My passion for authentic Chinese food has been well documented in these pages. I have been pursuing that elusive 'perfect' Chinese meal all of my life, from Beijing and Taipei to Hong Kong and Tokyo, Paris and New York to my current abode in Los Angeles, where I haunt the Chinese enclaves of Monterey Park and the San Gabriel Valley (the latter probably the most intense concentration of good Chinese restaurants anywhere... more so than China itself.) I have ecstatically reviewed herein the new, truly gourmet Chinese restaurant, WP 24, which Wolfgang Puck and Lee Hefter opened downtown atop the Ritz-Carleton Hotel, to me the epitome of exquisite authentic Chinese dining. For a quick easy fix of real such food, I drive five minutes west from BevHills on Olympic to a tiny deli and eatery called Hop Woo where Peter and his chef prepare the exotic dishes which I alone among the gaijins seem to crave (duck tongues, sea cucumber, and geoduck clams anyone? Plus my favorites from childhood: shrimp with black bean sauce, pork and bean sprouts, special fried rice). I adopted the VIP Harbor dim sum place in Brentwood, but it has now metamorphosed to Palace, not yet tried.
But when I want a convenient BevHills location for an Asian bite with less adventurous companions, we always end up at Vicky Mense's Xi'An (shee-an) at 362 N. Canon Drive (310) 275-3345, with its convenient valet parking and location in the heart of our city. Vicky, beautiful firecracker of a woman, has been open here for 15 years, establishing herself as the Chinese restaurant-of-choice for the older, more staid and less venturesome local crowd. Which is exactly what it should be. She is active in the local Chamber of Commerce and caters many a big dinner party. Her food is what you would expect, middle-of-the-road Chinese American dishes, with lots of tofu and healthy, vegetable oriented, MSG and oil-less cooking. Not to my taste, but hey, my friends like it.
Chef Ho Tien Ding loves to cook authentic Chinese for appreciative diners.
But the other night I had made a dinner date there with my ex, Annabelle Shulman, her girl friend Marilyn Katelman, and my dear friend Ginny Mancini. It was centrally located for all, had a full bar... and my guests were not big authenticity-seeking foodies. But I hit upon the ideal way of satisfying my own culinary needs at the same time, by calling Vicky a few days in advance and asking her to tell Chef Ho Tien Ding that I wanted a few of his hidden specialties. Chef was delighted... and so was I. So if you are a local resident and want a bit more adventure in your BevHills Chinese dining, I suggest you do the same... call Vicky or her second-in-command, the terrific gray-haired eminence Tao, and ask for a few special dishes. And to be seated in the small private dining room decorated with a magnificent hundred-year old Victorian screen painted with eight Chinese women... very rare.
Vicky Mense (left) has been the dynamic owner of Beverly Hills' Xi'An for the past15 years. Annabelle Shulman (right) is my lovely ex.
I used to drive to a restaurant called Lake Spring in Monterey Park just to get a Shanghaiese dish there called "Pork Pump," a gelatinous mass of pork butt ringed with melting fat, succulent meat simmered for eight hours in a rich stock of rock sugar and anise/soy. Chef Ho here makes it well, and I relish it. It's a very idiosyncratic dish, strictly for real meat-lovers not afraid of fatty content. The girls took a bite, no more, and I had it for breakfast and lunch for the next two days.
Pork 'Pump' with baby bok choy; the pork butt is cooked for eight hours in rock sugar and anise/soy.
I asked Vicky for a whole crab, and chef prepared a beautiful, large Dungeness crab in a light sauce of ginger and scallions. I immediately confiscated the carapace (shell) with its gobs of elastic goodies inside, then cracking open the knuckles and legs to extract the sweet meat. The girls ventured forth into it timidly, but did eat some. The dish came on a bed of gelatinous rice vermicelli noodles, the spaghetti of Singapore, another favorite of this old China hand.
Whole Dungeness Crab prepared with ginger and scallions.
Ginny asked for crispy beef, beef morsels sautéed in a pungent cilantro sauce, served with steamed broccoli. I passed... too charred, uninteresting and tasteless for me. Vegetables aplenty, but no tofu, my anathema unless it is the silky just-made Japanese sheets. They all wanted healthy brown rice, boring, and I found fault with the shrimp and black bean sauce dish, never prepared to my taste by this talented chef. I indulged in delicious, tender chicken dumplings and passed on the onion pancake obviously made earlier. Yes, a dish of sautéed assorted mushrooms made me almost weep with joy, and I finished with some refreshing sherbet.
Ginny Mancini (right) perusing the menu, while Marilyn Katelman watches amusedly.
Xi'An (translated as 'Western Peace') was the bustling ancient capital of China, the end of the legendary Silk Road, which for 1600 years was the seat of dynastic power... it's where those imposing statues of men and horses were unearthed. To think that its namesake restaurant is in Beverly Hills - on its own Silk Road - is intriguing.
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