Xinjiang barbecue is one of the most compelling snacks in the world, thin skewers of charred lamb snatched bubbling from the grill, crusted with cumin and dried chiles, dusted with salt and Sichuan pepper, spurting hot grease when the burning flesh snaps beneath your teeth. The sizzling skewers of grilled lamb are a street-food staple in Beijing, cooked by migrants from the northern Islamic area near the country’s western border, and they are the first thing everybody wants to eat after they come back from a trip there. Xinjiang barbecue may be to Beijing what tacos are to L.A.
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Skewered: Lamb and chicken, Xinjiang style
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818 or JN Kitchen?
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Pancakes in a soup bowl
And now there is 818, a.k.a. JN Kitchen, an unbelievably tiny skewer specialist toward the eastern edge of San Gabriel, four small tables, a waiting space outside and a glassed-in grilling area that is nearly as large as a phone booth. A lot of the northern-Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley feature a few skewers on their menus, but 818 is basically a grill specialist — gristly grilled lamb and juicy grilled sections of lamb chop; grilled strips of chicken thigh and tiny, tough slabs of grilled beef short rib; grilled quail eggs; and grilled Chinese sausage; grilled chicken wings, hearts, gizzards and necks, served all at once as a thicket of burnt skewers on a single communal plate. From a certain angle, it looks like those massed flying arrows from Braveheart. The meat may not be of the highest grade — nobody here is sourcing rare-breed Heritage lambs from organic farms in Tennessee — but it serves mostly as slightly gamy vectors of salt and spice anyway. There are jars of cumin, dried chile and white pepper on the table in the event you feel compelled to improve on the kitchen’s excesses. There is also a plate of grilled whole octopus, which takes well to the aggressive seasoning.
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In addition to the skewers, you will find a number of cold appetizers — the Sichuan-peppercorn-laced jellyfish salad and the Beijing-style cucumber salad with sesame paste are particularly refreshing; the cold tomato “bean curd,” a pile of raw, thinly sliced supermarket tomatoes sprinkled with sugar, is not. There are also perfectly serviceable steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and celery. The vegetable bao, bursting with leeks and transparent noodles, are the size of cannonballs.
The Xinjiang area is known for its breads, and 818 has several of them too, notably a dense, flaky hockey puck of dough dusted with sesame seeds, which is translated as “oil pancake,” and a similar bread that is split and filled with red cooked-beef bean sauce and fresh cilantro, a kind of Chinese Big Mac. There is a delicious soup spiked with shredded pancakes, which may be familiar from one incarnation of Mandarin Deli, and Sanxian noodles moistened with a pale broth and garnished with shredded cucumber. Something called House Hot Peppery is basically a spicy Mongolian hot pot served in a bowl with napa cabbage, cellophane noodles, fish balls, blood cubes and fried tofu bobbing in a bright-red Sichuan-peppercorn-infused soup.
818, it must be conceded, is not quite ready for the spotlight. As far as I can tell, the restaurant has no actual Roman-letter name. A sign outside says “JN Kitchen,” but the words appear nowhere else. The numeral 818 is graphically dominant on the menus, the business cards and the outdoor signage: It will do. There is no beer. There is only one table big enough to seat more than two or three people, and the staff seems truly bewildered by even medium-size parties. Waiters keep the ice water coming, but the air conditioning is inadequate to the San Gabriel summer. There may be somebody in the restaurant who speaks more than a word or two of English, but you are not likely to run into him. Still, it is easy enough to order the delicious barbecue. With a nod, a smile and one finger pointed at the menu, a platter of sizzling lamb-chop skewers will be yours.
818 (JN Kitchen), 818 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 307-5128. Open daily, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only. Street parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14-$24. Recommended dishes: lamb-chop skewers, chicken-wing skewers, grilled octopus, steamed pork-chive dumplings, oil pancake, cold jellyfish.