The Gossiping Gourmet: Healthy Chinese food at California Wok

T'was the season to be jolly but now tis the season of our discontent. We are unhappy with the size of our bank accounts and even more dismayed by the size of our waistlines.

Yet don't despair, we have discovered a sweet little place in a strip mall in Costa Mesa called California Wok that offers very healthy Chinese food for a very good price. It's located in a little Asian enclave on South Bristol Street near the big Mitsuwa Japanese market. The same strip mall is home to a Korean barbecue place, a Japanese restaurant, a pan Asian spot and Orchid, an Iranian restaurant.

California Wok's menu includes calorie, net carb and saturated fat counts for the majority of their dishes. The ones without these numbers are not considered low calorie but are still lighter with less intense flavors than traditional fare. All the food could be called Chinese-lite, with seasonings more delicate and everything less oily.

What distinguishes the food here is that they seem to use only the best and freshest quality produce and proteins. They specifically mention that they use a much higher quality of beef than most Chinese restaurants.

Sitting in this modest but clean and pleasant storefront locale, we perused the menu and were surprised by the variety of choices. Among the many categories are steamed and low-carb entrées.

You go up to the counter to order but your food is delivered to the table. Beverages and condiments are self-serve. Our advice is to order one or two dishes at a time or they will all come out in rapid succession and cool down before you can eat them. All dishes can be ordered spicy on request.

We started out with steamed chicken dumplings that were chock-full of lightly seasoned minced chicken. These were clearly made fresh in-house. They are served with white vinegar but concocting a sauce is up to you. The condiment table has hot chili, hoisin, mustard, sweet and sour sauces, and soy sauce also is on the table.

A very delicious broth made for some excellent wonton soup. The large bowl was filled with tender shrimp and chicken breast as well as a generous amount of whole white mushrooms and sweet snow peas, just warmed in the broth so that they tasted fresh and crunchy.

Equally fresh and flavorful was the bright green mountain of slightly al dente broccoli studded with more of that tender shrimp. The dish was seasoned with a subtle, slightly sweet, broth-like sauce with just a drop of oil. Not only was it delicious but a portion was only 180 calories. When we asked the counter person how many portions there were on that big plate, she said all the dishes are portioned for two. To our minds, it would easily have served four.

From the House Specials category, we chose filet of sole with black bean sauce. Although this was not listed as a low-calorie dish, the black bean sauce was definitely lighter than any we've ever tasted but still one of the most delicious. The perfectly steamed fish tasted so fresh, and was complemented by onions and green bell peppers in the delicately salty sauce.

We found the mu shu chicken to be rather bland. Although it was also not a low-calorie listing, it was made with egg whites instead of whole eggs and was predominantly mixed vegetables, with just a little chicken. It lacked depth of flavor and needed more seasoning, even with the addition of hoisin sauce on the pancakes.

At the end of the meal, each of the three of us took home enough leftovers for another dinner. As we were walking out, we noticed three young men slurping up freshly made Chinese noodles from a big bowl of beef stew noodle soup that looked delish. Maybe next time.

California Wok does a large takeout business and does delivery within a four-mile radius.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

California Wok

Where: 3033 Bristol St., Suite H, Costa Mesa

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays

Prices:

Appetizers and soups: $4.80-$6.95

Entrées: $5.15-$12.70

No alcohol or dessert

Information: (714) 751-0673 or calwokoc.com

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