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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

Chin Chin, Ho-Hum

The Chinese food chain opens in Mission Viejo with little of the excitement--or taste--of the original.

April 15, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chin Chin, a Southern California chain that has recently arrived in Mission Viejo, specializes in little Chinese snacks and pastries called dim sum (literally, "touch the heart" in Cantonese).

Dim sum has long been an art form at Chinese restaurants around the world. But it took a fellow named Bob Mandler, who founded Chin Chin in 1983, to mainstream dim sum . . . and it took him 16 years to open an O.C. branch.

I can still recall the excited buzz when Mandler opened his first restaurant, which thrives to this day on a particularly fashionable stretch of the Sunset Strip. Everyone came for his light, terrific Chinese chicken salad: a textural adventure of hand-chopped chicken, rice noodles, wonton crisps, shredded lettuce and toasted almonds, all topped with a delicious red ginger dressing.

They also came for noodle dishes and barbecued meats. Above all, they came for the dim sum, many of which were terrific--especially deep-fried wontons with dense pork fillings, chicken pot stickers and classic shrimp dumplings (har gow).

But that was then and there. This is here and now.

Little I've tried at this Chin Chin--even the famous chicken salad--seems as authentic or flavorful as what I tasted in those early days. In the hot and sour soup, I can't detect vinegar, the ingredient that gives the soup its kick. And "spicy shrimp noodles" turns out to be an oily platter of baby food: just minced vegetables, a few cut-up shrimp and a heap of badly overcooked noodles.

This place has clearly been built for speed. The dining room is in the style of up-to-date shopping mall restaurants: open kitchen, red vinyl banquettes, easy-to-clean glass-topped tables. A breezy, upbeat team of waiters keeps things moving. Chin Chin is a big operation, and the kitchen resembles a production line at full throttle.

If you order carefully, you might come away reasonably satisfied by ordering some of the better dim sum, such as Sichuan dumplings: chopped chicken in steamed noodle wrappers doused with a tangy cilantro sauce. No problem with the Cantonese dumplings: rice flour dumplings stuffed with minced chicken, mushrooms, vegetables and peanuts. But watch out for the har gow. Mine was a nearly inedible wad of flavorless chopped shrimp in gluey noodle skins.

I liked the gift-wrapped chicken: chicken morsels flavored with soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and cilantro and served in tiny foil wrappers, though the portion size was fairly stingy. The chicken rolls--deep-fried cylinders of bread stuffed with chicken--were crisp on the surface but greasy inside.

And the "boiled pot stickers," from the restaurant's new light menu, tasted stale.

Happily, there are interesting soups, stir-fries and desserts. Velvet corn soup is an egg flower soup with glass noodles and chopped chicken, and the additions make for an excellent dish.

Minced chicken in lettuce cups is filled with a flavorful mixture of stir-fried chicken, black mushrooms, peanuts and sweet peppers. (But it's telling that when I first had this dish at a Chin Chin, the peanuts were pine nuts, which is what a Chinese cook would use.)

The best of the roasted meats is a fairly classic version of Cantonese-style barbecued pork (char siu). It's nicely browned around the edges, reasonably lean and flavored with hoisin sauce. I can also recommend spicy Hunan chicken, redolent of ginger, garlic, cilantro and dark soy sauce.

I didn't care for the watery shrimp with lobster sauce. But there is a nice version of Mongolian beef--stir-fried flank steak and green onions in a rich brown sauce. I also like the retro almond chicken: cubed chicken with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, celery and lots of sliced almonds. Try it on steamed rice with a heap of the hot red chile paste.

Two vegetable dishes prepared deftly in giant woks are musts. A spicy stir-fried eggplant is cooked in a spicy brown sauce with red and green onions and garlic. Snappy-fresh string beans are quickly stir-fried with bits of pickled Chinese cabbage. If everything here were as good as these dishes, I'd return often.

I didn't care for any of the noodles at Chin Chin, but the Yang Chow fried rice is very good. The steamed rice is stir-fried with peas, carrots and a bit of scrambled egg. This is the perfect accompaniment to most of the oily stir-fried dishes.

For dessert, there is a staggeringly rich chocolate macadamia nut pie, a selection of gooey cheesecakes from the Cheesecake Factory and the chef d'oeuvre: Lizzy's dessert spring rolls--chocolate-dipped pastry cylinders filled with raspberry mousse or frozen praline cream.

Good as they are, though, I'll avoid eating too much of these desserts. I'm afraid of getting a double chin. (Get it?)

Chin Chin is moderately priced. Dim sum are $3.75 to $5.95. Soups are $4.25 to $5.95. Roasted meats are $5.50 to $9.25. Banquet specialties are $8.25 to $9.95.

BE THERE

* Chin Chin, 27441 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo. (949) 367-9595. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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