Is there a contest for the best steamed fish head in the San Gabriel Valley? Because if there is, the example at the new Hunan Seafood might win the prize — a mammoth, silvery head, jaws agape, eyes frosted in death, a half-inch of chopped chiles troweled over the skull like a layer of Christmas-y scarlet-and-green asphalt. The fish head is borne to the table in a casserole the size of a hubcap, and the bottom inch or so is lapped by a pickle-tart broth. When you finally stop admiring the behemoth, stop trying to figure out whether the massive skeletal structure belonged to a carp or a boat-tippingly large river cat, the flesh comes away in hunks almost the size of cigarette packs, transformed by its half-hour trip through the steamer into juicy mouthfuls marrying the intense vegetable bite of fresh chiles and garlic, pickled chiles and ginger, with the sweet, mellow taste of the sea.
Sea monster: Hunan Seafood’s fish head casserole
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Hunan’s ribs: Deep-fried lamb jolted with numbing peppercorns, fried peppers and garlic
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You could work for an hour on that head, picking oozing lozenges of meat from cranial interstices and the secret, gelatinous bits from where they hide inside the animal's cheeks, daring yourself to taste the forbidden scraps. Chiles and whole garlic cloves are spooned onto rice. Soup is gulped. The top and then the bottom side of the fish head are scraped clean. Taiwan Beer, the fine product of the Taiwan Tobacco and Alcohol Monopoly, comes in tall, cold bottles, and you will need every ounce.
Do local Hunanese restaurants seem to specialize in steamed fish heads? Perhaps they do. But there are lava-red hot pots to consider too.
The Los Angeles area has seen a lot of Hunan-style restaurants open in the past couple of years — as one of China's most populous regions, it was bound to be a significant immigration source at one time or another — although many of them have tended to specialize in the funkier side of the cuisine: the steamed and smoked meats, the simmered organs, the fermented vegetables, and the oily, fearsomely hot dishes that seem to make up a lot of the peasant cooking in the region. If your idea of great seafood includes dried squid, if you are a devotee of smoked pig's tongues, livery sausages and bowlfuls of slippery steamed bacon, Hunanese cooking may be for you.
Although it shares a lot of its menu with those other restaurants (you can get a plate of steamed pork ribs or a sweet pumpkin pancake if you want them), Hunan Seafood leans toward the suaver end of the spectrum — not as elegant, perhaps, as the beggar's chicken and golden smoked pomfret that were so popular at the late Charming Garden (although at the moment it sports the health-department C that the revered institution famously displayed for so long), but more user-friendly than the funky cafÃ©s that have been popping up in Valley Boulevard malls. Here are clean stir-fries of lamb or beef or crumbled meat or pungent house-smoked bacon, or gooey strips of stewed pigskin with fermented black beans and chopped red and green peppers. If you don't order carefully, it is possible to end up with three or four versions of essentially the same dish.
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Flash-fried Taiwan lettuce bears the breath of the wok. Elegant cold chicken comes with a complexly herbal dipping sauce. Pork ribs, steamed under a coat of rice crumbs, taste eloquently of themselves. The chewy deep-fried lamb ribs, jolted with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and tossed with a mixture of fried peppers and garlic, are pretty hard to stop eating, so you should probably have a bottle of Maalox in your glove compartment just in case. On cold nights, half of the customers are splashing fish balls, leeks and lengths of pork intestine through sputtering cauldrons of Hunan hot pot — induction burners are set into every table.
The restaurant, inserted into the space that used to house the provocatively named Pho King, has a pedigree. The proprietors used to run Hunan's Restaurant in Alhambra before it burned down last year, and before that Crown Café, in the San Gabriel building that has since been taken over by Chung King. Hunan Seafood may be new, but it feels as if it has been around for years.
But would it be a Hunanese restaurant if it didn't feature the dish often called "Mao's pork," an homage to Hunan's favorite son, a bowl of soft, slithery chunks of pork belly simmered with garlic, star anise and fresh bamboo? It would not. Hunan Seafood's version is the best in town.
Hunan Seafood, 8772 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 280-8389. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$38, more with seafood. Recommended dishes: house special lamb ribs, fried Taiwan lettuce, "Mao's pork," fish-head casserole.