Sucking in the '70s

Is this the one from Column A or Column B? Photo by Jonathan Ho.

Quentin Tarantino, take note. The setting for your next '70s chop-socky kung-fu film homage isn't in the Valley or a studio back lot. It's in Garden Grove, at a place called Wong's.

Although they started cooking back in 1952 in LA, Wong's has been at its current OC location since 1972. Throughout its lifespan, the world inside its doors has been set on pause, frozen in the age of leisure suits, 8-track tapes and Bruce Lee. We sat in a brown room with wood paneling, ornamental lamps with dangly tassels, cottage-cheese ceilings and aging leather booths that squeaked whenever we shifted.

And the cuisine we saw predated Panda Express by decades—culled from the same genre of Americanized Chinese food that fed the Baby Boomer generation. Think chop suey, egg foo young, and "sweet and sour" everything. Each had its own section on the menu, with at least four permutations using different meats. The mistake we made during our first visit was ignoring these items for more ambitious plates. The clue to stick with the basics should've been the complimentary bowl of crunchy fried noodles and the dipping saucer of ketchup. Yes, ketchup.

Instead, we chose the lobster Cantonese, even though our waitress, whom we liked immediately for her motherly charm, had a worried look on her face when we asked for it. What we got was some goopy, overly cornstarched gravy on a plate. Buried in the brown deluge were flecks of pork and a few anemic pieces of lobster: rubbery and ragged, chewy and tasteless. It would've been a disappointment at any price, but utterly depressing at $26.

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The next visit, we got smarter and took to the kind of dishes I'd consider blasphemous if we ordered them anywhere in the Chinese-food mecca of the San Gabriel Valley. I speak, of course, of beef and broccoli, lemon chicken, and sweet and sour pork. Though for starters, we couldn't resist trying the pu pu platter, a retro sampler of goodies including Chinese barbecue pork and egg rolls. Also present was an artery-clogging pair of butterflied shrimp, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried. Chicken livers got the same treatment, but this Hawaiian invention called rumaki, proved too, umm . . . livery. The tastiest pu pu was the foil-wrapped chicken: juicy, plump, all-white-meat triangles deeply marinated with rice wine.

The wor won ton soup was more produce than soup. Veggies, both of the fresh (baby bok choy, celery, snow peas) and canned (mushrooms, bamboo shoots) varieties joined obese balls of shrimp, bloated pork wontons and sliced barbecue pork in a bowl overloaded to the brim. The few sips of broth present functioned as lubricant for this meal within a meal.

When the beef and broccoli arrived, we knew we had chosen wisely. It was familiar and foolproof, but above all, it was fresh. The lemon chicken was also a success, its dark meat segregated from the white by a row of sliced lemon. The latter was a boneless, skinless breast, cut into slabs as thick as my fingers. A citrusy nectar of lemon juice, sugar and cornstarch was poured, unifying the bird as if it were whole again.

Bite-sized cubes of sweet-and-sour pork—deep-fried in golden batter and glazed with a sticky syrup hell-bent on a puckering our lips with pineapple juice—were garnished with pieces of the fruit, onions and bell peppers, but you already knew that.

For the last two courses, we decided to test our good luck and try the crispy duck as well as a perennial personal favorite, salt-and-pepper fried shrimp. Thankfully, both vindicated the kitchen after the failure of the lobster dish. The duck was chopped into chunks, its gray meat sandwiched between crackly skin and bone. Somewhere in the pile of parts was the duck bill, a discovery I didn't expect in a restaurant that caters to non-Asians.

The shrimp was the best dish of all—deveined, disrobed of shell, fried into twisty curls, and dusted with lots of salt and pepper. And thanks to a fistful of sliced jalapeños, it was peppy and bright—a plate that would please even Kill Bill's ill-tempered kung-fu master Pai Mei, if, say, a sequel were to be filmed here. My fee as a Tarantino location scout: negotiable.

Wong's Chinese Restaurant, 10642 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 537-4920. Open Wed.-Mon., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40, excluding drinks. Beer and wine.

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Wong's Chinese Restaurant - Closed

10642 Westminster Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92843


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