It's a ubiquitous foodie refrain: There's no good Chinese on the Westside. Followed immediately by foodie Verse Two, the commandment Go east. Since the demise of Royal Star Seafood at Stanford Avenue and Wilshire, which was aspirational at best, there is nothing like the San Gabriel Valley's ethnic and authentic multitudes available anywhere out west. (Should you eat at the sports bar South in the former Royal Star space, whose faux-soul menu would feel right at home on a Disneyland riverboat ride to Tom Sawyer Island, you will weep for the passing of Royal Star.) But we all have cravings, and we don't always have the time or the inclination to burrow through traffic to gratify them.
So begins Squid Ink's exploration of Chinese cuisine within hailing distance of the 405–brief descriptions of food and atmosphere followed by one of three verdicts. Good Enough for the Westside: When trekking crosstown is not an option, worth an occasional sit-down meal. Good Enough for Take-Out: Some menu items pass muster, but Netflix streaming offers a warmer vibe than the dining room. And Just Not Good Enough: Give it up, get in the car (or–dare I dream?–the Expo line a decade from now), and do Chinese right. First candidate, California Wok.
California Wok specializes in the Chinese food you remember your grandfather eating, especially if you happen to be of Semitic extraction like myself. Sino-Yiddish ties run deep; Talmudic scholars have yet to determine why. Worn vinyl booths flank a fluorescent-lit dining room decorated with a few token items of Asian kitsch. A roster of stock Americo-Cantonese dishes and lunch specials–with requisite rice, egg roll, soup and “Chinese salad”–are brought to your table by tuxedo-shirted waiters. You'll need to remind them to refresh your tea.
With additional locations in Mid-City and Encino, the California Wok mini-chain positions itself as a healthy alternative to typical Chinese. The happy faces on the menu indicate dishes low in carbs or fat, and you'd be wise not to stray from Mr. Smiley. The low-cal items at the Bundy and Wilshire Wok–every one exceedingly mild and desperate for a shot of dark soy or chili oil–are light and freshly prepared. Recommended are garlic chicken, asparagus chicken and scallop with mushroom. The bean curd with spinach in brown gravy is especially vibrant, and steamed rice comes free with every a la carte order. Noodle and beef dishes disappoint. Avoid the sodden lo mein and the acrid crispy tangerine beef. Carbonized whole chili does not a “Szechuan sauce” make.
Verdict: Most a la carte chicken, veggie and seafood dishes Good Enough for Take-Out.
California Wok: 12004 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310) 207-2852.