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Hong Kong Chow 

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
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Empress Pavilion-- A recent meal at Empress Pavilion included shiitake mushrooms braised with snow-pea leaves - a musky combination that somehow breathed summer - and Chinese water spinach sauteed with blindingly pungent fermented soy. You will also find Cantonese classics here, most of them done extremely well: steamed rock cod drizzled with crackling oil, searing-hot clay pots of chicken with caramelized eggplant, Hong Kong-style shrimp with sweet mayonnaise and candied walnuts, shrimp-stuffed bean curd steamed to a puddingy softness. The blue ribbon, however, goes to the steamed Dungeness crab with garlic and flat noodles. The meat, which has that high vanilla sweetness you hope to find in utterly fresh crustaceans, is swollen with the taste of fresh chopped garlic, which blankets the dish in snowy-white drifts but also manages to work its way into the deepest recesses of the creature, rewarding the most perfunctory sucking. 988 N. Hill St., Chinatown; (213) 617-9898. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$56. Full bar. Separate dim sum takeout. Validated lot parking. AE, MC, V.

Happy Valley-- If you've spent any time in Cantonese seafood joints, you can probably recite Happy Valley's menu here before the waiter sets it down. There's an incredible scallop and dried-scallop soup, the marine sweetness of the one scallop bouncing off the subtle smokiness of the other in a cornstarch-thickened base. Sizzling-hot casseroles are wonderful: Ask for the hot pot with roast pork and oysters, plump and fresh in a fine, briny gravy. Shrimp with spicy salt are deep-fried to impeccable crispness, peppery enough to leave your lips tingling. And then there are the live-seafood tanks, where Exhibit A is the Alaskan king crab, a gnarled old monster who looms over the lobsters, giant oysters and fresh flounder the way Gamera did over Tokyo. 407 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown; (213) 617-3662. Open Thurs.- Tues. noon-3 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$24 (and up - way up - if you order live seafood). Beer and wine. Takeout. Validated parking. MC, V.

Lucky Deli-- Certain alleys in Chinatown are alive with the glorious high aroma of garlic, star anise and charring, sugary poultry drippings that usually signify ducks in the oven. (When the breeze is right, you can smell ducks on the wind as far away as City Hall.) And Cantonese roast duck - not Peking duck, not pi-pa duck, not salty simmered duck - may be the most popular duck dish in Chinatown. And the best Cantonese roast duck in Chinatown, a sweet, garlicky bird, tinged with char, as smoke-ruddy as great barbecue and somehow both chewy and filled with juice, comes from Lucky Deli, which encompasses both the actual delicatessen and the extremely basic cafe next door. This place has been in Chinatown so long that it tends to be taken for granted, but with duck roasting, as with so many things, sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best. 706 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 625-7847. Open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5-$10. No alcohol. Takeout. Valet parking. Cash only.

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Luk Yue-- Everybody at Luk Yue seems to start with golden wedges of fried stuffed bean curd dunked in bowls of soy-based sauce and eaten while they're still hot enough to blister your tongue. There's also excellent Cantonese barbecue: soy-sauce chicken, pork hock, crispy roast duck, served both straight up and over rice. "Assorted barbecue rice" comes in a superheated clay pot and is flavored with the juices of roasted sausages, pork hock and Chinese slab bacon, which moisten the rice into sort of a Chinese risotto. The spare-ribs-with-black-bean-sauce-and-rice clay pot, powerfully scented with ginger, is even better, the kind of rank, powerful, utterly delicious Cantonese soul food that never makes it farther than the staff meal at Chinese restaurants swankier than this. 123 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-2888. Open daily 7 a.m.-3 a.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$12. No alcohol. Guarded lot parking. Cash only.

May Flower-- May Flower is where to find perfect Cantonese beef stew, long-braised, anise-flavored chunks of brisket and meltingly tender beef tendon; or plates of sweet, crisp-skinned "village-baked" chicken; or stewed pig's trotters, slithery and delicious. And if you've looked down your nose at won ton since you were a kid, this is the place to try them again, herbed pork balls wrapped around bits of shrimp crunchy enough to remind you of water chestnuts, and in turn wrapped with floppy cloaks of pasta. Even better, there's the Cantonese rice porridge jook - thick and savory and shot through with spicy strands of fresh ginger - that comes in basically every combination. Try jook with peanuts. Or with village-baked chicken. Or with strips of tripe. Or with the house combination of chicken, shrimp, liver and kidney, which flavors every drop. It's the jook to have when you think there's no place like home. 800 Yale St., Chinatown; (213) 626-7113. Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5-$10. No alcohol. Cash only.

St. Honore-- Probably the best of the local Hong Kong coffee shops, a Chinese Ship's (R.I.P.) in a sea of Chinese Sizzlers, St. Honore is a fun scene, at least if you're fond of big meat in brown gravy: pork chops with mushrooms, Portuguese chicken (Macao style), ox tongue with onions, grilled chicken with bacon, a rather gamy-tasting filet mignon in black-pepper sauce - all served with French fries, vegetables, and a big plate of white rice or indelibly garlicked spaghetti. The best stuff here, however, tends to be that which is most Chinese: chow fun noodles with bitter Chinese greens; complex, curry-tinged Singapore-style vermicelli fried with bits of meat and seafood; Hainan chicken with garlicky rice and a pungent ginger dip. And, oh yes, the desserts: Fountain drinks in little glass snowmen - especially the subtle, delicious red-bean ice - are first-rate, a night of serious drinking all by themselves. 141 N. Atlantic Blvd. (in Mar Center), Monterey Park; (626) 281-3281. Open 24 hours, seven days. Dinner for two, food only, $8-$25. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V.

Seaworld-- At dinner, the king-size Cantonese restaurant Seaworld gears up for the banquet crowd, which comes for specialties such as superbly crisp Hong Kong fried chicken, lacquer-skinned and accompanied by a small dish of pepper-salt as a dip; for braised ducks' feet served with crunchy, pungent mustard greens; for simply steamed geoduck. The rage in high-end Cantonese places these days is for a mixture of seafood with Western sweets, and one of the best - and most unusual - of Seaworld's dishes involves shrimp garnished with Twinkie-shaped crullers of deep-fried sweet custard, which works better than you might think it would. Another dish, of crunchy fried shrimp tossed in something like hot Miracle Whip and garnished with candied walnuts, is pretty darn good if you ignore the fact that the combination is, after all, pretty darn weird. 8118 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (626) 288-2898. Open seven days for breakfast (dim sum), lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$32. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.

Victoria Seafood-- Victoria Seafood is a small box of a place, in the heart of Chinese Monterey Park, with big glass fish tanks wedged into every cranny: tanks filled with geoduck clams, hundreds of them lolling out of their undersize shells; tanks with dozens of mossy hard-shell crabs, bound and gagged; tanks with big, thick-lipped fish that stare dolefully out into the room like Edward G. Robinson. Later, great platters come piled high with the excellent Chinese squid, dipped in a thin batter of spicy salt, fried to an exquisite crunchiness and served with a garnish of sliced chiles softened in oil. The Cantonese dried-scallop soup is thick, peppery, crowded with shredded root vegetables and crunchy tree-ear fungus, and speckled with chewy bits of dried scallops, which add a sort of pleasant, postcoital pungency to the broth. 143 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-5921. Open daily 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$30; much more with live seafood. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.

 

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