The hottest Thai curry in Los Angeles? It's hard to say. The fieriest Mexican dish? I couldn't tell you, although a dish of grilled shrimp with sauteed habanero peppers I had at a defunct Whittier restaurant a few years ago was intense enough to coax my body into something closely resembling cardiac arrest.
But the soupy beef at the Pasadena Sichuan restaurant Fu-Shing may be the most incendiary single Chinese dish in Southern California, a brothy, brick-colored thing, gritty with ground dried chiles, thick with garlic, leeks, cornstarch-tempered slices of cow: Like a hard-fought set of tennis, it can soak your shirt in sweat. The dish is stunningly complex, with the bitter, buzzy heat of Sichuan peppercorns lurking just under the chile, black pepper not far under that, gradually expanding into a white-hot glow that I have always suspected would be sufficient to illuminate an inning or so of night baseball. Fu-Shing's soupy beef - ask for it extra-hot - is an endorphin surfer's Waimea.
Started 18 years ago in Alhambra, then occupying a former House of Pies on the grounds of a motel in Pasadena, Fu-Shing has always been renowned in the Chinese community for the sharpest Sichuan food in town, though in the straightforward Taiwanese style rather than in the sneakily numbing manner you might run across in Chengdu. Its latest location, a two-story building six blocks west of the last one, is a peculiar place, all nooks and corners, hallways and intimate dining rooms - almost, it seems, as a rebuke to the mammoth gastrodomes of Monterey Park, just a few miles south.
Fu-Shing is two restaurants in one, utterly Chinese, yet also the very model of a user-friendly suburban Chinese cafe, serving both demanding Taiwanese gourmets and country-club WASPs who have never quite gotten over the glories of chicken chow mein.
"I'm trying to decide," the man at the next table asks the waiter. "Which do you think is better, the pork egg foo young or the beef egg foo young?"
I contemplate the order of spicy chilled ox-tripe in front of me, the mellow turnip soup, the water spinach fried with stinky dried shrimp, the chile-stewed beef tendon bubbling merrily over a Sterno flame. I wonder whether I'm on the same planet as this guy.
Sichuan cuisine is cold-climate cooking, dark and musky and sometimes stunningly hot, dominated by the flavor of chiles, garlic and preserved vegetables, grounded in animal pungencies and the bite of Sichuan peppercorns. And for slightly more adventurous eaters, Fu-Shing is a dream Chinese restaurant, accommodating to non-Chinese customers in ways that no other local restaurant of its caliber has figured out yet.
The specials, for example - the seasonal off-menu items usually listed on Chinese-language wall signs - are all more or less translated here, both on a marker board in the foyer and in annotated menu inserts, which means that everybody has free and easy access to seasonal treats like crisp, duck-crusted taro fritters or cool mung-bean sheets with wasabi and hacked chicken. You don't have to guess whether snow-pea tendrils are in season. It also means that when the price of live Maine lobsters is down to $7.99 a pound, even the lingually challenged know to order them, perhaps fried with immoderate quantities of sliced hot chiles and toasted garlic.
The Kung Pao chicken, smoky-hot with dried chiles and nearly scorched peanuts, almost imperceptibly sweetened with hoisin, is perhaps the most balanced version of that dish in the San Gabriel Valley (if you're feeling adventurous, try the Kung Pao dish made with both fresh and dried squid).
The inelegantly named "fatty pork with garlic" is a cold cut almost more appropriate to a Tuscan table than to a Chinese one, prosciutto-thin slices of cooked pork leg frosted with a tincture of garlic powerful enough to inhabit your pores for a week. Cool ribbons of shredded beef tripe luxuriate in their marinade of garlic and chile oil.
But because Fu-Shing's menu is so easy to navigate, because so much of its clientele really does come to the restaurant for things like orange chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, it is easy to end up with a thoroughly suburban meal here, and the waiters seem programmed to steer you toward things like Chinese chicken salad or sugary dry-fried beef unless you specifically indicate that you want to eat "Chinese" food: salty "Hunan" ham with honey; house-cured gammon, fried with hot chile and leeks; luscious Chinese squash sauteed with sweetly marine masses of crab eggs; tea-smoked duck as chewy and as delicious as Phillip's barbecued ribs.
2960 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-8898. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$30. Full bar. Takeout and delivery. Lunch specials. AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: cold fatty pork with garlic sauce, cold tripe with chile oil, tea-smoked duck, Kung Pao chicken, spicy soupy beef, beef "shank" hot pot, home-style preserved pork, Chinese squash with crab eggs, crisp taro duck.
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