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Chinese Comfort Food

The Beijing-style dishes at Deer Garden are hearty and surprising.

August 24, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deer Garden is in a shopping center at a heavily traveled intersection, but it's hard to see, and so plain and small (only eight tables) you could walk by the Chinese restaurant without ever noticing it.

That would be a shame, because the food is wonderful, and often surprising. One time a friend and I ordered beef strip with cilantro, expecting stir-fried sliced beef, but it turned out to be shredded gray tripe speckled with cilantro. We accepted the dish--after all, the misspelling ("strip" for "tripe") wasn't the chef's fault. To our surprise, it turned out to be the best dish we had that day, almost like pasta, tasting of garlic, cilantro and white pepper. A close second was gourd and meatball soup--marble-sized pork balls, translucent green gourd slices and cilantro in chicken bone broth so rich it appeared creamy. Superb comfort food.

Sponge gourd with bean curd also shows off the delicate, sweet flavor of si gua, otherwise known as silk gourd. This dish combines it with fried bean curd sticks and a subtle sauce with a dash of garlic. If Mandarin bean curd weren't so flat, you might take it to be caramel-coated flan. It's tofu, coated with egg and fried, making a golden brown omelet in a little light, broth-based sauce.

Deer Garden specializes in Beijing-style food, so many dishes are labeled "Peking." One is Peking fried shredded pie, really a chow mein-like dish of a pancake sliced and stir-fried with shredded cabbage, shiitake, golden needles and wood ears (also known as black fungus). Jing dong meat pie is much more pie-like. It's a crisp fried pastry filled with ground pork, ginger and green onions.

Shredded pork in Peking sauce comes in an unctuous sweet bean sauce. Along with the usual moo shu pork, Deer Garden offers Beijing-style "moo shu sauce": sliced pork, bean curd, bean thread noodles, cabbage and mushrooms covered with a golden cap of eggs. You eat this wrapped in a pancake, like regular moo shu.

The restaurant offers some Beijing-style hot pots and several dishes that show off northern China's taste for lamb. "Fried lamb with garlic stem" is misleadingly named--the "garlic stems" are the green part of leek, probably easier to find than garlic on the stem. It's good anyway.

Wheat dishes are also typical of the north, and the menu devotes a section to "wheaten food" that includes various noodle dishes, fried and steamed dumplings and green onion pancakes so delicate you can see the green onion inside. The one dish that disappointed me was lamb with pickled cabbage ton mein. This big bowl of soupy noodles was just too bland to be interesting.

The two fish dishes that I tried were excellent, the fish tender and juicy whether combined with spicy bean sauce or with bamboo shoots, shiitake and pea pods. Pork hock in brown sauce could better be called pork hock in black sauce--the sauce is that dark. You taste star anise as you eat the succulent meat.

Foods from outer Chinese provinces make their way to Beijing, so the restaurant offers Sichuan dishes, including kung pao beef and chicken and Sichuan style bean curd. A Chinese-language sign posted by the kitchen suggests several dishes that are not on the printed menu. Chinese friends ordered one of them, a cold summer appetizer that mixes slim strands of cucumber and green onion, jalapeno slices and cilantro with a dressing that tastes of sesame oil, sugar and vinegar. The restaurant turns out a nice cold dish of Japanese cucumbers seasoned with salt, sesame oil and lots minced garlic.

Go for lunch with friends, and you can taste a number of dishes at an almost embarrassingly low price that includes good, peppery hot and sour soup, rice and tea. There are, however, only two tables that can accommodate larger groups, so it is wise to arrive early.

Don't be confused by the name. You'll see Deer Garden on the menu, but Deerfield Garden on the sign outside. Deerfield is the name of the shopping plaza where the restaurant is located.

BE THERE

Deer Garden Restaurant, Deerfield Plaza, 130 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park. (626) 284-3867. Lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot. No credit cards. Lunch $3.50 to $4.25. Dinner for two, food only, about $25. What to Get: Beef strip (tripe) with cilantro; gourd and meatball soup; slice fish hot spicy, or with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots; Peking fried shredded pie; mandarin bean curd; sponge gourd with fried bean curd.

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