When I first moved to the Santa Monica area in 1964, instead of Italian restaurants everywhere there were Chinese restaurants everywhere. And one great treat was Sunday lunch with Moo Shoo.
Now I’m sure that sophisticated readers of this column know what moo shoo is, but for those of you too young to know about these things, moo shoo is a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork, shredded or diced, and mixed with chopped Chinese vegetables in a light sauce and served with pancakes. It’s a lot of fun to put some of the moo shoo into the pancake, add some hoisin sauce, and, if to your liking, some hot chili oil, roll it up, and chow down — with a Chinese beer on the side.
Traditionally moo shoo was made with pork and consisted of green cabbage along with scrambled eggs, carrots, day lily buds, wood ear mushrooms, scallions, and bean sprouts. Shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, snow pea pods, bell peppers, onions, and celery are sometimes also used, and dry sherry is often substituted for the huangjiu. The vegetables (except the day lily buds and bean sprouts) are generally sliced into long, thin strips before cooking.
At dinner recently with my friend Samuel Hoi, president of the Otis College of Art & Design, who is from Hong Kong, our discussions turned, naturally, to Chinese food. I was lamenting the disappearance of Chinese restaurants in our area, and particularly moo shoo. I asked Sammy, who seems to always know everything, where to find moo shoo around Santa Monica. To my surprise, he said he couldn’t think of a place to recommend, but would be glad to join me if I found a good one!
I took this as a challenge. After having no success in asking friends — even Chinese friends, I resorted to Google. Surprisingly, there was not much information about moo shoo even on Google. But one restaurant stood out: Hop Li, on Santa Monica Boulevard near Bundy Drive. (Another site with the same name, of the same owner, is on Pico Boulevard in Westwood. Some of my Chinese friends say they much prefer the one on Pico. On the other hand, some say they prefer the one closer to Santa Monica.)
So on Sunday I hopped over there to try the moo shoo. I was pleasantly surprised at what I found. The restaurant was large, but broken up into sections so that it was quiet, perhaps because of the low acoustical tile ceilings and carpet. It was pretty full, almost all the tables loaded with Asian people, but they found a seat for me. As I sat down, the waiter came to the table.
I asked if they had moo shoo pork, but he said that the shredded pork was too juicy to use for moo shoo, and he suggested moo shoo chicken. I agreed, and within a minute or so a glass of water, a pot of tea and a cup of hot and sour soup arrived.
The hot and sour soup was really good. It had body, lots of flavor and delicious chunks of tofu in it. It was mildly spicy, just as I like it.
After a time, the moo shoo chicken arrived. I was a bit disappointed in that instead of a plate with the moo shoo and a separate plate of pancakes, these were already rolled up. So I unrolled the first (of four), spooned in a bit of hoisin sauce, added quite a bit of pepper oil and re-rolled it. As I slowly enjoyed the flavors, it bought back memories of those Sunday afternoons in the ‘60s.
It was different from what we used to eat. There were fewer ingredients, and I don’t think it had the scrambled egg to hold it together. But the flavors were similar and the dish was very good in its own way.
I didn’t expect to be able to eat all four rolls, but I did. While eating I engaged the manager in conversation. First I asked if they always served the moo shoo pre-rolled. “No” he said, “best to ask waiter at beginning not rolled, you roll yourself.” So that was the secret solution to that problem. Then I asked what the most popular dishes were in the restaurant. “Each type dish different” he said. For seafood, the honey shrimp and salted fried shrimp are very popular. For chicken, the orange chicken was in first place. The whole steamed fish in black been sauce is well liked. I don’t recall about the beef, but there is certainly plenty of choice on the menu. Then I asked if they have Peking duck. “Every day” he said.
So I went back a few days later and ordered the Peking duck and the steamed crab, two of the “high end” dishes on the menu. The crab was very good, although messy to eat and it required a lot of dexterity to extract the crab with the claw cracker and seafood fork. The Peking duck was a disappointment, and was not at all served as it should be. The duck was not properly sliced and was tough in texture. And the buns did not seem very fresh.
Most of the dishes at Hop Li are very reasonably priced. I paid $9 with tax and tip for my moo shoo, which really could have served two people. The crab and duck meal, on the other hand, was about $40 a person. The menu is amazingly extensive, with over 200 dishes listed.
I saw a lot of good food on the tables around me. A Chinese couple next to me ordered a steamed flounder, which was de-boned at the table and carefully divided between them. A friendly couple on the other side of my table was having a vegetarian feast, with hot metal bowls of sliced eggplant in one and tofu in sauce in the other. Big plates of fried chicken whizzed by. Other plates of various vegetables were being served everywhere. And in the fish tank I saw big lobsters and crabs looking back at me. I imagined them looking as hungrily at me as I looked at them, but perhaps I was anthropomorphizing.
So I want back a third time, with some other friends from Hong Kong. We had a nice assortment of dishes: chicken with broccoli, clams in ginger sauce, beef tenderloin (the least interesting because the meat was tough), the salted shrimp (excellent), and shredded pork, with moo shoo pancakes on the side. The star dish was the shredded pork in the moo shoo pancakes. And for six of us with beers the check was under $90. What a bargain!
I’ve found my moo shoo now. I’ll invite Sammy and six other friends for dinner there so we can share more of the offerings, especially steamed fish, and will reserve one of the big tables with the lazy Susan in the middle, which each time I’ve been there have been filled with regulars.
But on Sunday afternoons, it’s moo shoo for me.
If you go
Hop Li Seafood Restaurant
11901 Santa Monica Blvd.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.