It's not easy to find good Chinese cooking in Orange County. I don't mean the new-style Chinese cuisine offered at Five Feet and China 88 in Laguna Beach; that style, a colorful mix of East and West, is something else.
I'm talking about simple dishes like pot stickers, smoked pork and salty duck, the sort of stuff you can easily get in the San Gabriel Valley, where good Chinese restaurants number in the hundreds.
China Best in Cypress may be the one local exception, a real mom-and-pop operation belonging to a family named Hsu. The restaurant, a modest-looking dinner house next to the Los Alamitos Race Course, has been open four years. But I didn't learn about it until recently; I must have driven it by a hundred times before finally stopping in. What a waste of gas.
The restaurant isn't fancy looking. Its cushy brown vinyl booths look like holdovers from a '50s coffee shop, but wan lighting and worn glass table tops make the surroundings seem less attractive than they are. Wooden ceiling panels are emblazoned with the legendary phoenix symbol, colorful Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling, and a multitude of Chinese paintings stick to the walls.
Chef Hsu Mu-Yen is a native of Taiwan, meaning that much of what he cooks has been influenced by the Fukien and Shanghai provinces across the water on the Chinese mainland. Hsu makes amazing Peking duck, incredible home-smoked bacon, terrific fish in garlic sauce.
I love to begin a meal here with a plate of the chef's cold dishes: Chicken in wine sauce is a classic preparation made with rice wine, all pungent flavors and soft flesh. Don't order it if you are put off by the sight of a little red close to the bone (that's the way it's supposed to look).
Salt-spice spring duckling is more reminiscent of a confit, despite being chopped into chunks, and seems even saltier than its French cousin.
Pork with garlic sauce, sliced sashimi-thin, is on the well-done side, served slightly warm and blanketed in a sauce consisting mostly of crushed garlic. You'll also find Taiwanese peasant dishes like shredded pig's ear in hot sauce, which is both gelatinous and crunchy.
Soups make wonderful second courses, especially with Hsu's crisp-skinned and juicy pot stickers, possibly Orange County's best. Winter melon soup has a clear broth flavored with ham and soft pieces of the stringy squash-like vegetable.
Think of the restaurant's Westlake beef soup as a more grown-up version of egg-drop, filled in with minced beef and a handful of fragrant cilantro. The shredded-ginger-and-baby-oyster soup is Taiwan-inspired, a mix of Japanese and Chinese flavors.
If you have time to plan a dinner here, Hsu's Peking duck--a masterpiece of lacquered skin, remarkably lean meat and soft bones--should follow the soup course. At $19.95 it is by far the most expensive item on the menu, and you need to order it two days in advance. The duck is carved and served inside crepes with scallions and pungent plum sauce.
Hsu also makes tea-smoked duck with camphor and tea leaves; at $7.50, it's less expensive, but drier-tasting than the Peking duck.
Whole fish--black perch, rock cod or catfish, whichever Hsu has around at the moment--are cooked with Chinese salt, dried bean paste, whole cloves of crushed garlic. Hsu's simple, wonderfully full-flavored cured pork with leeks might easily be called too salty, but so can Smithfield ham, the closest thing in taste and texture to this pork.
"Ants climbing tree," the noodle dish with the unappetizing name, is one of my favorites--bean thread noodles (the same ones Thais call glass noodles) sauteed with minced pork and a bit of crushed red chili to liven things up.
Lemon chicken, usually a sugary mess, is treated reverently--it gets a light breading and a subtle lemon-flavored sauce.
Vegetables such as dao mew (pea shoots) and ordinary leaf spinach are lightly stir-fried in oil and allowed to stand on their own.
All meals end with orange slices and fortune cookies, making you feel as if you have been beamed back into a typical Orange County Chinese restaurant. It's comes as a timely jolt. I mean, did you really want to face a long drive after a big meal?
China Best is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95. Soups are $3.95 to $5.95. Main dishes are $3.95 to $19.95.
* CHINA BEST
* 4758 Lincoln Ave., Cypress.
* (714) 827-8170.
* Lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10 p.m.
* MasterCard and Visa accepted.