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A Tale of Two Restaurants 

ChopStix offers decent steam-table fare by day and delicious sit-down dinners by night

I'm glad I went to ChopStix Asian Diner for both lunch and dinner; what I got was one basic idea, done two different ways.

By day, ChopStix serves up six or seven entrees from a steam table. Diners have can pick two entrees ($4.99) or three entrées ($6.19); both options come with a choice of lo mein or fried rice. On the side, there are crab puffs, egg rolls and two types of soup. By night, ChopStix offers table service, a cozier atmosphere and a nice mix of Asian-style soups, appetizers and entrées.

I liked dinner better. There's something about a steam table that changes even the best of foods. But at lunch, the price is right, and even though you may not find as many choices as you would at some other Chinese buffets, the food here is fresher, and prices are lower than many of those all-you-can-eat places.

Co-worker Clara Ochoa and I stopped in for a quick lunch in the middle of the week. There was a line practically out the door (always a good sign), yet the wait was brief.

Clara chose shrimp with vegetables, pork with green beans, the lo mein and an egg roll ($1.25 for one). I went with sesame chicken, tomato beef, the fried rice and crab puffs ($1.25 for four). We opted for water, as the only other choices were soda or tea.

It was easy to find a table among the early lunch-goers. With windows for walls, the room is bright and cheerful. The requisite colors of black and red are everywhere; a tall screen hangs from the ceiling dividing the room in two; and large plants are strategically placed here and there. The place has a nice, "modern" look to it.

Clara really liked the shrimp and veggies: medium-sized shrimp and large cut Asian vegetables in a lightly flavored sauce. She liked the egg roll, too. Even after a slight wait at the steam table, it was still crispy. The inside was filled with veggies and just enough ground pork to add some nice flavor. The pork with green beans was only fair. We couldn't quite figure out what the batter on the pork was; it seemed to collapse as we ate it. The beans were OK, but the dark sauce could've used a bit more flavor.

My sesame chicken was great. The pieces of chicken were fried crisp and, thankfully, it was more meat than coating, unlike sooo many other places. Sesame seeds were abundant in the thick, flavorful sauce. I wish I could say the same for my tomato beef. There was an off flavor at first bite, so I let the rest sit. The crab puffs were some of the best I've tasted; there was actually more than a bite of cream cheese and crab mixture stuffed into the crisp shells. The sweet-and-sour sauce on the side was super sweet, but not sour enough; but the puffs didn't really need it. Unfortunately, I'd call both the lo mein and the rice a tad dry, but blame that on the steam table.

It was a dark and stormy night when I met fellow Chow writer Karyn Zoldan at ChopStix for dinner. The room had a warm glow to it; the noisy lunch crowd was gone. The menu was expanded, and having a server really personalized the meal.

We chatted for a while, and the server gave us the time to do so, which was nice; in a place like ChopStix, usually service is rushed. The crowd wasn't so big, but Karyn noted that while she was waiting for me, there had been a steady flow of orders to go.

Karyn lived in Los Angeles for several years and is somewhat of an aficionado when it comes to Asian food. She suggested we split the wor wonton soup ($5.75) for starters. She also opted for green tea, which came with the meal.

When the server placed the large bowl of fragrant soup on the table, we had to smile. Wor means "everything" in Chinese, and there was definitely everything in this soup--everything good, that is. Wontons, of course, plus shrimp, chicken, barbecued pork, broccoli, napa cabbage, miniature ears of corn and straw mushrooms were mixed in an ever-so-light chicken broth. Karyn said it compared nicely to some of the best she's had in the past, especially since it wasn't too salty. There was enough for two small bowls each, plus Karyn took some home.

We then ordered appetizers: pot stickers ($4.95) and calamari ($5.75). We were quite pleased with the dishes. The pot stickers were huge and stuffed to the brim with cabbage, pork, ginger and other veggies. They were served with a sauce that combined soy sauce, sugar, chicken broth and other ingredients in a well-balanced dipping sauce. Again, Karyn said they held up to others she had. The calamari was done up in a tempura-style batter and served with the house sweet chili sauce, which pleased all parts of the tongue. I might not have guessed there was calamari under the coating, but it was great, and it was nice to have one of my favorite appetizers prepared a different way.

For entrées, Karyn ordered the glazed walnut shrimp ($10.95), and I ordered the Korean kalbi ($10.95)--marinated short ribs served on a sizzling platter. A pretty pot of steamed rice was put on the table to share.

I liked the shrimp much better than my short ribs. The serving was large and appealing to the eye (as was all the food that night). The walnuts on top of the dish were whole, not tiny little pieces that you have to search for. The glaze was sweet and added an almost fruity undertone to the well-cooked shrimp--an outstanding and truly tasty dish.

The thin slices of short rib were served with a tasty sauce, but the pieces were tough and a bit fatty--too bad for me. Perhaps on another night the beef would have been more tender, but I don't think I'd order them again.

Our fortune cookies promised a rosy future for both of us!

All in all, ChopStix Asian Diner was a treat, both for lunch and dinner. It's always nice to find a place close to work where you can get a reasonably priced meal and still have something a little different. It might have been nice to have a cold beer with dinner (and Karyn thought the addition of brown rice might have been a nice touch), but I'll go back for sure.

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