Question: I am making my long-awaited first trip to California, for a conference. And Im lucky enough to be staying at the San Gabriel Hilton, which I understand is right across the street from the mall with all the best Chinese restaurants. I love Chinese food, even the stuff we get here in Iowa. But what I really want to taste is real Sichuan food, which I have read so much about but never tasted, and MapQuest puts the closest Sichuan restaurant several miles away I wont have a car. Is there anything you can suggest?
Johnny P., Des Moines
Answer: There is of course the local branch of Little Sheep, the Sichuan-style hot-pot place in the mall right next door, as well as Mon Land, a block or two away. The Shanghainese restaurants in Focus Plaza, which are legion, all feature at least a small selection of Sichuan food, much of which is fairly well prepared. But what I suspect youre looking for is more along the line of Oriental Pearl, a well-regarded Sichuan restaurant that recently moved to the Hilton-adjacent mall from its former location in Alhambra.
Oriental Pearl may only be the fifth- or sixth-best Sichuan restaurant in the area. The fried chicken cubes with hot pepper dont sing quite like the same dish at Chung King, where it is prepared with at least triple the amount of dried chiles, and the octopus with pickled pepper is pleasing in a direct, funky way but is somehow one-dimensional. The fried spareribs with prickly ash are far less numbing than one might wish. The spicy fried fish tai-an-style is on the mushy side. The array of cold dishes doesnt even include fried peanuts, which some of us consider essential. But still one of the great things about the San Gabriel restaurant scene is that the fifth-best Sichuan restaurant in the area is really pretty good, and after a meal of wonton in chile broth, Chinese bacon with leeks, and water-boiled fish, by which the Sichuanese mean fish boiled in almost pure chile oil, you will probably be very happy. 227 W. Valley Blvd., No. 128C, (626) 281-1898.
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