You know that well-intentioned friend who always seems to give you poor restaurant recommendations? Yeah, that friend. We all have one. Well, mine recently led me to his favorite Chinese place, swearing that I would love it. Trusting him against my previous experience, I agreed to do dinner and schlepped out to the SFV.
Nope, that's not a typo: the San Fernando Valley.
It's not that the Valley is totally devoid of good Asian food. Lum-Ka-Naad is a great option for regional Thai cuisine. But it's definitely not the San Gabriel Valley, home to Mongolian hot pots, Wuxi <em>tang bao </em>and Chengdu <em>dan dan mien</em> galore. There's no Valley Boulevard that's home to 200 Chinese restaurants and serves as an Asian cultural center.
So it was against my better judgment that I ventured into Chi's Chinese Cuisine in Northridge, but I've come out of the experience wiser.
Chi's doesn't look like your usual takeout joint. A recent remodel features a beautiful wood-slatted ceiling, red Shanghai-style chandeliers, and upholstery you might expect to find at fine dining establishments. The menu offers glimmers of hope for authenticity, promising steamed fish and szechwan eggplant.
Looks can be deceiving, though. Rather than a whole branzino or sea bass, the fish is merely a soggy filet of sole, practically marinated in soy and topped with less-than-aromtic ginger. The eggplant was missing any regional influence, being a standard American vegetable with no chilies or peppercorn to be found. Ginger, garlic, and scallions - the three aromatics of Chinese cuisine - were largely missing in action throughout the meal, even within dishes that bore the ingredients in their name.
The overall theme of Chi's, like with most American Chinese joints, is a sweet sauciness that dominates dishes. Orange beef, while fried well, is cloyingly sugary, and the chow fun drips in a thick puddle of soy. A highlight of the night is the one dish that broke this trend: honey walnut shrimp with a cream sauce that clung to the lightly-battered prawns without glopping onto the plate.
The star menu item - and perhaps the only reason to visit Chi's over any other Chinese spot in the SFV - is the "spicy pizza," in which peanut sauce is ladeled over thick a but still flaky scallion pancake and topped with tender chicken breast, cilantro, and shredded carrots. To call this fusion food is an understatement - you've got Italian, classic Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese all rolled into one dish. Despite my initial eye roll and basement-level expectations, I'll admit that it was delicious enough to warrant a second slice.
At the end of the day, that food-ignorant friend hasn't regained my trust, but he hasn't sunk any lower in my book, either. There's worse Chinese food in the world, but you can be sure I'll never be fooled into trying any in the San Fernando Valley again.