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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : If Regular Chinese or Thai Choices Don’t Suit, There’s Vegetarian Too

To judge California Wok by its blando name and anonymous location--a Los Alamitos strip mall--is to miss the point entirely of this charming and imaginative restaurant.

Baiyok Ishikawa--her name means “jade leaf in a stony river"--is the chef-owner. She is a native of Thailand and has a Japanese-American husband, a second chef who is Chinese, and her own ideas about cooking.

Ishikawa once was a microbiologist, so health consciousness permeates the air in the clean, modern dining room, simply decorated with glass-topped tables, Japanese prints and walls that look as if they were papered with pink satin. Most of the dishes are marked with little red hearts on the menu, the symbol we’ve come to know as the sign of approval from the American Heart Assn. It was no surprise then, to discover that no MSG or animal fats are used in preparations.

Initially, California Wok was purely Chinese. Ishikawa says her inspiration was Monterey Park’s Fragrant Vegetable, a Chinese vegetarian restaurant where good primary products play a vital role in the kitchen. But soon Ishikawa became interested in promoting her native Thai cuisine, and the response from her regulars was so enthusiastic that she had to rethink her concept. Today she has two full-time chefs--one Chinese, one Thai--and a tandem menu 10 pages long. This is one marriage that really appears to have been made in heaven.

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But, as everyone knows, marriage requires effort. There are nearly 200 dishes on the menu, which makes choosing problematic. It is not easy to blend Chinese and Thai dishes, and you will be tempted to order from both menus. When you finally zero in on a few, as I did, they may be unavailable. There’s a good reason why.

“We make everything to order,” said Ishikawa, who was summoned to my table from the kitchen by the flustered waitress after I had chosen four dishes that the kitchen could not make. “There isn’t much demand for these specialties,” I was told, “so we don’t have them every day.” The seemingly forbidden dishes included Hunan-style crispy whole fish and steamed dumplings from the Chinese menu, as well as gra thong tong (little golden pastry cups with minced meats) and guey tiew lord (rice noodle roll) from the Thai menu.

“I won’t serve a fish unless I have time to go to the market and pick it myself,” she continued, “and my chef made dumplings yesterday. . . . Come back tomorrow.” And you know what? I did.

But only because I was so impressed by what a friend and I finally ate that day. Chinese vegetarian egg rolls were so crispy and flavorful, we had two orders. They come stuffed with bean-thread noodles and minced vegetables, and then are fried in soybean oil (an unsaturated oil that Ishikawa favors for its neutral taste). From the Thai menu, there was a dazzler called nam sod , a fiery minced-pork appetizer with little wheels of red and green chili. You mix it up with whole peanut and fresh ginger, then douse it with lime juice and eat it in a lettuce leaf.

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Big plates of California Wok crispy shrimp (whole shrimp in the shell with spicy salt and green onion) and chicken in bird’s nest (sliced white chicken meat stir-fried with mixed vegetables in a perfect basket of straw potato) made the meal sumptuous. All this put us in the mood to finish the meal with an unusually greaseless pad Thai (fried flat noodle with chunked pork, whole shrimp, bean curd, egg, peanut, bean sprout and dry chili). I had next day’s menu planned even before I paid the check.

When we showed up the following night, Ishikawa said, “I thought you were only kidding . . . but I made dumplings today just in case you weren’t.”

The dumplings came out plump and steaming, with a thick, juicy skin and a finely minced filling. At six to an order, they could make an entire meal for one: We gobbled them up. At the same time, we were nibbling on a plate of her tod mun plar , tiny fish cakes with chili paste and green bean mixed right in, served with an amazing sauce of chunked tomato, onion and heaps of ground red chili. The contrast between the bland, sweet dumplings and the aromatic, rubbery fish cakes was intense. So was the heat in the chili sauce.

Next, we had an authentic Thai beef salad (thinly sliced, nearly raw beef with a plain lettuce garnish) and mooh gra tiem (pork strips marinated in salt, pepper and garlic). The pork is fried in a wok until crispy, and the plate is dotted with crushed garlic. It is one of the most strongly flavored pork dishes I have ever eaten.

Ishikawa is an intelligent woman, and this is an intelligent restaurant. In addition to the regular menu, she has taken the trouble to make several vegetarian counterparts of standard Thai and Chinese dishes simply by removing the meat and substituting mushrooms or tofu in their place. Stir-fried string bean in hot bean paste uses fried onion instead of minced pork, and the taste is remarkably similar to the original. Mee krob , crispy rice noodle in sweet-and-sour sauce, is made with tofu, and arguably even better than the original. Why expect less from a perfectionist named jade leaf?

California Wok is inexpensive to moderate. Chinese dishes are $2.95 to $19.95 (for the Peking duck--24 hours’ advance notice required). Thai dishes are $3.25 to $9.95. Special Thai combination dinners are available at $7.95 or $9.95 a person, minimum order two persons. Catering is done upon request.

CALIFORNIA WOK

4466 Cerritos Ave., Los Alamitos

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(714) 527-0226

Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday

All major cards accepted


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