Continental Divide

The Oriental offerings easily outmatch the Ottoman ones at Chi in Baldwin Park.

Let’s set a map of Asia alongside the menu at Chi—the “Pan-Asian” restaurant in Baldwin Park—and build ourselves a meal, shall we?
We’ll start with spring rolls and dumplings, standard Chinese fare, followed by shrimp with lemongrass, very Vietnamese in flavor. Tracing a path around the South China Sea for an order of Indonesian chicken satay, our imaginary journey stops in Thailand for seafood hot pot. A lovely trip so far, ending with plates of lamb kofte and cuklama salmon from Turkey.
I’m sorry, what?

After another bewildered survey of the map, we have every right to be confused. Even though Turkish Anatolia is actually on the Asian continent, it would take a very long time to eat your way from Bangkok to Istanbul. The curious connection is on the table at Chi, where a menu of Turkish appetizers and entrées appends the Oriental offerings. I couldn’t get an explanation from the restaurant, so I have imagined several romantic and unlikely ones, and I’ll leave you to do the same.  

On first hearing about the trans-continental mix, I had hoped for fantastic amalgams of Indo-Ottoman splendor, kebabs on rice noodles perhaps, but the two worlds are kept well separated. During my visit to Chi, mine was the only table ordering Turkish dishes; every other plate that passed by was from the Far Eastern portion of the menu.

I discovered one reason when I tried to order saksuka, a sauteed eggplant appetizer. “Tried” because they didn’t have it, or the feta cheese roll called sigara boregi. (None of the listed Turkish wines, either.) The kitchen was able to deliver stuffed grape leaves and babagannush ($6.95 each), rather common starters prepared in a way I’ve never seen; Chi’s recipes must be extremely regional. The eggplant “baba” was barely smoked or spiced, and while there are countless permutations, I’ve never seen grape leaves (dolma) stuffed with rice, peanuts and such massive amounts of paprika as these, and dry to boot.

Left with an unimpressive Ottoman experience, I turned to the remainder of the menu with some trepidation. Not to worry, fellow travelers, it gets much better.

A section of the menu allows your pick of meat (chicken, beef or shrimp) and a sauce, and I chose shrimp sautéed in Thai basil leaves and vegetables ($13.95). The cinnamon basil enveloped medium shrimp in a musky and authentic dressing, while the peppers, broccoli and asparagus were cooked so quickly they still snapped. Coconut curry vegetables ($8.75) were not as satisfying, a rather pedestrian blend of vegetables and tofu in a mixture that was supposed to be green curry but, while green in color, tasted more like black pepper than curry.

I could debate the origins and spelling of General Tso’s chicken, but let’s just say I like the dish, traditionally Sichuan or not, and Chi’s is better than most. Where take-out versions are infamous for using unrecognizable bits of chicken, Chi’s is tender chunks in a crisp batter, surrounded by a dark, garlicky sauce that you can actually taste over its mellow heat ($10.95).

Even better are the salt and pepper shrimp, scallops, and calamari ($15.95). The dish is minimalist–seafood in a light flour coat of salt and red pepper, resting on lettuce and topped with diced tomatoes. This is a killer entrée, enjoyable enough to order extra. The melding of distinct tastes and textures, even the unexpected addition of salsa fresca-like diced tomato, needed only a squeeze of lemon to make it a meal approaching perfection (ask for the lemon). Excellent in almost every way: Chi seems to have a problem with shrimp, overcooking them just a bit in all the seafood dishes I tried, on two different occasions. Seconds count in a busy kitchen, and it’s a minor complaint, but at this level a springy shrimp stands out.

A note about the room: pleasant and relaxing. It’s rather modern looking, as befits the fairly new Baldwin Park surroundings, with dark wood tables and walls the color of cinnabar and slate. There’s a small bar tucked off the front door and a few larger banquettes at the back for groups.

With a kitchen this refined in matters Oriental, the culinary leap from Turkey to Southeast Asia is a giant one, making for a presentation that is schizophrenic at best. Chi should stick to what obviously works; I can’t think that anyone benefits from the confusing journey.

Chi Pan Asian
4856 New Broad St. Baldwin Park
PHONE 407-898-0600
ENTREES $7.95–$21.95

Categories: Reviews