- Reporters Desk
By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Restaurant Writer
Despite the belief that modern foodies are more adventurous than previous generations, Americans have been eating Chinese food of various levels of authenticity for more than 150 years.
For instance, a banquet attended by a San Francisco food critic in 1865 included reindeer sinews (tendons), bird’s nest soup and braised dried oysters. That intrepid writer was more adventurous than most of his countrymen, then or now. Chinese in America invented a blander, simpler, meatier version of their cuisine, which became the first popular exotic dining experience in America. Restaurants serving it developed a distinctive visual signature that included red walls, paper lanterns and keyhole-shaped doorways.
That cuisine and environment are on display in an unlikely space: at Fu Yuan Low, a warehouse-like restaurant on a back street behind the Peninsula Center in Rolling Hills Estates. Despite the Peninsula Center address, the main entrance is on Indian Peak Road. The employees at Fu Yuan Low are used to lost people who phone them after circling the parking lot on the other side of the building. Once inside the nondescript grey building, you’re in Chinatown and it’s 1960. Servers in sober black and white glide through a maze of rooms full of paintings of sages and courtesans, tapestries of improbably tall mountains with tiny people picnicking and drinking tea, and artfully arranged flowers—both real and silk.
The menu is as classic as the décor. And, if you think of a Chinese dish you enjoyed as a child, it’s probably here. We sorted through the list while snacking on the inevitable crispy noodles with sweet and sour sauce and sipping tea.
After considering a few retro appetizers like paper-wrapped chicken and teriyaki beef skewers, we decided to skip straight to the soup, ordering hot and sour because that’s usually a reliable guide to the kitchen. The authentic soup is made from chicken stock with vegetables and a hefty shot of vinegar, heat from both red and white pepper and ginger, a fair amount of tree ear mushroom, and some chopped scallions tossed in at the last minute. Recipes vary. Some places toss in fresh mushrooms and a drizzle of fragrant sesame oil, but at the heart is a flavor balance of rich stock, vinegar and spiciness. The stock here had the balance about right but was muted; the heat and vinegar were overtones and there were no scallions, mushrooms or other elements to make it distinctive.
The soup was mild but had some flavor, while the moo-shu shrimp that followed crossed the line into bland. This is never a highly seasoned dish, but good moo-shu has interest thanks to a mix of cooked vegetables with raw cucumber in a sauce with a little vinegar and shaoxing cooking wine, topped off with a little sweet plum sauce. The version here had no cucumber or scallion and no full flavors to balance the sweet sauce, so the fruity plum took over. We looked for some chili paste or the other condiments that are often on tables at Chinese restaurants, but none were available and our server had disappeared. We were a bit glum as we contemplated the arrival of four more dishes as uninspired as these.
Fortunately, that was the point at which the meal improved dramatically. Our main courses were Mongolian lamb, shrimp in yu-shong sauce, a house special glass noodle meatballs and pork fried rice. The chef had apparently found both the fresh ginger and the scallions while making the Mongolian lamb. It was a very good rendition of the classic. The shrimp in yu-shong sauce was even zippier and if you know the popular dish called General Tso’s chicken you have a pretty good idea of what this is, because it’s the same sauce. General Tso’s was invented in New York by a Taiwanese chef who based it on a traditional simmering mix of two types each of soy sauce, vinegar and peppercorns with sugar, garlic and ginger. It’s great as a finishing sauce for a mix of shrimp, zucchini, onion and water chestnuts, and it’s probably my favorite dish here.
Unless … unless, I decide that I like the meatballs better and that’s a hard decision because they’re completely different dishes. The large pork meatballs were stewed in a rich but mildly seasoned broth with thin rice noodles and bok choy, then topped with a little raw onion and a bit of grated ginger. The marvelous thing about these was the texture; they were fluffy and light while still delivering plenty of porky richness. This is comfort food, pure and simple, a satisfying stew that tastes like mama made it.
The fried rice was the only item of this course that failed to please, as it had little or no seasoning or soy sauce and hadn’t spent much time in the wok to give the rice any texture. It was OK as a platform for the shrimp and lamb, but not something I’d get again.
Our dinner for four ran $113 with three glasses of wine — they have a full liquor license and offer cocktails, plum wine and sake, but we decided to keep it simple.
Fu Yuan Low isn’t the most authentic Chinese restaurant in the area and it’s obviously not trying to be. Those who crave Chinese regional flavors will find have to leave the hill for Lomita, Torrance and points north and east. The Chinese-American flavors that have been satisfying Californian palates since Gold Rush days are offered here. If that’s what you like, here’s where you go.
Fu Yuan Low is at 26-F Peninsula Center in Rolling Hills Estates. The entrance is on Indian Peak. There are vegetarian and vegan items.
Details: (310) 541-0803