Food from everywhere, and nowhere [restaurant review]

 Richard Foss

Chin Chin offers an American vision of Asian flavors

Chin Chin manager George Armenta with his popular Chinese chicken salad. Photos by JP Codero

Before naming any business, you probably ought to investigate what it means in different languages. Chin Chin on Rosecrans is an example. In diplomatic English it’s slang for small talk at parties, in Italian it’s a toast celebrating health, in Nigeria it’s a kind of fried cookie, and in Japan it is a euphemism for “a personal part of the male anatomy.” Depending on the Chinese dialect and the way it is accented, it can be anything from “please” to a polite greeting to complete gibberish.

I have to assume that the restaurant was named after one of the Chinese meanings, though they refer to their style as “Asian,” and offer sushi as well as New York City style Chinese food. (And for those who haven’t heard of that before, yes. it’s a recognized style.) This isn’t the same thing as the Americanized Chinese food that developed in California after the Gold Rush, and you’ll notice the differences as you dine.

Chin Chin’s patio is peaceful and the tables widely spaced

You’ll be doing that on one of the nicest outdoor patios in the South Bay, a broad plaza interspersed with gnarled trees, lit at night by lanterns hung from the branches. It’s quiet despite being just half a block off Rosecrans, and the widely spaced tables give a sense of privacy and safety. After dark you may need to use the flashlight app on your phone to read the menu, because the lighting is on the dim side, but that’s a minor nuisance.

In four visits I’ve tried a fair number of items, and found some hits and some misses. Among the starters the wonton soup and hot and sour soup were both worth having, albeit not like the version you’re probably used to. The wonton soup was overflowing with spinach leaves that had been added just before the soup was served so they were hot but still crisp, a salad submerged in broth. It was topped with freshly made wontons with some springiness in the dough and small cubes of roast pork that had a passing resemblance to traditional char siu, and there were some green onion pieces that add a little sharpness and crunch. Chinese tradition it’s not, but it’s a really good soup, and they nailed the execution.

The hot and sour soup surprised me because it wasn’t very spicy but had a hefty shot of vinegar to cover the sour part of the equation. You could taste some white pepper and a bit of red pepper, but the vinegar flavor was dominant. There was barely a hint of the sesame oil that usually adds smokiness, and the bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms that add varied textures were missing in action. It was a simpler set of flavors, not unsuccessful but not as satisfying as the traditional version.

We also tried a starter of “sushi nachos,” wonton chips stacked with fish and shrimp sashimi, pickled cucumber, red onion, avocado, scallions, eel sauce, cilantro aioli, and spicy mayo. This was a good idea that was undone by careless execution. The chef was so exuberant with the sauce that it arrived drenched. Wonton chips get soggy very quickly, and when they do the texture contrast is gone. If you ask your server to put the sauces on the side or cut the sauce amount in half, this would be a fine starter. The other sushi item we sampled, a “red crane roll,” was also over-dressed with sweet eel sauce, so that seems to be a consistent problem here.

The item that just about everybody orders as a shared dish is Chin Chin’s version of Chinese chicken salad, which was actually invented in LA in the ‘60s and doesn’t remotely resemble anything Chinese. (They don’t eat raw vegetable salads, and the lettuces that grow there are always cooked.) All modern versions of this item include chicken breast, wonton crisps, toasted almonds, shredded carrot, and scallions, accented with a ginger vinaigrette. Most recipes also include sesame seeds, but here they use toasted rice noodles instead. That’s an error in my book because the sesame adds a crucial bit of flavor, while the rice noodles just add crunch. That said, their version is pretty good, with a nicely calibrated ginger flavor in the dressing.

I have tried four main dishes: Anthony’s special noodles, Mongolian beef, chow fun noodles with chicken, and peanut noodles, and it is in these that the signature of New York Chinese food was clear. To start with, New York spicy is not California spicy. The Anthony’s special and peanut noodles were both marked on the menu with a chile pepper to indicate heat, but both were so mild that we asked our server if the right item had been delivered. The “spicy cilantro sauce” on the Anthony’s didn’t taste much like cilantro either, and it verged on bland. Some chopped fresh cilantro tossed on top would have added zing to what was otherwise a plate of noodles and tofu with green onions and shreds of carrot. (You can get this with beef, chicken, or tofu, and a meaty version might have had a bit more flavor and texture.) There were some peanuts in the thin, sweet sauce on the peanut noodles, and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts, but it needed chillies to balance it. They have pepper sauce to add at the table, but it’s not the same as having it cooked in when the dish is made.

The Mongolian beef was also subpar, the sauce sweet and somewhat one-dimensional, without the sesame oil and black pepper that add richness in the background. The best of the main items was the chow fun, in which the onions had been given time to caramelize in the wok a bit and the flavors were in better balance. It was the only one of the mains we had at Chin Chin that I’d order again.

To accompany your meal they have some good sakes, wines, and beers – if you like rice wines, the Ty-Ku Junmai Ginjyo is quite good. They also have a South African red blend called Inception that goes quite well with the beef dishes and a nice French Chablis that paired well with the sushi and would have been a winner with the chicken salad. The company’s beverage director knows his or her job.

I wanted to like Chin Chin more than I did. They have a fine environment and pleasant service, but the food is strangely inconsistent. I’ll probably be back for that wonton soup when I want a quick, fresh tasting lunch, and there are other things here that work on their own merits. We don’t have a lot of upscale Asian restaurants in the South Bay, and I hope they work on bringing everything up to the standard of their best items.

Chin Chin is at 2041 Rosecrans Avenue in El Segundo. Open daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Free parking in lot. Wheelchair access good. Alcohol served. Some vegetarian items. (323) 591-2822. ER