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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Where West Meets East

Regent Cafe takes non-Chinese dishes and adapts them to Chinese tastes. But what it mainly does best is Asian food.

April 23, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of us have known of Westernized Chinese dishes since our youth. Now along comes a spiffy place called Regent Cafe, where the specialties include a variety of Western dishes adapted to the Chinese palate.

Actually, you can find just about any food under the sun in this Hong Kong-style coffee shop, including fine rotisserie chicken, first-rate noodle dishes and a variety of fancy pastries. It's all a reflection of the changing demographics of the San Gabriel Valley, and the catholicity of tastes that has swept over the Chinese community there.

The restaurant looks like a Marie Callender's inside: brick walls, hanging plants, plenty of sunlight, lots of cushy vinyl booths. The hustling staff is mostly young Hong Kong or Taiwan transplants who clearly manage better in Cantonese or Mandarin than English.

No matter. Most of the clientele is Chinese-speaking, too. It's a well-dressed crowd that clearly revels in Regent Cafe's take on Western dishes.

At lunch, the huge restaurant fills up by noon sharp, largely with businesspeople wolfing noodle dishes and rice porridge. In the evenings, the popular dishes seem to be the non-Chinese ones: German-style pork knuckle with sauerkraut, grilled orange roughy and even lobster Thermidor.

The Asian items are, at least to me, what this restaurant does best. Osaka prawn tempura is an appetizer of shrimp, green peppers and carrots, lightly battered and fried, and it's as well executed as any tempura for miles around. Deep-fried chicken wings with spicy salt are golden brown and delicious, with an extra lift from the sweet and pungent spiced salt.

I didn't much care for "Indo" fried rice. It's an unusual mixture of rice, minced beef and hard-boiled egg, flavored with leeks and curry powder. Unlike many Indians, I do eat beef; my main objection to the dish was that the meat was quite fatty, making the rice unpleasantly oily.

But the noodle dishes I tried were all spectacular, rivaling anything I've tasted lately in noodle-crazy Alhambra. Chow fun with shredded pork and X.O. sauce, for instance, makes terrific use of slippery rice noodles. They're tossed with lean pork and odd-flavored (and very expensive) dried scallops, dried shrimp and Cognac X.O., a sauce that has become de rigueur among Chinese chefs.

Pan-fried vermicelli with fish cake and preserved vegetable uses the wispy bean thread noodles known as fun see. Here you get a pile of them, tossed with green onions, a light, mild Japanese-style fish cake and salty pickled radishes. The dish is devilishly good with the chile paste provided. The menu also lists an honest version of pad Thai, the familiar Thai dish of rice noodles with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts.

Regent Cafe also offers a huge variety of salads, pastas, steaks and seafood, too, and my advice is to order them with extreme caution. My waitress looked stricken when she saw I'd scarcely touched two or three dishes I'd ordered. "But they're very good," she said earnestly.

One of the dishes I'd left untouched was Portuguese-style chicken: fried chicken partially submerged in a casserole dish brimming with a pasty mild curry sauce. Another dish I couldn't manage a second bite of was pasta Bolognese, mushy noodles in a greasy, sugary meat sauce.

The Russian borscht, on the other hand, was not at all inedible, merely odd. It was a sort of vegetable soup of tomatoes, celery and carrots. It's the first soup calling itself borscht I've ever had that contained neither beets nor potatoes.

I did try two good Western dishes here. One was a juicy, crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken, a steal at $6.95 with good mashed potatoes and not-so-good frozen mixed vegetables. The other was that German-style pork knuckle, a tender, meaty hunk of steamed pork. The Chinese are masters of pork cookery--if you go by San Gabriel Valley restaurants, anyway.

As you enter the cafe, you pass a giant pastry case filled top to bottom with Franco-Japanese pastries--light, slightly gelatinous layer cakes with various fruit and cream fillings. The strawberry mousse cake is fine, and so is the chocolate mousse cake and the delicate cheesecake.

And if you prefer a dessert that is unforgivingly caloric, there's always a Marie Callender's nearby.

BE THERE

Regent Cafe, 1411 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra. (626) 289-9398. 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-4 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Full bar. Parking in lot. Takeout. Dinner for two, $16-$23.

What to Get: Osaka prawn tempura; chow fun with shredded pork in X.O. sauce; pan-fried vermicelli with fish cake and preserved vegetable; German-style pork knuckle; rotisserie chicken.

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