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STATION MASTER : From Thai-Dyed Chicken to Atomic Shrimp, Torrance’s Depot Is on the Right Track

You are in the South Bay, eating something called “Thai-dyed chicken” accompanied by a sort of deep-fried flauta made from a won-ton skin rolled tightly around black-bean paste. And you know very well that Robert Bell and Michael Franks must have something to do with this.

When Bell and Franks opened Chez Melange in Redondo Beach in 1982, the South Bay was well off the beaten freeway for adventurous dining. To a lot of people’s surprise, they proved the area had a clientele for eclectic, offbeat food, and in the process they became the local czars de cuisine. They’ve gone on to establish a pan-Mediterranean restaurant called Fino and a cafe-bakery, Misto, both in Torrance.

Depot--home of the Thai-dyed chicken--is their classiest-looking place yet. They stripped the walls of Old Town Torrance’s 1912 Red Car electric-railway station down to the bricks, but then (good news) lightly whitewashed them so you don’t get the usual bricks-in-the-face effect.

The main room is dominated by big, square, black whatchamacallits--sometimes they’re pilasters (when flattened against a wall), sometimes free-standing pylons in the middle of the room looking as if they ought to be holding something up. Basically, they’re gigantic supports for little Moderne-style sconces. Smaller chambers branch off the main dining room, one of them featuring a table flooded with a blaze of light from an overhead lamp, like a competition pool table.

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The tiny, crowded bar feels more packed than it is because of the angled mirrors near the ceiling. Here you can get cocktails or micro-brewery beers in heavy, foot-high glasses and a range of bar snacks: raw clams, oysters, tuna or salmon and a few cooked items such as Cha Cha’s atomic shrimp--viz., three non-explosive shrimp with sweet peppers and little dabs of an odd but pleasant brownish mayonnaise flavored with dark beer and garlic.

You can get this bar menu in the big rooms as well, but the best starter there might be the lamb posole. This one pulls no punches: a peppery broth full of hominy with a good jolt of cilantro plus raw cabbage and radish shreds and some smoky grilled lamb.

On the other hand, maybe the rock shrimp with luscious twice-baked garlic sausages is best, served in its sauce of mirin (sweet rice wine), butter and soy. As the bar makes a specialty of beer, chef Michael Shafer appropriately puts several unusual and very good sausages on this menu.

This menu changes a little all the time, making eating here a bit of a crapshoot. I’ve seen two versions of the crab appetizer: a crab-cake flauta with a somewhat stodgy crab filling and much better fried crab won-tons filled with crab, ginger and greens. The won-tons were prettier, too, dribbled with creme fraiche in enamel-like patterns.

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I suspect the three-flavored Thai dumplings--very classical Southeast Asian dumplings with neat flanges crisscrossing the top--also may have changed. The menu says the three fillings are lamb, smoked scallops and shrimp, but I once bit into one that tasted exactly like barbecued pork. In keeping with the micro-brewery motif, the dumplings are steamed in Red Tail Ale; another appetizer is salmon cured in Rattlesnake Lager.

You can’t open a restaurant these days without serving pasta, and Depot makes some nice ones, notably the fettuccine with rosemary-roasted potatoes in a Gorgonzola sauce with the sweet-sour tang of balsamic vinegar. The only drab dish I’ve had here, though, was bow-tie pasta with marinara. “We have to serve it,” the chef confessed to me. “This is a marinara-sauce neighborhood.”

I don’t know. Steak is at least as basic as marinara, and Depot does a steak that needs no apology--a filet topped with whole-seed mustard and crisply fried onion threads. On the side: an individual Yorkshire pudding (think of it as a popover) with green onions and Depot’s usual vegetables--carrots, snow peas, garlicky red cabbage, a single Brussels sprout (surprisingly al dente ) and a delicious slice of grilled crookneck squash.

Most of the entrees, though, are well above the marinara level. Seafood melange consists of salmon, grilled scallops and juicy rock-shrimp sausages, all brushed with lime and green-chile oil; on the side, along with the usual vegetables, comes a somewhat odd non-sweet bread pudding, a cakey thing that gives the impression of a cornless corn bread.

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The Big Cat Mixed Grill serves as this menu’s meat melange: a small but superb lamb chop, a larger chunk of filet and a somewhat dry chicken sausage. If I were really going for meat, though, I’d take the honey-glazed ribs. The kitchen uses the same flanken cut of ribs found in the Korean dish kalbi but makes them sweeter by marinating them in soy, ginger, honey and a good sweetish stout from Mendocino called Old Engine 38.

Altogether there’s a lot of sweetness going on here, but most of it is under control. The Thai-dyed chicken comes in a peppery, sweet glaze like a barbecue sauce. Medallions of pork tenderloin glazed with candied-plum-and-port sauce don’t come out as sweet as the dish sounds--but not quite as exciting, either. The mashed, dried figs that garnish the three-chop rack of lamb don’t make a lot of sense in the dish, but they do top excellent lamb, and the accompanying barley-and-vegetable stew is satisfyingly rich with meat glaze.

Among the desserts, I like the cornmeal peach cobbler--not really a cobbler but a two-crust pie with a thick peach filling and a subtle crunch of cornmeal, accompanied by vanilla ice cream. I don’t like the hot doughnuts, mainly because they taste like pancakes rather than doughnuts.

Most of the rest of the desserts involve chocolate. You can get a pecan-chocolate brownie or a collection of fresh cookies with a hot-fudge sauce for dipping. The truly insane will go for the chocolate bento box, which resembles a roofless bungalow constructed with bars of chocolate for the walls, all the rooms being filled with candied nuts, dried fruit, chocolate ice cream or vanilla Bavarian cream.

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I hope the Depot can keep chugging. This may be a marinara neighborhood, but that shouldn’t keep people from sampling Thai-dyed chicken with black-bean twists.

Depot, 1250 Cabrillo Ave., Torrance; (310) 787-7501. Lunch served daily Monday through Friday; dinner served Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.


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