Chile Scenes of Summer 

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002

Chung King‘s fried chicken with hot peppers is the red of silk pajamas, the red of firecrackers, the red of the Chinese flag, a knoll of crunchy dark-meat cubes subsumed under a blizzard of fried chiles. If Chuck Jones had ever decided to draw something spicy for the coyote to injure himself with, it probably would have looked a lot like Chung King’s chicken. Even children who have never experienced anything spicier than a bowl of Apple Jacks instinctively know to stay away from this dish. My 7-year-old took one look at the chicken and burst into tears. I rather like Chung King. She calls it the Worst Restaurant in the World.

While other cities in the United States have considered themselves lucky to contain a Szechuan restaurant or two, Monterey Park has managed to attract what is almost a Szechuan neighborhood in the last year, a minicorridor of restaurants on Garfield Avenue specializing in the spicy, superfragrant, multilayered cooking of western China, a redoubt of fermented peppers, frog hot pots and prickly ash buds unprecedented in this part of the world. First up was Hua‘s Garden, I think, the Szechuan-Hunan restaurant reviewed here a couple of months ago, and then came Chung King, a small, crowded place a block south of the Garvey Avenue restaurant strip, immensely popular with young Chinese. Best Szechuan, which originated as a sticky-table Szechuan dive in a San Gabriel mini-mall, took over what used to be the Taiwanese restaurant Rong Hwa almost directly across the street from Hua’s, incorporating many of that earlier restaurant‘s seafood dishes (including the famous fish three-ways) into its own roster of pepper-laced specialties.

All three of the restaurants feature incendiary hot pots, plenty of Northern-style lamb dishes, and a buffet line at the front of the restaurant where you can point to the cold appetizers you’d like. Best Szechuan has the best shredded pigs‘ ears and cold tripe, Hua’s Garden the best fried peanuts, and Chung King the best dried beef. Hua‘s Szechuan won tons are the supplest. Best’s fried buns are delicious. The kung pao chicken at all of them is pretty lousy, although Chung King‘s sauce-soaked version is probably the very worst.

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But I have been finding myself at Chung King a lot lately, for the pungent cured Chinese bacon fried with leeks, for the little eels stir-fried with fermented peppers, for the cold hacked chicken with chile, for the great, multiflavored beef casseroles that are so spicy they attack the nervous system like a phaser set to ”stun.“ (I’d always liked the version at Fu Shing, the Szechuan restaurant in Pasadena, but this is good enough to be another dish entirely.) The salty, crunchy spareribs crusted with Szechuan peppercorns are superb.

And I always, of course, order the chicken -- fried chicken cubes with hot pepper. When you scoop up a mouthful, you are overwhelmed by the musky, toasty taste of the bright-red dried peppers, a limpid, searing heat that lights up obscure corners of your mouth as if you had accidentally swallowed the business end of an arc welder. Then the sharper vinegar heat of the fermented peppers kicks in, tracing the contours of your tongue in cool blue flame. A jolt of salt and garlic actually overwhelms the chiles after a moment or two -- the food at Chung King tends to be salty, although in my opinion appropriately so -- before modulating into a sustained mellow hum of Szechuan peppercorns that do for the chicken more or less what high-grade sinsemilla did for a Pink Floyd album when you were 13 years old. The ever-shifting flavors dance like a mirage.

Chung King, 206 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-7430. Open daily 11 a.m.--10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $13--$22. BYOB. Street and lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: fried chicken cubes with hot pepper; roasted spareribs in prickly ash; beef with tofu in small pot.

Best Szechuan, 230 N. Garfield Ave., No. 12, Monterey Park; (626) 572-4629. Open daily 11 a.m.--10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14--$30. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: cold tripe with chile; pan-fried bao.

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