No-Nonsense Nouvelle at Chef Ming's

Times Staff Writer

How embarrassing. Chef Ming's is smack on one of the busiest corners of Santa Monica Boulevard, precisely at a spot where I usually turn to avoid the incessant tailgate traffic jams on that busy boulevard. I've driven by and around Chef Ming's at least 200 times in the last two years of the restaurant's existence.

Never noticed it.

Bright red facade, large--C-H-E-F M-I-N-G's--letters.

Never noticed them.

Wish I had. It's one of those places you can depend on for good, clean, healthful take-out. No MSG. No heavy grease. No nonsense. It's even a nice place to stop for lunch or dinner if you're in the neighborhood. Simple, unpretentious and friendly.

And if it's not the "light and elegant Chinese nouvelle cuisine" the menu boasts, it does have whiffs of it.

That's because Chef Ming (Ming Wong) was chef at Mr. Chow and the now-defunct China Club, both restaurants dedicated to Chinese nouvelle cuisine.

And what is Chinese nouvelle?

The nouvelle cuisine school made its mark about 15 or so years ago in France as a modern statement of classical cooking made lighter and brighter through wider interpretation, less food on the plate and greater eye appeal. Sometimes, the food was lighter on fats and heavy sauces; sometimes not, depending on the practitioner. Other cuisines--Japanese, Chinese, Italian and American--simply incorporated the idea into their existing cuisines.

No Frills Meal

At Chef Ming's, however, the classy nouvelle touch has been toned down considerably, so that what you get is fairly straightforward Mandarin, Peking and Sichuan cuisine cooked and served simply, without the frills and fanfare of too-beautiful presentation or tampering.

The cooking flavors, too, seem toned down to appeal, I think, to Western tastes, which may or may not be an advantage. It really depends on the dish and the diner.

For instance, the dry orange beef could have used more bite, I thought. It could have been less dry--although it is naturally a dry dish. So could the chicken curry, which I found more bland than I like it. Strictly personal, mind you. I happen to like my curry hot. (The hot stuff, about 20 or so items on the menu, are designated with an asterisk, a familiar symbol on menus these days. The curry is not among the hot items.)

Otherwise you can hardly go wrong with almost anything on the menu, or the prices, for that matter. I particularly found the barbecued spare ribs some of the best I've ever had anywhere. Perfection. So was the string bean saute.

New York-Style Noodles

The minced chicken in lettuce leaves was OK. Tasty and to the point. If you're into New York-style noodles, you'll find them at Chef Ming's in the form of lo mein, and you get several different types: chicken, shrimp, vegetable or all three in a dish.

You'll also find the Sichuan cold sesame noodle dish here, which is a perfect pasta salad for summery days, especially at lunch or picnics. (Keep it in mind on your way to the Hollywood Bowl.)

The chef's specials run the gamut of the familiar and not so familiar Mandarin, Peking and Sichuan dishes: There are several lobster specialties, one with chile sauce, the other with ginger sauce, plus kung pao made with chicken, beef and shrimp in a spicy peanut sauce, a hot and crispy chicken, a Mongolian stir-fry, scallops with black bean sauce and whole steamed fish with ginger sauce. Prices of the specialties are reasonable, from $7.50 to $14.95 (for the lobster). You'll find other dishes, such as noodles or salad, for as low as $4.50.

If you like Peking duck, it is served with pancakes, and there is a chicken in garlic sauce that is worth looking into. The menu is fairly uncomplicated.

There are ample appetizers (soft shell crabs and steamed dumplings among them); salads (Chinese chicken salad, plus seaweed and tofu salads); soup (the normal group of won ton, hot and sour, seafood and corn); the standard pork, duck, chicken, beef, seafood and vegetable categories with some interesting things on it, as well as the familiar. Spicy, crispy shredded beef was among the most unfamiliar.

The luncheon menu carries most of the popular dishes-- kung pao, beef with broccoli, Mongolian beef, pork or chicken, beef in garlic sauce and the sweet-sour dishes--all of which are served with soup, egg roll and fried rice for around $4.50. Or you might want to order from the dim sum menu. Items are around $2.95 for four pieces per plate; or try a complete menu of soup plus three other things on the menu for only $4.95. A true bargain, takeout or otherwise.

In any case, you'll have another nice Chinese place to go in West Hollywood if you don't want to travel any further.

Chef Ming's Restaurant, 8100 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 654-3383. Open seven days: Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday from noon to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m. Eat in or take out. Free delivery for $15 minimum order. Free parking in rear, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Reservations accepted. Entrees from $3.50.

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