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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

The Real Thing

On Li's home-style Chinese food pleases palates hungering for authenticity.

March 26, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Li was one of the first authentic Chinese restaurants in the Valley (where there still aren't very many). Since the mid-'80s, it's been serving home-style Cantonese dishes such as terrific steamed spareribs and crisp roast duck in a neighborhood where most Chinese restaurants specialize in frozen pork and greasy deep-fried duck. I'm only sorry it took me so long to discover it.

Of course, it doesn't have a very promising appearance. Any bright lights here are, metaphorically speaking, reserved for the good cooking.

On Li's appetizers are familiar to anyone who has been frequenting Cantonese restaurants since childhood, except that they're much better. You can experience practically all of them simply by ordering the pupu tray.

The pupu tray serves at least two, and the components are all fun to eat, if not vastly authentic. They include densely stuffed egg rolls, fried wontons with wads of minced pork in the middle, a few heavily battered deep-fried shrimp, wonderful sticky red spareribs, moist paper-wrapped chicken and pieces of skewered steak. On the side is Chinese mustard and a sweet-tart red dipping sauce for embellishment. The real Cantonese dishes come later.

Chinese soups make wonderful second courses, because they are generally light on the palate and don't kill the appetite. The best soup here is three-flavored duck soup, a richly flavored dark brown broth laden with Chinese mushrooms, thinly sliced bamboo shoots and shredded duck meat. For something lighter, the best choice is seaweed egg flower soup.

If you have the time to order ahead, Peking duck should follow the soup course. At $22, it's by far the most expensive item on the menu, and the kitchen asks for a one-day advance order. After the duck is presented, you will see why. The duck is a masterpiece of lacquered skin, remarkably lean meat and soft bones, all nicely carved up and served inside fluffy buns along with green onions and pungent plum sauce.

For $15.50, you can get a nearly perfect roast duck with the legendary pale yellow sweet-and-sour sauce known as duck sauce.

And a wide variety of other good things awaits. Steamed spareribs with black bean sauce is a classic Cantonese dim sum dish, but here, instead of a tiny side dish of the chopped salty pork ribs and fermented black bean relish, you get a huge platter. And the meat is about as tender and trim as any I've tasted in a Cantonese restaurant.

The "spicy superior pork chop" on this menu is more fashionably called "pork chop with spiced salt" in our upscale Chinese restaurants, but none of them does a better job with the dish than On Li. These are meaty, sizzling chops, hacked into perfect bite-size pieces.

A few dishes aren't quite as appealing. I like the idea of fried oysters in a Chinese restaurant, but On Li's are so heavily battered that you have to search to find the oysters. Fukien-style chow mein has a nice combination of barbecued pork, cooked shrimp, bell peppers and red chiles, but it's all wasted on noodles that have been cooked almost to mush. An example of better noodles is dry-style beef chow fun, deliciously al dente flat rice noodles mixed with a huge amount of tender grilled flank steak.

BE THERE

On Li, 17840 Chatsworth St., Granada Hills. (818) 360-3018. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Parking in lot. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Suggested dishes: Pupu tray, $8.50; steamed spareribs with black bean sauce, $7.25; Peking duck, $22; dry-style beef chow fun, $5.50.

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