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A Bit of Heaven Under a Freeway

Red Moon Cafe's bold, stylish cuisine--a combination of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes--belies its location. Counter Intelligence

August 31, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some restaurants are hidden by buildings. Red Moon Cafe is hidden by a freeway. Its little-used front door on National Boulevard is practically under the 405 overpass; parking is around the corner off Sawtelle Boulevard in a neglected-looking mini-mall that's squashed up against the freeway embankment. At one corner of the lot stands a street sign that actually says: "Not a Through Alley."

Other restaurants have tried to make it in this odd West L.A. cul-de-sac--in fact, there used to be another Vietnamese restaurant at this very address--but Red Moon is more stylish and self-confident. Its menu has an artsy silk-screened look and a spine of bamboo shoot (from a bamboo plant by the back door). The walls are adorned with oddly touching primitive art things that look like model airplanes.

And then there's the ambitious range of the food: 136 Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, plus four to six specials a night--e.g., roast Dungeness crab with garlic and pepper. Occasional whiffs of fusion cuisine can be detected, and a definite personal style. At least, I hope there's some whimsical personal reason for the huge fish tank with one tiny fish in it.

Among the Vietnamese items, I've had more flavorful pho soup than Red Moon's, and I actually prefer the showy flaming soup, served in a Mongolian hot pot with flames leaping out the chimney. It's a mild hot and sour soup with a hint of tomato.

The appetizers are mostly Vietnamese and quite good. "Crystal roll" is what Red Moon calls the Vietnamese "rolled taco" of lettuce, rice vermicelli and your choice of pork, shrimp or a vegetarian tofu-carrot-jicama mixture, rolled up tightly in a translucent rice-paper tortilla and served with a sweet bean dipping sauce with crushed peanuts in it. This is a pretty luscious, almost chocolate-like sauce.

There are several other taco-like items you roll yourself, such as pork meatballs (with an elusive sweet spice flavor), sugar cane shrimp (shrimp paste grilled on lengths of sugar cane) and grilled chicken or pork. All the meats go on rice paper with lettuce, vermicelli, bean sprouts and herbs such as mint, basil and cilantro. In the case of fried soft-shell crab, you wrap it in romaine lettuce without rice paper. These rolled items all come with the traditional sweet-sour fish sauce, rather than that rich bean-peanut sauce.

Two people or more can order an appetizer called the imperial platter: crystal rolls, meatballs, "shrimp dumplings" (heavily breaded shrimp) and skinny spring rolls fried much crisper than usual, all on a big plate of herbs with a tiny hibachi in the middle for warming up the meatballs (and certainly for show--like the flaming soup, it burns impressively).

There are also rather plain Chinese steamed dumplings with a thin soy sauce and quite good roasted mussels topped with garlic. You can get a salad of cabbage, mint, carrots and basil topped with the meat of your choice--in effect, it's one of the taco-like appetizers served as a salad.

The entrees are mostly Chinese: Name your ingredient (pork, shrimp, chicken), pick your treatment (sweet and sour, kung pao, cashew, broccoli, curry, etc.). There aren't many surprises among them, but the garlic shrimp, in a version of the restaurant's favorite black bean sauce, is tangy, and its garnish of chopped garlic really sneaks up on you. Crispy noodles are the sort where a long hank of vermicelli is served with your choice of meat and a Chinese white sauce.

Luc-Lac steak has a slightly fusionist air. It is tender chunks of filet sauteed with a bit of coconut and bean sauce, making for a richer sort of teriyaki. (Red Moon beef, which boasts of a "homemade vinegar sauce," turns out to be a dish of steak with pineapple and onions.) A surprise hit is Red Moon duck: tidbits of duck fried crisp in batter and served with carrots and broccoli in another tangy bean sauce.

At the end of the meal, you can have ginger or red bean ice cream, if you want. Personally, I'd be satisfied with a cup of that black bean-peanut sauce.

BE THERE

Red Moon Cafe, Westdale Plaza, 11267 National Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-3177. Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. All major cards. Free delivery within three miles (minimum order $15). Dinner for two, food only, $24-$48.

What to Get: crystal roll, spring roll, grilled mussels, flaming soup, Red Moon duck, Luc-Lac steak, roast Dungeness crab, garlic shrimp.

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