Photo by Joy BastI walk past some shabby storefronts, past a seedy bar, and duck into a Chinese restaurant. It is austere, even homely. Hanging lanterns are the only adornment as patrons nurse oolong and Tsingtao. It's a scene right out of Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong. But wait a minute—there's nary a Hong Kong bargirl in sight. This is a respectable family restaurant (damn!), and I'm in Westminster, not Wan Chai.
Peking Restaurant is not much to look at, but in Chinese restaurantdom, austerity commands respect. Leave the glitzy dragon décor to the dim sum palace next door that specializes in bland wedding-banquet fare. Meanwhile, at Peking, the lazy Susans are bulging with shimmering Mandarin specialties and spinning like Reno roulette wheels during an AARP convention.
Open 20 years in March, Peking Restaurant started under the ownership of Yang Chuan. The accomplished chef passed away four years ago, leaving son Jerry Chen at the helm. His mom, aunt and sister work with him. While Chuan was known for classics, his son is less traditional, but the Taiwan-born Chen gets back to his homeland a couple of times a year to learn new dishes from the masters.
When I'm dining alone, I like to sit directly across from the pickup window—despite the incessant ringing of the bell—to watch plate after plate of dumplings fly out to the tables like NASCAR UFOs. Some are golden brown and resemble elegantly shaped sampans in a row; others are stacked like a cairn, round and diaphanous beauties revealing leek threads and rosy shrimp.
But I soon realize that dining solo at Peking is no fun. And spinning the lazy Susan with one lone dish on it is no great shakes either.
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The next time, I arrive with six big-eatin' adults and a baby who wields a mean chopstick and can eat his weight in chow fun. We give our server, Chen's Aunt Julie, carte blanche. Inspired dishes are legion: boneless sole so tender and mild it's like eating piscine manna. A crispy cuke salad dressed in a sassy chile-and-sesame-oil concoction is cool and slightly sweet, a perfect accompaniment to the pan-fried dumplings. Called kuo-tieh, these potstickers yield their soft skins to reveal a steaming leek, pork and cabbage filling that needs nothing but a dab of chile sauce or a sprinkling of vinegar. The pork short ribs are miraculously textured: coated with crackling spun honey on the outside, juicy marbleized porcine morsels on the inside.
It will be hard to move past the shrimp dumplings, their cumbersome golf-ball-sized looks defied by their ethereal texture and delicate flavor, but move on you must: to the roast beef and green onion pancake. IHOP fare it ain't. Far from a flapjack, this thin, multilayer bread is at once chewy and delicate. Its golden-crisp, sesame-flecked surface is rolled together with a thin layer of beef brisket fragrant with star anise. Don't miss the supersoft tofu in spicy black bean sauce. The straight beans with pork are blistered in oil and fragrant with garlic—a study in freshness and simplicity. I can't do without the tender baby bamboo shoots, an authentic Chinese dish that is done so well here. And that's just for starters.
"So many food, only one stomach," Julie notes.
Peking Restaurant, located at 8566 Westminster blvd., Westminster, is open Tues.- Sun., 11 a.m.-9:15 p.m. (714) 893-3020. Beer only. Dinner for two, $20, food only. MasterCard and Visa accepted.