Sweet, Sweet Tang
Photo by Chris ZieglerI spend a lot of time in Huntington Beach. I go there when I want police helicopters to follow me as I walk my dog, when I'd like to contract a non-specific skin condition after a few minutes of frolicking in the surf, or even when I'm feeling down about recent geopolitical turbulence and I need something like a turbaned Ken doll hanging from a gallows in the back of a big white pickup truck to cheer me up. But I don't usually go there when I'm looking for Asian food. So when Red Pearl Kitchen opened up between the police substation and the Christian coffee shop (where I once heard a lovely young woman gush thusly over the events of Sept. 11: "When I turned on the TV, I thought it was the Rapture, and I was like, 'Oh, why am I not going?'"), I was intrigued.
Newport Beach chefs Tim and Liza Goodell are most famous for Aubergine, which we've called one of the best French restaurants in the county, a statement that even the fussiest foodies fear to dispute. Red Pearl is their newest project, a demure little 1940s-Chinese-themed restaurant smack-dab in decidedly non-demure downtown Huntington, just a few barefoot steps from the bro bars and the stores that sell thong underwear to prepubescent 12-year-olds. And as is par for the course any time something French meets something Asian—parlez-vous Dien Bien Phu?—the results are a little mixed.
"It's like they took every Asian country and mashed it all together," murmured a Caucasian-but-still-astute friend of ours, desperately trying to reconcile Vietnamese egg rolls (with pork, so watch out, those of you used to the veggie variety), pad Thai and Godzilla vs. Mothra on the high-definition flat screen in the back into a coherent whole. She's right, of course: Red Pearl offers a strangely Californian take on Asian cuisine, a sort of "It's a Small World After All" mélange of dishes, all dolled-up for popular consumption. Maybe it's a bad sign when the waitress doesn't know what Thai iced tea is—or maybe we're big ol' snobs. But we like Godzilla movies as much as the next red-blooded American, so we dug into those appetizers like Mothra dug into central Tokyo.
You start with rice because, our friend tells us, that's the alpha and omega of Asian cuisine right there, and if the kitchen screws up a simple bowl of rice, you had better do a dine-and-ditch before the main course gets there. But Red Pearl makes a mean bowl of jasmine rice; it's nicely flavored, smooth and soft but not soggy. The beef satay was curiously grilled—almost more appropriate to a tailgate-party barbecue than a cozy Chinese joint like this—but the peanut sauce ably covered for it, adding the sweet, sweet tang and texture where the meat wasn't quite making it. The veggie potstickers—one of the noticeably rare hippie-friendly dishes on the menu; some cute li'l animal had to die for almost every selection Red Pearl offers—could have been perkier, too: they were yummy enough dabbed with curry sauce, but they had the same slightly cloying texture as the frozen ones I make in the lonely filth hole of an apartment I call home. Please, people—I eat out to escape my normal life, not be painfully reminded of it!
Our main course was suffering the same sort of personality crisis. The wok-seared tuna was superrare but still a bit tough, although it responded to sauce therapy (particularly to the vinegar sauce) with commendable results. Appropriately for extreme HB, the drinks are where it's gotta be. Besides the whiskey-and-more-whiskey Dragon's Breath and a whole horde of similarly themed hard drinks, they offer the somewhat disturbingly named Red Pearl Necklace (if you saw something called that in a porno, it'd mean someone just got lucky—or stabbed). But we're not reviewing alcohol—not yet. Instead, we'll tell you that Red Pearl is charging you for the ambiance as much as the food, for a gentle tour through the sort-of-exotic East that's just familiar enough to go down easy in HB.
But whatever: if you want undiluted and unexpurgated Asian cuisine, you can find someplace on your own. If you wanna see Godzilla look fucking awesome on a flat-screen TV—and get drunk—then we know just the place.
Red Pearl Kitchen, located at 412 Walnut Ave., Huntington Beach, is open Sun.-Wed., 4:30-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 4:30 p.m.-midnight. (714) 969-0224. Full bar. Dinner for two, $35-$50, food only. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.
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