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Shanghai Surprise

June 09, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Lake Spring Cuisine in Monterey Park, recently reopened after a fire closed it for several months, is on the small side--at least compared to the area's football stadium-sized Cantonese seafood houses. Two modest dining rooms are freshly painted in pink and green, with wall-to-wall mirrors and big picture windows, tablecloths and Lazy Susans. Fast-moving, efficient waitresses in above-the-knee black skirts and jade aprons are terrific, keeping an eye out, refilling rice, checking back to see whether you like the Shanghai-style dishes.

As with most Chinese restaurants, the staff at first tries to steer you toward dishes more familiar to non-Chinese. Shrimp in black bean sauce. Beef in oyster sauce. Sesame chicken. (This last is worth trying.) But if you persist, the no-nonsense manageress will scribble your order for Lake Spring's specialties. Though I still haven't been able to get her to recommend anything from the short list of specials written in Chinese. Each time I propose it, she shakes her head no, wrinkling up her nose. We wouldn't like it, she implies. Somehow, I don't think I'll ever get anything on that side of the menu until I return with a Chinese-speaking friend in tow.

Never mind. There are plenty of dishes on the regular menu that I look forward to eating each time I come. First of all, an array of the cold appetizers for which the Shanghai kitchen is famous: crunchy strands of translucent jellyfish perfumed with sesame oil; "drunken chicken" marinated and poached in Shaoxing wine, its skin goosebumpy, the flesh moist and velvety. "Vegetarian duck" is really a mock duck breast constructed of rolled-up bean curd sheets, with a browned "skin" that looks very real. Sliced, it is juicy and delicious. Ching Chiang cured pork, pink pieces of cured pork suspended in a clear, shimmery aspic, served chilled and cut into finger-width bars, looks like my mom's ham in aspic, but tastes decidedly exotic dipped in aged black vinegar and slivered ginger.

A waiter carefully sets down a wide clay casserole brimming with braised fish-head soup. Shaking his head bemusedly, he says he's never seen foreign people eat this, and with such relish! (I suspect he's flattering us.) It is a full-bodied fish stew: fish bones and skin, soft, barely poached pieces of fish meat, small gelatinous bits, whole braised garlic cloves, big squares of tofu and ribbons of rice noodle tinted a pale red from the rich broth that packs a sharp bite.

Strips of bean curd sheet, soft and rumpled and cut like pappardelle, are mixed with shreds of pork, salty preserved mustard greens and startlingly green soybeans. Three-flavor pan-fried noodle is another good choice, chewy wheat noodles with meaty shiitake mushrooms, sliced bamboo shoots and silky bok choy.

"Pork pump" may not be the most elegant-sounding dish, and it is pretty formidable-looking, a glistening mass of pork sheathed in fat, cloaked in a satiny mahogany sauce. The waiter breaks it apart with two spoons, tossing the meat with the dark, winey sauce and wilted spinach like a large salad. Suspend all judgment until you taste: It's stupendous, the meat as tender as butter, the sauce as complex as a long-simmered boeuf a la bourguignonne. I'm also a fan of the house special ham hock, simply steamed, every bit as good as a jambonneau from an Alsatian Weinstube, served with a condiment of charred green chiles and onions in fermented black bean sauce. And everyone's chopsticks reach for the Shanghai spareribs, little nuggets of pork tossed with Chinese black vinegar, soy and sugar.

On the lighter side, there is jade shrimp, glazed green with a puree of spinach, and minced white fish with pine nuts and scallions, the rich oiliness of the toasted nuts delightful against the sweet, delicate fish.

We eat and eat and eat, and everyone vies to take home what's left. Yet when we try to guess the bill, nobody's total is low enough. For less than $15 per person, we have gotten some of the best dishes Shanghai has to offer.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

LAKE SPRING CUISINE

Shanghai-style Chinese. AMBIENCE: Two smallish dining rooms painted in pink, greenand coral brightened with mirrors and big picture windows. BEST DISHES: wine marinated chicken, vegetarian duck, sauteed bean curd sheets, "pork pump," house special hamhock. FACTS: 219 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (818) 280-3571. Open daily. Dinner fortwo, food only, $25 to $30. Parking on the street.

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