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Celebrate the Year of the Tiger at Hop Woo

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We have just begun 'The Year of the Tiger' in the Chinese calendar, and many readers of my popular Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter wanted to know where their culinary maven had celebrated the event. I unabashedly told them that I had three dinner parties in a row at my favorite, secret little Chinese restaurant, HOP WOO BBQ & SEAFOOD (11110 W. Olympic Blvd., West L.A. on the southwest corner of Olympic and Sepulveda, at the rear of a tiny strip mall and behind its companion BBQ take out shop; no valet parking but you should easily find a space in the evening, (310) 575-3668, www.hopwoo.com).

Whether it is possible to get great Chinese food on the Westside of Los Angeles has, until now, been questionable. This little restaurant has been valiantly trying for the past decade, but the lack of a top chef was always the limiting factor. These food artists command major salaries, so it requires a dedicated effort to maintain a restaurant of the quality found routinely in Monterey Park. But the owners of Hop Woo - whose main bases on Broadway in Chinatown and in Alhambra serve over a thousand meals daily - have now hired a star chef, Sam Ruan, who last cooked at Mr. Chow's in Beverly Hills. This highly-trained chef cooks with great confidence and panache, having an awesome feel for the balance and nuance of his beautifully-presented food.

Legendary Chinese film director John Woo is a noted gourmet, and I have spotted him eating both lunch and dinner here several days in a row.

The menu has been expanded to match some of the finest restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and now - after too many lunches and dinners to count - I can herald the exciting news that it is possible to get authentic Chinese food of the highest order within an easy drive of any place on the Westside/Beverly Hills. I am not denigrating my friend, Vicky Mense, of Beverly Hill's Xi'An, but her food is California-Chinese, healthy and delicious but not of the same world as this.

One sign of the change is the added fish tanks, so you can select your lobster, rock cod, tilapia from the swimming denizens of the deep sea. General Manager Peter Huang pointed out to me that they have two 'specials' for in-house diners, a 1 ¼ pound lobster for $11.95 and a half of BBQ roast duck for $7.95! (This is the same take-out Roast Duck you see hanging from a steel hook under a heat lamp in the adjoining shop. A specialty of the house, it is golden colored, deeply infused with the flavors of the soy and juices with which it is sluiced during the roasting process.) As you will see, the prices here are remarkable for any restaurant, let alone one serving food of this quality. The long list of lunch specials for $5.95 and $6.95 served Monday through Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm, including rice and a bowl of soup includes such tasty items as Shrimp in Lobster Sauce and Salted Fish Chicken Fried Rice, even Szechuan Ma Po Tofu and Fresh Squid with Black Bean Sauce. Yes, you read this right: some 60 dishes offered for lunch at $6 or $7 dollars! (For $1 extra, you can add chicken, beef or pork to your special, and for $2 you can add shrimp or scallop to your noodle/rice dish.)

No liquor license, not even beer or wine, so Peter tells me you are invited to bring your six-pack, wine or spirits and they will serve it up. I always bring a sparkling Laetitia Brut Rose, or an Alsatian, or a six pack of imported beer. When I say that you can have one of the finest Chinese meals in memory here, remember that I am guy who has traveled the wide world looking for Chinese perfection...even flying to Hong Kong for the opening of a restaurant on Victoria Peak. No, the atmosphere here is not perfect, brightly lit, though it has been spruced up a bit. You will notice, as I did, that the vast majority of customers are Chinese, always a good sign, with only an occasional "gwai-lo" (white person)...although I suspect that will change after this review.

Lobster, Shrimps. Scallops. Oysters, Clams, Sea Cucumber (gelatinous relative of the star fish, which I alone among my friends seem to like)...even Steamed Drunken Crab in wine sauce, last eaten in Monterey Park's brilliant Elite. The usual soups for 2 and four, from Old Fashioned Hot & Sour (vinegary) and Minced Beef Soup Westlake Style ($5.95 and $9.95) to Crab Meat Fish Maw Soup ($8.95 & $13.95), a delicate lustrous bowl of soup rich with crab and other seafood, shredded fish maw - an inner part of the fish (dried air bladder, which thickens it, don't ask, just enjoy), wood ear fungus and tofu infusing the heady broth rich enough to cure any ill.

Follow it with a whole live fish - red or rock cod - prepared in any one of four styles: simply steamed with light soy scallion sauce, crisply fried with Szechuan Ma Po sauce, crisply fried with black bean garlic sauce, or crisply fried Cantonese style sweet and sour, which I usually avoid but here not overly sweet. Peter asks that if you want a live red cod or a black cod to call him in advance. Last night, when I asked for the fish head, Peter looked at me in surprise and paid me the highest compliment: "You eat like a Chinese."

Otherwise, you can have the whole Pan Fried Sole with garlic soy sauce ($13.95). But let me suggest something even better: it's called Good Hand Lonlay ($19.95), a whole sole that has been fileted and then wok-tossed over an open flame with sliced mushrooms, garlic and yellow chives over the crispy bones (which you will nibble). Lobsters are plentiful these days, and Hop Woo offers a half-dozen delicious choices: Last night I had Szechuan Lobster, the crustacean stir-fried in a lightly spiced chili and ginger reduction. Awesome. Another fabulous choice: Clay Pot Lobster - a Canton favorite, the lobster simmered over a low flame with glassy vermicelli noodles and mild satay sauce. Lobster with Supreme Sauce, the meat so fresh and juicy it almost quivered on my chopsticks. Braised Abalone ($29.95) and, of course, Black Mushroom with Sea Cucumber ($16.95).

Two dozen openers to whet your appetite: you can prepare your table with a platter of 'Cold Cuts", ranging from $9.95 to $28.95 depending upon the number of people. BBQ Spare Ribs ($6.95) are sumptuous, but I discovered the Steamed Chicken ($6.95) is so silky, and then I love the crunchy quality of Jelly Fish ($6.95) with a spicy sauce. Lots of Golden Fried Won Tons (10 for $5.95) and Steamed Dumpling (6 for $5.95) and a Soft Shell Crab with spicy salt (each $5). Shrimps, scallops and squid in every variety. Want a new one: order (in advance) the Giant Geoduck Clam, the long, thick shellfish is thinly-sliced, boiled, served with a light ginger soy sauce or, alternately and my favorite, sliced and sautéed in XO chili sauce sashimi style. When my friend Brian Wald returns from China I will take him here for his favorite dish, Baked Pork Chops with Peking Sauce ($9.95). Moo Shu dishes, Shrimp Egg Foo Young ($11.95), Fred Hayman's favorite, eggs stir-fried with garlic, onion, bell pepper and bean sprouts.

Vegetables and Tofu galore: the delicate Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves ($12.95) are world-class good, delicate greens with the unique, pungent, haunting flavor of summer. Hot Pots and Sizzling Platters: a Fish Brisket with Tofu and Mushroom Hot Pot ($10.95), you'll take home the left-overs, if any. Fried Rice, Noodles, Porridges - the latter, called congee in Chinese, an adult version of oatmeal, only better, flavored with chicken or seafood. Manager Peter told me about a half-dozen dishes which require advance orders, but worth the notice: Poached Live Prawns, Bamboo Shoots with Fresh Mushrooms and Asparagus, Chicken Wrapped in Egg White, Seafood with Winter Melon, Veggie Delight on Lotus Leaf, Rice with Crab on Lotus Leaf.

Every time I come here I discover another half-dozen dishes I want to try (and usually do): Chef's Special Beef Filet ($12.95), as juicy, beefy as any steak, Squid with Zucchini and Fungus ($10.95), Fresh Mushrooms with Beef $12.95), Seafood Hot Pot ($10.95), Preserved Vegetables with Pork Belly ($9.95). As I write this, I am eating a plate of Seafood Fried Rice brought home last night, the rich dish lashed with nuggets of fluffy egg white and dried scallops (compoy). Desserts, as in most good Chinese restaurants, are hit-or-miss, but a plate of fresh fruit is the perfect ending for the meal.

HOP WOO is now a miracle of vivid, vibrant assured flavors at prices which are indeed a miracle considering the four-star food. As we celebrated the Chinese New Year, we ate exquisitely near the top of the form, a cuisine continuously refined over 3,000 years and which still leaves me nearly breathless.

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