Carl Chu, self-taught Chinese Food scholar and author of "Finding Chinese Food in LA", told us during a question-and-answer session at the Pacific Asia Museum that Foo Chow, the place on the south side of Hill Street with the Jackie Chan mural all over it, is one of his favorite places. It looks like a tourist trap, he said, but offers really good and authentic food from their "Special Style" menu. That was over a year ago, and we'd never gotten around to checking it out until last Saturday afternoon, when on a semi-impromptu Chinatown excursion with Mrs. O's brother and his wife, we decided to forego our usual Chinese-Vietnamese C-town meal and travel back in time. Or at least across Hill Street...
There wasn't a lot of gratuitous graciousness here: we were led to a four-top right by the kitchen/restroom corridor, menus were flung down, tea was flung down, then we were ignored for a while. The "Foo Chow Special Style" menu is a long and winding road indeed, with lots of plain-as-day descriptions and a few seriously cryptic ones. Carl Chu had highly recommended the Red Wine Sauce dishes as both thoroughly authentic (as one might not assume) and very good, and there were five or six different ones offered. We thought the conch sounded intriguing. Mrs. O and I both thought that Deep Fried Crispy Boneless Eel sounded like a really good idea, and I was attracted to the Foo-Chow Style Cabbage with Noodles. As we'd limited ourselves to four dishes this left us a lot of ground to cover, which I think we did with Fried Seafood with Meat and Vegetable, featuring "shrimp, sea cucumber, dried squids, scallops, crab meat, black mushroom and vegetable." The waiter informed us that the conch was all gone, so we defaulted to pork as we so frequently do. We also asked for chopsticks, please, and subsequently found ourselves the only party in the place not using forks!
Foo-Chow Style Cabbage with Noodles: make that "noodles with maybe some cabbage in there somewhere," which rather disappointed me, but it was very tasty anyway. There were slivers of char siu roast pork scattered through it, and while it offered no real distinctive flavors it backed up the showier dishes very well. I could have this for breakfast.
Deep Fried Crispy Boneless Eel: this looked scary! A big pile of massive fingers of deepfried crust, colored that alarming magenta you see in sweet-and-sour dishes on Hawaiian buffets. But this was not sweet at all; the eel was light and tender, and delicious under its crunchy, completely greaseless coating.
Sliced Pork with Red Wine Sauce: thin slices, a few quite bony, all a little chewy and very flavorful. The wine sauce tasted like something a very good French chef would make if he were stuck in a Chinese kitchen: quite rich in flavor, smooth and thick, with a gentle but unmistakeable presence of five-spice. A wonderful dish, and I do want to try the other versions.
Fried Seafood and Meat with Vegetable: we never did figure out what "vegetable" was, and the prime candidate may or may not have been a vegetable at all: Bro-in-law thought the sort of starchy round cup-shaped things might be the sea cucumber, though it seemed really veg-like to me. Anyway, this was the dish I'd order if I were lunching alone, with a good array of perfectly-cooked shrimps, frilled squid fingers, and way too few but wonderful scallops, and of course quite a few mushrooms, all in your standard but most satisfactory Chinese Restaurant Sauce.
Much to our astonishment, we actually cleaned off every platter, and though no longer really interested in food we could still walk. The total came to $35 and change with tax but before tip.