Chang's of Brentwood
11726 San Vicente Blvd
Brentwood, CA 90049
I have absolutely no idea how we ended up at Chang’s of Brentwood. We were tired of the same, stale routine. I think we were walking along San Vicente hoping that perhaps something, anything, would inspire us enough to walk in. Maybe we actually had a glimmer of hope that a new restaurant had mysteriously, magically popped up under our noses within the last twenty four hours since the last time we did this same route. Yes, we were that deliriously desperate. We passed them all. Pizzicotto. Gaucho Grill. Osteria Latini. They all made me *sigh* Even the salad bar at Whole Foods Market, which is a reliable, low-key standby.
We stopped in front of the little glassed in dining room – almost like an atrium – that sits just inside the sidewalk, and under a small sign for Chang’s of Brentwood. The restaurant has been there, in the same place, since forever ago. It was there before I moved into the neighborhood, and my suspicion is that it had already been there for quite a long time. It’s one of those places that if you were playing a scavenger hunt around LA based on a photo of the front of the place, you would know it because you have seen it a million times, but you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint, say, with GPS coordinates, where on earth it actually is (except that it's in Brentwood).
So yes, I am just not quite sure how we ended up cocking our heads to the right wondering if we were supposed to somehow make our way into the empty, glassed-in patio seating that might possibly have been the deceptive foyer or entrance to some secret subterranean golden dragon paradise. We crept around the life-size terrarirum, and finally made our way to the flamingo pink and seafoam green splendor that is Chang’s.
Now Chang's of Brentwood is not P.F. Chang's, which is a modern restaurant chain that serves its attempts at Chinese food in a "hip" atmosphere. Chang's of Brentwood, however, is its own little restaurant that is clinging to its glory days when Chinese restaurants in LA were considered exotic, worldly, and chichi. "Loooovey, shall we dress up a bit and go out? Something, oh, I don't know, oriental? Let's go to..." *pause because it's going to be a real treat* "Let's go to Chang's."
That was about...20 years ago.
The restaurant is fairly small, and when we walked in, there was only one other party already seated in the flamingo pink vinyl dining chairs around a table covered with a dusty seafoam green cloth. It looked like it was Grandma Rose's birthday, and her son Hal Jr., his wife Linda, and their three kids were taking her out to her favorite Chinese that she and Grandpa Hal used to go to every Friday night. Oh, that Grandpa Hal, if he were still here, he would be digging into that Moo Goo Gai Pan like it was going out of style. (For the record, Chang's does not have moo goo gai pan, but it was the most non-Chinese '80s Chinese dish I could think of.)
The menu is very standard, all-over-the-place Chinese food. Various dumplings and eggrolls make up the bulk of Appetizers, Soups include egg flower, hot and sour, won ton, as well the one I have never figured out, sub gum. What the hell is sub gum?!? I am not sure I want to know.
The rest of the menu, which is fairly long, is divided by type of ingredient: Fowl, Vegetables, Beef, Pork, and even breaks out Shrimp and Scallops separately. That is a lot of stuff. With ourselves and Grandma Rose's birthday dinner the only ones in the restaurant, I had to wonder...does Chang's kitchen really have all the ingredients to prepare any of these dishes on demand? Then again, Chinese food, like many cuisines, relies on a fairly manageable pantry of ingredients, and each individual dish is made of those ingredients, but in different proportions. With the exception of mushu. Mushu has crepes.
Perhaps we were confused in this Chinese restaurant that had no trace of golden-tiger-hidden-red-pearl-dragon decor. Perhaps we were too focused on trying to figure out who "Dan" and "Dan" were of the Dan Dan Noodles. We went crazy. A little bonkers. We forewent the usual Mongolian Beef, Kung Pao Chicken, and Sweet and Sour Pork. We ordered...other oriental delicacies.
There really is no way to get spontaneous with appetizers. There are eggrolls and won tons and that's about it. Unless of course, you want Chinese Chicken Salad, but who orders Chinese Chicken Salad outside of Chin Chin?!?! Right, I thought so. However, Chang's did have a special appetizer - "special" wontons served with "special" sauce. "Special." When it came to the table, it looked thoroughly unappetizing. But unappetizing in a "special" way. It looked like a plate of pasta gone horribly wrong.
But as I always say, never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a dish by the thick, congealed, pukey brown sauce that covers it. The greens underneath were fresh and bright. The wontons, though stuck together, tearing into shredded rags when we tried to pull them apart, weren't all that bad. The only problem was that the wontons were mired in that sauce that wasn't exactly cornstarch-thickened, but it looked like it was about ready to break into its component parts. Jif? Skippy? Sesame paste? I am not sure because I did my best to eat around it.
While we were carefully working our chopsticks to free wontons from the saucy swamp, our server placed what looked like the space age hybrid of an over-sized potpourri warmer and hibachi grill in the center of the tabl
e. I had never seen any contraption like it in a Chinese restaurant. Wobbly lazy Susan, yes. Bi-chambered yig-yang hot pot, yes. This was totally new to me.
Apparently, the potpourri warmer was crucial to keeping our main dishes warm. It definitely seemed like a thoughtful touch, but I have to say that it certainly didn't do anything to ease the horror, the horror when our Shredded Pork came to the table. Our server set it down like a freakish bestial sacrifice on a holy altar. I was, as you may have guessed, slightly grossed out by its alien creature-like appearance.
Thankfully, the pork didn't taste bad, but perhaps I am being generous because I was expecting something horribly insipid. It was salty, but that's certainly forgiveable. It's Chinese food, for fox ache.
However, the Szechwan Eggplant was beyond forgiveable in terms of saltiness. Eggplant, even when done "not well," is still delicious, unless it has been battered in cat litter, deep fried in crude petroleum, and served with the sauce that came on our appetizer. Or over-salted like our Szechwan Eggplant. I love the slight leatheriness of eggplant's skin, like an expensive handbag. I love the texture of the flesh inside that breaks down into long, tattered ribbons of silk. But God help it all when the insides of my mouth start to shrivel like a cucumber in a wicked brine.
We didn't get fortune cookies. What? Didn't they have fortune cookies back in the '80s?! We got an almond cookie instead. To be quite honest, the little laughing Chinaman on the faintly green-tinted platic packaging that very oddly matched Chang's decor might have been the highlight of the dinner. (I also loooooove almond cookies, so what can I say?)
Overall, the meal wasn't bad. Grandma Rose and family had finished their meal and left about halfway through ours, and they seemed to have enjoyed their food. Throughout the course of our dinner, several people had walked in and picked up white plastic bags for their personal "takeout nights." The food at Chang's can't be horrible if the place is still in business like that. But perhaps Chang's should just give up on the dining room. It doesn't seem like anyone likes to sit in a Miami Vice Chinese Paradise.
** a year ago today, it was like alpha beta spring break at baja cantina **