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May 9, 2007 11:29 AM

The Wayback Machine: Foo Chow in Chinatown (loooong)

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.

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  1. Foo Chow is a deal for lunch Monday-Friday. They got lunch specials including egg flower soup, entree, bowl of rice, tea & fortune cookie starting at $2.99.

    My experience for dinner has been kind of hit and miss. Realized my go-to place in Chinatown is now Hop Li.

    1. Years and years ago, my parents took my sisters and myself because their friends had shown them this really tasty dumpling soup there.

      Of course, this is all colored by nostalgia now, but the dumplings in the soup were some kind of dumpling within a dumpling. Really tasty. I don't know the name, but it's worth asking about next time you find yourself there.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Pei

        Sad to say my initiation to Foo Chow was inspired by the movie Rush Hour.

        1. re: monku

          Sad to say, my fiance's initiation to Foo Chow has been hindered by the movie Rush Hour! He refuses to go because he's convinced it's a tourist trap. I'm going to show him this thread to try and change his mind.

          Then again, he recently saw Jackie Chan eating at his favorite dim sum/seafood place (Sea Harbor on Rosemead) so maybe he'll consider that Jackie Chan might actually have good taste in restaurants.

      2. This is interesting. I decided to try it myself when Rush Hour came out (yeah, cheesy) and found the food bland. Sounds like it's changed?

        3 Replies
        1. re: yum4fun

          You have to stay on the Special Style menu. Their other stuff is gwai lo fodder. I've never tasted it, and see no reason to.

          1. re: Will Owen

            Wonderful and fun review! I'll probably never get there, but will have your description in lieu of the real thing.

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Really...the lunch specials are pretty good--just don't get the orange flavored chicken.

        2. Don't they have the Fuzhou fish balls there? (These are fish balls with a core of ground pork.) Ubiquitous throughout Manhattan and Philadelphia Chinatown but a scarcity in Los Angeles.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Chandavkl

            Those must have been the things I remembered as dumplings soup! They had that years ago, it's worth a call to see if they still do.

            1. re: Chandavkl

              My wife's family is from Fuzhou and this restaurant is the closest she's found to Chinese cuisine from her native province. She comes back here to buy the Fuzhou fish balls to make at home. I too was scared to death of eating here, but after the first time, I was pleasantly surprised and based on your review, I think it's time to pay another visit. Thanks!

            2. Good grief, this place is god awful, and that includes items on the Special Style menu. I was there a few months ago and had that red wine sauce dish with chicken, and some other items. The chicken was overcooked, and all the dishes were heavy and tasted like they had been sitting around, even though they just came out of the wok.
              The entire menu looked catered to tourists and folks who don't eat much Chinese food. I was so embarrassed that I took my mom there.

              4 Replies
              1. re: slacker

                As all four of our party regularly eat Chinese food, and qualified as tourists only in that we don't live in Chinatown, I must conditionally disagree with your conclusions. I say "conditionally" because, yes, most of their customers are probably tourists - the forks are a dead giveaway there! - and most of their menu is the heavily Americanized "Chinese" you can find in Louisville or Cedar Rapids. I'm sorry you did not enjoy your meal; we did, but we weren't expecting too much more than Yang Chow-level adequacy, and were pleasantly surprised. We intend to return there, and if we find that our first meal was a lucky fluke, I will certainly say so.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  I've been eating Chinese food from birth, and have expanded on the various regional cuisines, but this place has no appeal to me, and in fact I think I prefer Yang Chow a little more.
                  At Foo Chow, they sat us upstairs and naturally gave us chopsticks. Upstairs is nicer in that it's far from the madding crowd. The tables in the ground level dining room are too crammed together, so upstairs was good.
                  Maybe I'll give it another try, and might have a different take on it. But that may not happen unless by some miracle a parking spot on Hill is available.

                  1. re: slacker

                    There's a no-time-limit $3 lot just uphill from the Gold Line station on College where we always park when we drive to Chinatown. We always figure on walking all over the place anyway, and this is a good central location.

                    Thanks for the info - I was curious about the upstairs space. I have to say that on Saturday the crowd wasn't TOO madding - in fact, the only rowdy kids we saw there came down from upstairs!

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Probably the kids of the people who work there. I've been there a few times and the kids running around belonged to the employees.

                      I was there for lunch one day and asked what was upstairs (thinking they shot the scene from Rush Hour up there) and they kind of shined it off as there was nothing up there.

                      I wouldn't go to Foo Chow's for anything but their lunch specials. I think its just OK-if they can't wow me at lunch they aren't going to get me there for dinner. I really wouldn't go out of my way otherwise.

                      There is a wide selection of lunch specials ranging from $2.99-$5.99 (seafood items)--they are smaller dishes which I'm pretty sure are representative of most of their menu entrees. A good way to "sample" the wares with a few people without going overboard.

                      If you're lucky and cruise by at 11am-11:30am for lunch there are some parking spaces right out front, otherwise I think I saw a sign that says they validate across the street at Bamboo Plaza where Empress Pavillion is, but I wouldn't count on more than a one hour validation.