New Chong Qing: New Hot Pot Spot
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's New Chong Qing photo gallery.
Some of the best cooking in the L.A. area happens in mini-malls: Everybody who’s lived here more than a month or two knows that. If you aren’t willing to dine in a restaurant sandwiched between a doughnut shop and a dry cleaner, you’re going to miss out on some of the best food in town. But the mini-mall that is home to New Chong Qing, the newest of the many, many new Sichuan restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, is not of the sort usually conducive to cuisine. Anchored at one end by a bank and at the other by a chain drugstore, it is the kind of sterile, featureless plaza where you would consider yourself lucky to find a Quiznos or a boba parlor, which, in fact, you do.
Yet, if you happen by at midafternoon, you might see an intricately fitted tanker truck in the lot, a muscled man wielding a net, and a chef inspecting a flapping, silvery shipment of live tilapia newly transferred to a barrel. In front of the restaurant, in an area that probably serves as a dining patio when the weather is nice, a card table is wedged into a corner, draped with weathered Hefty bags and heaped with vividly red chiles drying in the sun. On chilly nights, the dining room windows are fogged with garlicky steam; the walls are painted in Easter-egg pastels. A rear wall bristles with bright, graffitied Post-it notes, which look at first like off-menu dishes until you realize that they are splattered with manga characters and Peter + Hsien-ming. Look around, and you realize that nearly everybody in the restaurant is tending fishy hot pots over tabletop burners. The English name for the restaurant, New Chong Qing, could be mistaken for the bland Chungking on the Westside, the Chung King in Monterey Park and the better Chung King in San Gabriel, but the Chinese name, which translates as something like “boiled fish,” leaves no doubt as to the specialty.
There is a very good, if insanely salty, version of the spicy fried chicken served at most of the other Sichuan restaurants in town: crisp cubes of Sichuan-pepper-infused meat stir-fried with a half pound of dried red peppers. Cold, slightly claylike sesame noodles are walloped with numbing Sichuan pepper; slippery, stretchy cellophane noodles are tossed with spicy ground pork and pickles — I suspect that the dish is a vastly improved version of the Ants in a Tree some of us grew up eating at faux-Sichuan restaurants in the 1980s. The Sichuan standby, mapo tofu, is worth trying: intricately seasoned, as simultaneously soothing and vicious as an Aimee Bender story. The sweet, sticky kung pao chicken, which will occasionally be brought to the tables of non-Chinese whether they order it or not, is straight out of P.F. Chang’s.
Still, while the menu seems pretty extensive, the fish pot is placed on the table almost as soon as you sit down, and the waiter is already concocting for you a dipping sauce out of chopped Sichuan pickles and a ladleful of broth from the pot.
Sichuan-style hot pots are common in the San Gabriel Valley, and if you’ve done the rounds, you’ve seen your share of them, but the fish pot at New Chong Qing is almost another species: heaving rather than seething; delicate rather than overwhelming; forming fat, glassy bubbles rather than erupting into spitting, violent geysers of liquid. The broth is glazed with a thick, solid layer of scarlet oil; the murky depths hide bean sprouts, a few types of chiles, and one of those recently flapping tilapia, chopped into big chunks contoured to maximize the incidence of bone. Tilapia is nobody’s favorite fish, but it does the job here, absorbing a maximum amount of the broth’s flavor, cooking to a pleasant, gelatinous texture, and leaving a clean, aquatic aftertaste. If you are still hungry, the fish pot magically becomes a regular Sichuan hot pot, and you can order greens, tofu, fish balls, or shaved lamb to cook in the simmering broth.
This food is made for beer, but you will have to content yourself with a glass of fresh cucumber or watermelon juice. Is the dish as intense as the water-boiled fish at either of the Chung Kings? Probably not, but the fish tends to be of higher quality, and it’s nice to be able to manipulate the flame yourself. And you will be glad of the boba shop next door.
New Chong Qing: 120 N. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 309-0836. Open daily, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Dinner for two, food only, about $40. Recommended dishes: cold noodles, fried chicken, fish hot pot.
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