Spicy With Spicy
The aftermath of a dinner at Hua‘s Garden is like a Francis Bacon painting splashed across the tabletop in shades of red -- gory puddles of scarlet juice alive with Sichuan peppercorns, scraps of scallions, chewed bits of gristle, pounded rice flour and frog bones stripped clean of their meat. Ruined chiles spill out of bowls and are scattered underfoot like flotsam tossed up at the high-tide line after a winter storm. Leftover bits of chicken and beef tripe ooze into their dishes the vivid vermilion not of blood, but of oil tinted by the carapaces of a thousand dried peppers. A Sichuan-style meal always involves a certain amount of trial-by-chile, but dinner at Hua’s Garden sometimes feels more like a death march, a passage through a violent landscape marked by terror, by extreme pleasure, by pain.
A few steps from the center of Chinese Monterey Park, next door to a Korean barbecue and occupying the former quarters of a grill that served what was undoubtedly the finest Vietnamese braised deer penis in this part of the world, Hua‘s Garden is an outpost of the spicy provinces of China. We have seen many of these dishes at places like Fu Shing in Pasadena and the elegant Shiang Garden in Monterey Park -- the pornographically delicious ma po bean curd, the Sichuan dumplings, the Chungking hot pot, the fantastic hacked cold chicken sluiced with chile oil -- but the Hunanese and Sichuanese cooking found at Hua’s Garden is presented with a depth of flavor, a brutal frankness that has rarely been seen around here before: eel with pepper, twice-cooked pork, boiled fish with Sichuan special sauce.
A sort of Sichuan antipasto bar occupies a deli case toward the rear of the dining room, holding room-temperature salads of pink chicken gizzards tossed with sesame oil and slivered scallions, cool strips of simmered tripe dyed pink with toasted-chile oil, chewy slices of pork tongue laid flat on a plate, and an almost perfect version of the crunchy slivered pig‘s ear salad that is a mainstay of Taiwanese appetizer menus. Sometimes there are dry, scarlet fingers of beef cooked halfway to jerky and saturated with sweet spices, then rolled in crushed red peppers the way that ice cream cones are sometimes rolled in chocolate sprinkles. The kelp salad, pleasantly garlicked but brinier than the seaweed salad at, say, Mandarin Deli downtown, is the sort of thing that might be great in doses of a gram or two in a big pot of porridge but may be too strong to enjoy as a thing in itself. About a month ago I forgot to get an order of the crunchy, sugar-glazed peanuts fried with tiny dried anchovies when I went to the restaurant, and I have been regretting that missed opportunity ever since.
Not everything at Hua’s Garden, by the way, is incendiary. The Yunnan spareribs steamed with pounded rice, as densely porky as a Burgundian terrine, are completely wonderful, and the terrific house-cured Chinese bacon sauteed with leeks and green peppers is as mild as a Taco Bell chalupa. Actually, the best dish here may be completely without chile, a version of Yunnan rice-noodle soup, sometimes known as crossing-the-bridge noodles, nearly as mild as oatmeal: a plateful of gooey, elastic noodles, sliced pork and greens pushed into a steaming bowl at the table, where they cook only by the heat of the broth.
But there is an entire array of dishes stir-fried with fermented hot chiles -- beef, squid, splinters of firm-fleshed fish -- that amplify severe vinegar tartness with a truly terrifying level of heat, and the result is not unlike a refined version of what might happen if you were to eat an entire jar of the hot peppers at a Thai restaurant, spooning them right out with their juice. (I thought the frog with pickled pepper was one of the best things I‘d ever eaten.) And for sheer overkill it is hard to beat the dish piquantly translated as Spicy With Spicy: fresh peppers and dried peppers minced fine and fried with pork and pungent Sichuan pickle, a fiery, powerfully salty hash reduced to about the density of pure lead.
You might think this food would go well with beer, and you would be right. A can of cold Budweiser, the only beer on offer, practically sizzles dry on your tongue.
301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 571-8387. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $14--$24. Budweiser served. MC, V.
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