Photo by Anne FishbeinNO MATTER HOW ASSIDUOUSLY YOU MAY FOLLOW the Chinese restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley, it is astonishing how easy it is to find a place that serves not just an unusual dish or two, but a whole new cuisine, a down-home Taiwanese breakfast menu, say, or Chiu Chow dim sum, or a kind of noodle-shop cooking practically unknown outside Inner Mongolia. No mini-mall restaurant is so small that it may not surprise you; no corner of a gilded Hong Kong businessman's menu can safely be ignored.
The J.Z.Y. Cafe is a sleek new restaurant on the lower level of a small San Gabriel mall, next door to a legendary Vietnamese spring-roll parlor and downstairs from a passable Cantonese banquet hall, in a space last occupied by a northern-style noodle shop where everything seemed perfumed with the citrus-pine scent of the Chinese herb osmanthus. J.Z.Y. is a bit fancier than the usual Chinese mini-mall restaurant: The walls glow in brilliant shades of vermilion and forest green, and a fountain burbles by the entrance. The plain wooden tables are surrounded with Eastlake chairs; a burnished bar at one side of the room looks like an import from a chic Taiwan coffeehouse. The soundtrack leans toward Simon & Garfunkel tunes tastefully rendered on the Chinese er hu. Customers sport Dolce & Gabbana sweaters and Chanel handbags, Gucci pumps and chunks of jade as big as Mike Tyson's fists. At lunch time, J.Z.Y. can seem a little like a Chinese version of the Polo Lounge.
But the restaurant, the first American satellite of a venerable Beijing shop that also has branches in Taiwan, is as much of a cultural center as it is a café, and the menu is a virtual encyclopedia of the kind of seasonal Beijing snacks and ultratraditional Beijing desserts that might once have been served to the Empress Dowager, re-created in painstaking detail. Even if you eat Chinese food every day of your life, you have probably never seen dishes like some of these: slices of cool, crunchy bean jelly tossed with julienned vegetables and a nostril-searing sauce of sesame and grated wasabi; "cherries" of pork stewed with cabbage; cold noodles tossed with fried pork and bean ketchup; a sweet porridge made with purple sticky rice.
Most of the customers check off their orders on little Chinese-language paper menus attached to clipboards on each table, but a cheat sheet is available, a thick volume that identifies each preparation with photographs, notes on ingredients, and a small essay on seasonal appropriateness. After a few meals here, and a couple of passes through the menu, you could probably give your own lecture on Chinese food ways -- or at least the imperial uses for haw cake.
Actually, though the menu may seem comprehensive, it is also fairly short: a few cold dishes, a few stews, a few kinds of noodles. The house cold plate is a compendium of the sorts of things you might order at a noodle shop, but raised to a different level: boiled peanuts with the peculiar crispness of fresh celery; pressed tofu with the rich denseness of roast pork; blandish boiled seaweed; bouncy simmered egg. Cool slices of long-cooked pork "arm," arranged like the petals of a flower on the plate, exude levels of piggy complexity you may associate with great Italian prosciutto, though the flavor hints more at anise than at cheese.
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Where, in many Chinese restaurants, soup can be an undifferentiated salty fluid, J.Z.Y. is as careful with its stocks as any French chef. Hun tin, floppy won ton stuffed with a rough paste of smashed pork, float among shredded scallions in a clear, delicate consommé, and spurt their own, meatier broth into your spoon when you bite into them: a superb contrast. Tofu, as soft and slithery as the homemade stuff, drifts in a thickened stock inflected with the subtle sweetness of exotic fungus. Crunchy, melonlike slices of white gourd bob in a broth tightly poised between the pork richness and the salty funkiness of dried scallops. Even the soup for the noodles -- a supergamy beef-organ soup for the ox-tendon noodles, a rich lamb broth for the lamb noodles -- is fine.
And this is one Chinese restaurant where you absolutely must try dessert: rich puddles of walnut purée or bitter-almond "tea"; fried, stuffed cakes shaped to resemble ears; elephant trunks and celebration cakes, osmanthus-scented "cool cake" and rice-flour balls shaped around sticky chopped nuts; the most extraordinary sliced lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and painted with an herbed syrup.
1039 E. Valley Blvd., Suite 102C, San Gabriel; (626) 288-0588. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10$20. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: liang fen; white gourd stew with dried scallop; hun tin; sliced lotus root stuffed with sticky rice.