Whenever I see Chinese chicken salad on a menu, I gravitate toward it. It’s not as if I’ve liked most of them; the dressing is almost always too sweet, and the chicken stringy. But ordering one guarantees there’s at least going to be some sort of crispy-crunchy thing in it such as wonton strips, deep-fried chow mein, or puffed rice noodle. Let’s face it, other than the occasional Mandarin orange segment, those Asian croutons are usually the best thing about these salads. But the other constant I’ve noticed about every one I’ve had is it’s usually at an American restaurant such as Cheesecake Factory or CPK; it’s never a Chinese place such as Sam Woo.
As Jennifer 8. Lee—who wrote a wonderful book that traces the history of Chinese food in the U.S. and details how fortune cookies were invented in America—told Bon Appétit, there’s “very little of [Chinese chicken salad] that’s Chinese.” Things get a bit hazy, though, when you search for who invented it. If you’re to believe Madame Wu’s Garden in Santa Monica, its kitchen did it first when none other than Cary Grant asked for the dish at dinner one night. Other sources point to a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles called New Moon, which claims to have introduced it 45 years ago.
New Moon has since expanded to six restaurants. When I went to the newly opened location in Buena Park—which shares a parking lot with Porto’s—the salad was on the menu. And it was both the least appetizing I’ve ever seen and the best I’ve ever tasted.
With no Mandarin orange segments for color, the drab-looking pile of iceberg and white-meat chicken strips resembled what Souplantation might throw in the trash at the end of the night. But what it lacked in appearance, it made up in substance. This was the Steve Buscemi of salads. There wasn’t just one kind of crispy-crunchy thing; there were two: golden wonton strips and oil-puffed rice noodles. Most important, it wasn’t drowned in dressing. In fact, the more I ate, the more I wondered if there was any dressing in it at all. Soon, it mattered less to me who invented the Chinese chicken salad than how New Moon’s chef managed to make this mountain of lettuce so flavor-packed and addictive. After nearly finishing a serving meant for two, I’m now firmly in the camp who believes this salad to be the progenitor of all that came after. It would be easy to imagine the copycats trying vainly to decipher its secrets, resorting to those cloying sesame-and-soy-based vinaigrettes in an attempt to replicate this miracle.
Miraculous is the word I’d also use to describe the rest of my meal. In today’s dining scene, in which everyone, not just the Chinese, is much more savvy to restaurants that serve undiluted Chinese regional specialties, it’s nothing but a miracle that New Moon, with its decidedly old-school Americanized Chinese dishes, manages to stay relevant. This is, after all, the kind of restaurant that still gives you a bowl of deep-fried noodles and a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce as soon as you sit down. Elsewhere on the menu, paper-wrapped chicken, egg foo young and chop suey abound.
But New Moon ends up being more than just relevant; it feels as if it should be the new flag-bearer of Americanized Chinese food. There’s sophistication and finesse in its execution, something many others lack. No less than four different people, each wearing a tie or some sort of formal wear, refilled my water glass. The restaurant itself is long and sleek, with all-glass walls that wouldn’t look out of place in an aquarium. And the dishes seem to be prepared by chefs who abide by the precision of Chinese-banquet-cooking techniques, even as they’re making sweet-and-sour pork.
How else to explain how elegant its Chloe’s Shrimp was? The fat, meaty curls were covered in an impossibly thin but crisp veneer of batter onto which a slightly sweet and pungent sauce clung. And when I ordered the Hong Kong-style chow mein—a nest of crispy noodles smothered in a complex gravy with vegetables—I was surprised by how much its char sui pork tasted and smelled exactly like those I’ve eaten from places where ducks hang in the window. After the meal, as though taking a cue from the official old-school Americanized-Chinese-restaurant rulebook, a fortune cookie came with the check. It was dipped and drizzled in two kinds of chocolate, but it was still a fortune cookie.
New Moon, 7620 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 562-9920; newmoonrestaurants.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat., noon-10 p.m.; Sun., noon-9 p.m. Entrées, $10.50-$15.75. Full bar.