MAO SHOULD BE HERE. Steeped in the most outrageous décor and tucked away in the most unlikely location, MAO'S KITCHEN is a culinary gem.  This review may "out it" to the world, and thereby hangs a dilemma -- keep it a guarded secret treasure, or expose it to the hungry masses longing for a pure oriental cuisine.

We walked into a bright, clean minimally decorated brick-walled dining room.  The tables were well-spaced, conveniently furnished with utensils, chopsticks and napkins, with lots of room for friendly intercourse with table neighbors -- which of course we did.  The soft jazz playing in the background was a complement not an intrusion into the conversations.  While awaiting my held-up-in-traffic dinner companion, I was joined by owner/chef Jake (Chinese name: Yanzhong Li) who arrived with a pot of steaming tea and we settled in for a comfortable evening in a friendly atmosphere.

The first observation to be noted is that the walls are covered with colorful posters of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (giving rise to the provocatively-named restaurant of course).  "Well," Jake explained -- "no, I'm neither a communist nor an admirer of Mao -- however, this represents my childhood -- this was my upbringing; this is the art with which I was surrounded." In any endeavor, one is nurtured by ones origins and they simply cannot be forgotten but are incorporated into the fabric of ones life -- in this case, on Jake's walls.  The posters are a wonder and are wonderful -- treasures never again to be available.  Jake collected them during his life in China and has put them to excellent use.  He was born in 1964 in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, taught Chinese at the University of Beijing and emigrated to the United States in 1989 during a student movement striving for cultural freedom.

The menu is a unique "Chinese Country Style Cooking with Red Memories." All the food is prepared freshly, meaning nothing from cans and (really) no MSG.  We started with Peasants' Onion Pancakes ($5) which were served with hosin and plum sauces to suit your palate.  I found the pancakes a bit bland but my companion scarfed them down with two hands.  Next came the Bamboo Steamer Dumplings ($8), filled with black mushrooms, bok choy, wood ear mushrooms, cilantro and smoked tofu.  They slide down your throat with barely enough time for you to bite into their succulence...what an erotic experience! The dumplings were wonderful as far as dumplings go, but I would have preferred a sharper taste.  The Peace Not War Wonton soup ($6) contains mushrooms, chicken, bok choy, carrots and wonton dumplings in a delicious light broth.  The chicken had a BBQ'd flavor and a touch of ginger, with all flavors blending to make a treat for the mouth.  We sampled the Spinach & Tofu soup ($4) as well, with huge chunks of tofu in a very light broth and the spinach barely scalded -- fresh as fresh can be! The Black-Bean ($7) is broccoli with beef, chicken, pork or shrimp in a hearty garlic black-bean sauce (we had pork) and is superb but not extraordinary.  Mao's Hometown ($8) was the piece de resistance -- beef, chicken, pork or shrimp with smoked tofu and Chine "wood ear" mushrooms in a fresh chili garlic sauce -- made just like Mao's mama's in Hunan Province.  It was easily our favorite.  The Mapo Tofu ($6) is soft tofu with pork, chicken or beef in a Szechuan spicy sauce (we had chicken).  Except for the sauce, which blew out my insides, it is a quite tasty dish.

We ended with more hot tea and deep regrets that our tummies were unable to accommodate the entire menu -- but, rest assured we will be back! (So there, Arnold...)

Mao's Kitchen is located at 1512 Pacific Avenue (at Windward), Venice and can be reached at (310) 581-8305.