by Richard Foss
Depending on which set of statistics you look at, Chinese food is either the most popular restaurant cuisine in the U.S. or in second place. That includes high style fusion places, down home eateries, and take-out counters all lumped into the one category, but one statistic proves the appeal. There are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than all of the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.
Seashore Chinese Restaurant on Calle Mayor in Torrance opened in the late ‘80s. Rather than ornate Chinese scrolls and paintings, Seashore’s decorations lean toward pictures of food, postings of daily specials in Chinese, and fish tanks, both decorative and functional. (At least I think the ones by the door are decorative, because they have the same pretty tropical fish in them every time, and the ones by the back wall seem to change tenants fairly often.)
Seashore has been under the current ownership for 25. Their specialty is Hong Kong-style seafood. These range from everyday items like codfish filet with black bean sauce to ornately presented lobster dishes that are ceremonially presented for special occasion dinners. When we most recently visited, a birthday party was in progress at an adjacent table, and we craned our necks to watch the platters delivered. We didn’t order anything that spectacular, opting instead to get a variety of items from various Chinese traditions. This took a little study, as they present each table with two sets of menus without mentioning why. One is the most popular Cantonese and Americanized dishes, the other some items from Chinese regions. You should look carefully at both.
Our ordering process was further complicated by the fact that we had food allergies at the table. Our server was very accommodating, checking with the kitchen and giving advice about alternate dishes. His professionalism gave the people concerned confidence about their safety and was much appreciated.
We started with mu shu shrimp, and continued with the house special pan-fried chicken, a dish called “vegetable sprouts in supreme broth,” preserved vegetable and braised fatty pork, an item called aromatic, and spicy broiled fish, and shrimp fried rice.
The mu shu shrimp was a classic dish well executed, a stir fry based on shrimp and cabbage encased in a crepe-like wrapper and served with plum sauce on the side. It’s not a complex item but is one that often goes wrong – get that stir fry too moist and the wrapper gets soggy and falls apart. This had the slight smokiness called “wok hei” that Chinese restaurants can achieve but you probably can’t at home. No woodsmoke is involved – it’s a product of brief cooking at extremely high heat, about five times hotter than a home stove can manage. That smokiness is a great flavor combination with the sweet plum sauce, and the version at Seashore sets the benchmark for the South Bay area.
We had ordered the pan-fried chicken because the words “house special” often indicate something created by the chef and indicate something about their style. In this case the sliced chicken was tossed in a flavored oil that included sesame, black pepper, and garlic and was topped with white sesame seeds. This was put over a mix of sweet pickled vegetables that added contrasting texture and flavor. It’s not a flashy presentation or a particularly unusual idea, but it is a nice one that should suit any palate.
The braised fatty pork wasn’t a dish I would have selected, but was ordered by an enthusiast at the table. The name may put off people who are health-conscious, but give it a chance. When pork belly is very slowly braised the fat melts out and creates an incredibly delicate texture. The richness of the pork is offset by a sauce that contains vinegar, pepper, and ginger as well as the salty Chinese pickled greens. It is a fatty dish, like any pork belly, but it’s a preparation that suits it very well.
The item that was described as vegetable sprouts in supreme broth turned out to be bok choy in an intense chicken broth, and not much else. That sounds like a criticism but it’s not, because having a simple, wholesome dish like this alongside more complex flavors is like a palate cleanser. It’s mom’s chicken soup with Chinese greens, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.
The shrimp fried rice is offered either with or without egg, and we had ordered it with. It was a bit different from the usual item because many restaurants douse the rice with soy sauce, and make it quite oily. This had a very light use of oil and little or no soy, and also had chunks of cucumber rather than the usual onion, peas, and carrots. I’m not used to cucumber in fried rice, but found it refreshing and an interesting alternative.
The final dish to arrive was the item listed as aromatic and spicy broiled fish, which didn’t really match the description. Rather than a piece of fish on a platter, it’s half-submerged in a deep-red soup that gains its color from a hefty dose of chillies. Also in there are a lot of ginger, garlic, bean sprouts and scallions, some more garlic, and enough pungent herbs to make it smell like a Chinese herb shop. My wife took one look at all the chili peppers and became much more interested in the pork and bok choy, but the spice hounds at the table loved it. I turned bright red and was sweating as I got my second bowl of this thrill ride for my palate. This item has a chili pepper on the menu next to it, and when you see one of those at this restaurant, believe it.
Luckily the desserts that are offered, cool almond jelly and sweet red beans, are great for cooling a heated mouth. I had some of each. The bill for enough food for six people was $155, a very modest price for a feast like this. Seashore is that rarity, a Chinese restaurant in a non-Chinese neighborhood that has kept its culinary edge. Chinese food is comfort food for many people, and you can get the classics made very well or explore the wild side. It’s worth going a bit out of your way to visit — everybody but the fish in the tanks will be happy you did.
Seashore Chinese Restaurant is at 5137 Calle Mayor in Torrance, at the corner of PCH. Open daily 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Parking lot, wheelchair access good. Beer and wine served. Reservations available for large parties. (310) 373-0751. SeaShoreCa.com.