Valley Chinese restaurants have been uniformly unimpressive during my tenure at Valley Life! The vast majority of them serve faux -Northern Chinese food made with too much cornstarch, sugar and MSG.
That's changing. With the recent additions of 99 Market and the snazzy new Sam Woo in Van Nuys, an invasion of Chinese food businesses from the San Gabriel Valley is evidently under way.
But hold on. A modest Reseda establishment with the heady name A & W B.B.Q. Seafood Restaurant is still, until these new kids on the block prove otherwise, the preeminent Valley stop for an authentic Chinese meal. I visited the restaurant repeatedly last week. The cooking is better than ever.
It certainly has the authentic look of a serious Chinese place. Hanging chickens and the medicinally sweet scent of star anise are about the only things you could call decoration in this brightly lit, slightly run-down dining room, where the cross-cultural bonus of a TV tuned in to the NBA Playoffs colored my last visit.
Most tables are expandable and have Lazy Susans built into their centers. In addition to being kid-friendly, the concept is designed for the families and other large parties that congregate most evenings. To take advantage of A & W's 220-item menu, I heartily recommend that you come in a large party too.
The waitresses speak English, though in somewhat minimalist fashion. (The menu is written in four languages: Chinese, English, Vietnamese and Cambodian.) A server will come by, write down your choices and then fly away. Don't expect her to coddle the inexperienced diner or warn you away from the more unfamiliar dishes.
One thing that makes this restaurant unusual is the fact that it specializes in both barbecue and live seafoods. In areas populated more heavily by ethnic Chinese, it's mostly one specialty or the other. Happily, the restaurant appears to be equally competent in both styles of cooking.
A & W doesn't have the usual spring roll-type appetizers, so start a meal with some of the barbecue specialties, also available by the pound for takeout. The menu lists 13 barbecue items in all, and if you order a mixed platter (not listed on the menu, but they'll do it for you on request), they'll probably give you four or five of them. We got a couple of pieces of roast duck, a pile of ruddy, sweet-edged char siu (barbecued pork), some roast suckling pig with the skin on and a few chunks of soy sauce chicken.
An unusual treat is intestines in special soy sauce--firm, chewy tripe with a sweet soy aftertaste. Lovers of barbecued spare ribs need to come early in the evening. Twice when I've tried to order ribs, the kitchen had run out.
If I were dining with one guest, I'd probably have some barbecue, one of the seafood dishes and a vegetable. If you have a large party, though, you can explore A & W's extensive menu more thoroughly.
My strategy would include the wonderful baked crab with ginger and green onion, a plate of baked shrimp with spicy salt (in the shell), fresh Pacific clams in black bean sauce and perhaps a scallop dish, before progressing to vegetables, noodles and the crowning touch to any real southern Chinese meal, a whole steamed fish. And if you have a still larger party (or appetite), you could throw in some meat dishes--the trusty favorite known as pan-fried pork ribs, or the dependable Hong Kong steak, a tender flank steak served with a spicy brown sauce. The best vegetable isn't on the menu. It's watercress sauteed with garlic and oil--symphonically delicious. If that isn't available, grab an order of pea shoots ( dou mieu ). These long, leafy stalks are a delightful break from the Chinese broccoli and leafy vegetables our Chinese restaurants rely on.
The rice noodles ( chow fun ) are tender and delicious, and the kitchen pan-fries them with a minimum of oil.
I've been disappointed by the gummy, insipid rice dishes, though, perhaps the only failing of this otherwise careful kitchen. The porridge known as congee (in Cantonese, juk ) is more filling and satisfying than most of them; try it Chiu Chow style, with crunchy beef and fish balls.
Fish are plucked live out of the aquarium in the corner: catfish, rock cod and the low-priced tilapia. We had the smallest tilapia in the tank, about 1 1/2 pounds, for less than $7. The kitchen cooked it simply, steaming and then covering the fish with a blanket of scallion, ginger and lemon grass. It was an Indochinese touch in an otherwise purely Cantonese dinner--in a way, a reminder that things are changing in the Valley's Chinese dining scene.
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WHERE AND WHEN
Location: A & W B.B.Q. Seafood Restaurant, 7213 Reseda Blvd., Reseda.
Suggested Dishes: barbecued meats, $3.50 to $12; crab with ginger and green onion, market price; baked shrimp with spicy salt, $7.95; clam with black bean, $6.75; pan-fried pork ribs, $6.75; Chiu Chow congee, $3.25.
Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Price: Dinner for two, $14 to $35. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.
Call: (818) 342-0990.