AJ’s Chinese Cuisine
842 E. Ojai Ave.

For quite some time Ojai diners have lamented the lack of admirable and creative Chinese restaurant options. A longtime restaurant has recently been taken over by new owners and given a facelift, not just in the dining area, but in food preparation and ingredients as well. Despite some initial service hiccups, the prognosis seems very promising, and AJ’s Chinese Cuisine on Ojai Avenue promises to become a much-frequented Ojai dining location.

Upon entering the restaurant, it is clear a renovation has occurred. With the warmly designed brown, black, copper and cream hues, table linens of starched white, elegant glass-enclosed planters with bamboo and rocks, and vases of white lilies scattered around, the zen simplicity invites the diner to an authentic Chinese repast. Owners Jessica Oestreich and Alice Ramsey (the A and J of the name) have hired two chefs from China (one from a five star hotel, the other from the well-known Lui Ding in Hong Kong) to oversee the menu. Upon arrival, a bowl of lightly fried “noodles” (made from sliced won ton wrappers) with ketchup, mustard and plum sauce dipping options is placed on the table. Crunchy and light (and addicting!), this unique nibble assists hunger pangs to briefly subside while choosing from the many menu offerings.

First, a mention about the tea. Rather than bagged or loose leaf, the hot tea is presented in authentic Chinese style: boiling water poured over actual untrimmed tea leaves; depending on availability several varieties are offered. My suggestion is the jasmine; I have certainly never had a better or more flavorful cup of tea in Ventura County. This tea makes you understand why tea is such a staple of Chinese beverage consumption.

And now to the menu. As in many Chinese restaurants, there is an abundance of choices, and many of us will simply order tried-and-true identifiable favorites. The other day at lunch, however, I spotted something unusual: Chinese-style potato. When it arrived, it looked like white chow mein noodles with red, orange and green slender pepper strips. In fact, it was potato sliced in a similar sliced fashion, and the peppers also included thinly sliced jalapeño. It was delicious, though not spicy enough for my palate; if you prefer more of a punch, remember to ask for hot chili oil to be brought to the table.

The lunch entree included three of several side dishes; I selected the fried won ton and the fried rice and a small bowl of egg flower soup. The won ton was beautifully fashioned into an opening flower sort of design, and I was most surprised to see it filled with a cream cheese mixture. Different and unexpected certainly, but it was an interesting palate addition. The egg flower soup was particularly good with lots of egg white strands, a strong chicken taste in the rich broth, and corn kernels as well. The sweetness of the corn combined with the saltiness of the broth created a strong and very appealing appetizer. At $8.99 this lunch combo special is a terrific value.

On another visit, three of us shared a variety of flavorful selections. We began with a large bowl of war wonton soup, which had shrimp, chicken, homemade wontons (pork), fresh veggies, including delicious (and locally grown) Chinese broccoli. Hot and filling, we concluded we had over-ordered our entrees: black pepper beef, pork fried rice and General Tsao’s chicken. All were adequate and well-prepared and -presented, but as this was early on, the service, the many timing and communication difficulties, detracted from complete dining experience satisfaction.

Subsequent visits have shown great improvement in the above-mentioned problems. Most diners I’ve spoken to are enjoying the food, but still have a few communication and service problems. The other day at lunch, I must say I found the staff a little over the top in attentiveness; this shows they are certainly listening to their patrons. The restaurant just had its grand opening three weeks ago, and I certainly anticipate all kinks to gradually disappear, and a pleasurable new Chinese food option is now available in Ojai.