At Loretta's, They're Serious About Chinese Food--and Desserts

What do you say about a Chinese restaurant named Loretta's?

That wasn't the real question. Here's the real question: What do you say about a Chinese restaurant--whatever its name may be--that makes good desserts?

Maybe the answer is mazel tov, bienvenidos and so on, unless you're someone who spends dinner positively looking forward to an almond cookie. Loretta's does bring out almond cookies at the end of the meal, fortune cookies, (unfortunately, with exceptionally vague and boring fortunes) and orange slices. But that isn't necessarily the end of the meal.

Not at all. You can order real American desserts: a powerful bitter-chocolate cake, a rich lemon cake or even chocolate mousse. There are also semi-Oriental ice creams such as candied ginger or mango. The green tea entry stands out from most other green tea ice creams in town because it really tastes of tea.

Maybe, come to think of it, there's something in the name after all, something in the lack of reference to emperors, dragons or palaces. Maybe the same thing that has emboldened a Chinese restaurant to get serious about dessert is even behind the strict avoidance of MSG.

Loretta's recently moved from a nearby site onto a fairly high-powered block of La Cienega that seems to be rejustifying the street's name as Restaurant Row. Two doors down is Bice Pomodoro, and across the street are King Dragon and Ed Debevic's. The room--small by the standards of its famous neighbors--is in the classic early-'60s steakhouse style with flagstone in the walls (now painted over). The chef is S.K. Ng, formerly of Chinese Friends, in Chinatown.

The food is Szechwan and Peking: in other words, the dishes Americans have favored in Chinese restaurants for the last 20 years or so. You can get mu shu anything, kung pao anything, anything with snow peas or black bean sauce or green pepper. Loretta's seems to do a good job on these familiar dishes. In particular, the ones involving spicy tomato sauce are very good, essentially because the kitchen makes fresh tomato sauce rather than just doctoring the ketchup.

For instance, the house special shrimp: crisp fried shrimp in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce with hot pepper oil added (it has a spicy smell reminiscent of cloves.) Braised lobster in tomato-based garlic hot sauce is much the same thing with a more expensive crustacean, and you can get sweet-and-sour fish of the day in the same sort of sauce.

There are plenty of starred hot dishes on the menu, such as orange peel spicy beef, with a snappy, full-bodied hot sauce on the chunks of fried beef. There's another dish simply called spicy beef, and if it is ordered extra spicy, you can scarcely see the bell peppers and bamboo shoots for blackened pepper pods.

The house specialties seem good, if not unusual. The minced chicken mixed with mushrooms and water chestnuts, served with hoisin sauce, which you roll up in lettuce taco-fashion, is everything it should be, and the crispy chicken is definitely crisp. There are two good dishes of fried eggplant with shredded chicken, one in hot sauce and the other (chiang pao eggplant) in rich brown sauce.

Among the appetizers you find spicy pickled cabbage, a sort of mildly pickled cabbage salad, sweetened and made a tiny bit hot--there's one little pepper pod resting on top of it. The combination appetizer platter includes nicely cooked vegetarian egg rolls with cabbage filling, spare ribs with the usual steamed taste and a good sweet-and-sour sauce, chicken satays, the usual fried wontons and the traditionally puffy fried shrimp.

The list of soups is slightly longer than usual, 10 altogether, including a spinach soup that is steaming chicken broth with practically raw spinach floating in it. Egg drop soup, which I think of as a way of consuming cornstarch, is rather more eggy than usual at Loretta's.

Monday through Friday special lunches are available, unfortunately concentrating on what are some of the duller dishes. The double-cooked pork--briefly tossed with cabbage and bell pepper in a brown sauce with red pepper and ginger in it--is the sort of perfunctory dish I actually stay away from Chinese restaurants to avoid.

On the other hand, there's always dessert. I could almost imagine coming to Loretta's just for that chocolate cake.

Suggested dishes: spiced cabbage, $6.50; house special shrimp, $10.95; braised lobster, $19.95; chocolate cake, $3.25.

Loretta's Szechwan and Peking Cuisine, 163 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. (213) 659-7896. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 p.m to midnight; weekend dim sum brunch. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$70.

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