Our valley's Chinese food looks drab compared with the San Gabriel Valley's, but surprises do surface once in a while. One is Crown Wok Palace in Sherman Oaks, a place of honest Chinese cooking with a terribly retro look, all pink vinyl booths and Chinese shell paintings. A friend from Beverly Hills almost bolted when she saw our table's silk flowers, complete with their artificial drops of dew.
Crispy noodles and sticky red sauce arrived just in time to keep her squarely in her seat, but there are better options--for example, some of the best steamed dumplings around, eight to an order, filled with flavorful, fatty minced pork. They come with chile oil (nearly as pink as the booths), green pepper soy and rice vinegar laced with fresh ginger.
The delicious soups include hot and sour, shrimp sizzling rice and, my favorite, a chicken cream corn soup so richly flavored you'd think somebody's grandmother made it.
Among the specialties, choose shrimp with macadamia nuts over the cloying honey walnut shrimp, which suffers from too much of what I'm guessing is Miracle Whip. The macadamia nuts are a textural surprise, and they add a lot of richness to the shrimp, which are sauteed in rice wine. Another good item from this section of the menu is a dish called lemon scallop: lightly breaded scallops in a fragrant lemon sauce.
Crown Wok Palace has live fish, usually rock cod or red snapper. We ordered a rock cod and it came to our table steamed, as a Cantonese chef is always inclined to treat fresh fish. It was a perfectly cooked fish, perfumed with ginger, garlic and soy, its pale red skin gleaming--and large enough to feed four.
Meat and vegetable dishes are well treated too. Chicken with garlic sauce is thinly sliced white meat sauteed with broccoli and fresh bamboo. It comes in a rich brown sauce flecked with chopped garlic, not the clear sauce the menu description implies.
Both sauteed spinach and braised string beans (made without minced pork, for once) are nearly impeccable. One dish that falls flat, however, is crispy duck. It's deep fried, not roasted, as you'd get from a serious Chinese kitchen, and unpleasantly oily.
Service is friendly, prices are reasonable and the management even goes so far as to offer a weight-watcher's menu consisting primarily of steamed dishes. Are they drab? Not on your life.
Crown Wok Palace, 4722 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 3-9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa. Suggested dishes: steamed dumplings, $5.95; chicken cream corn soup, $3.95; shrimp with macadamia nuts, $9.95; lemon scallops, $11.95. Dinner for two, $26-$39. Call (818) 784-8287.