6.95). An order of wok-tossed spinach and finely chopped garlic ($6.95) was too oily for my taste, but the refreshing, sweet asparagus sauteed with chicken ($8.95) in a mild garlic sauce is perfectly balanced and delicious.

Two dishes are absolute musts. The succulent whole rock cod (a medium-sized fish averages $15.95) braised in a superb black bean sauce with minced scallion, ginger, and garlic. (Don't worry about the bones. Your server will fillet the fish with a flourish.) The other must for anyone who loves sophisticated Chinese cooking is the ginger duck ($9.95), a sublime combination of tea-smoked duck, carrots, celery, and thick slices of pungent baby ginger.

You may want to round out your meal with the stir fried tender beef and soft noodles ($5.95) or Chen's fried rice ($5.95), which is a harmonious blend of chicken, shrimp, beef, egg, carrots and peas among the rice grains. I ask for each dish to be served separately in succession to fully appreciate the individual nuances. But if you like your dishes served simultaneously, the staff changes dinner plates often to prevent the unintended swapping of flavors.

Although it's not on the menu, I commend the candied apples ($4.95) for dessert. Here, the fruit slices are dipped in hot caramel and then plunged into ice water, imparting a super-sweet brittle coating to the tart apples.

This is one of the best Chinese restaurants in our area, and with a few exceptions, the chefs should be congratulated for making these creative dishes less oily and more flavorful than most Szechwan restaurants in Southern California.

Details

* WHAT: Chen's Szechwan.

* WHERE: 2024 A & B Avenida de Los Arboles, Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Open seven days, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: Meal for two, food only $22-$50.

* FYI: All major credit cards; full bar. For information or take out: (805) 492-3583.

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