Photo by Anne Fishbein
The San Gabriel Valley at the moment is crowded with restaurants serving the cooking of Shanghai and eastern China with kitchen staffs recently emigrated from China itself, bastions of the region’s mellow brown sauces and freshwater fish, fat-braised meats and juicy steamed dumplings. Chang’s Garden, in a newish shopping center tucked behind the one that houses Din Tai Fung, is a different kind of place, sleeker, more cosmopolitan — a Shanghai-style restaurant by way of Taiwan, which is to say the raw edges of the flavors have been rounded off, the textures are a bit suaver and the rivers of oil have been reduced to trickles. It is possible to order wine at Chang’s Garden, should you want it, and it is clear that the décor, much of which has to do with artfully perforated metal wall panels, required more effort than backing up a pickup truck to the nearest restaurant-supply store.
The difference between, say, Green City or Mei Long Village and Chang’s Garden is a little like the difference between East Los Angeles institutions such as La Parilla or Ciro’s and the Border Grill. One sort of restaurant is distinctly more "authentic," and you would not be wrong to prefer the directness of its cooking to the glossier pleasures of the other, but it is clear that there is a standard of professionalism and a quality of ingredients in the latter kitchens that the homier restaurants don’t quite approach.
For one thing, Chang’s Garden doesn’t always limit itself to Shanghai-style foods. There is a very nice rendition of the Szechuan dish of simmered beef and tripe in chile oil, and splendid fresh Chinese bacon with garlic and chile. The special goat stew soup, which turns out to be made with lamb, is a strong, very northern concoction of meat, medicinal herbs and plenty of rice wine. The chef amplifies the effect of a standard stuffed shaobing by pan-searing northern-style pancakes and wrapping them around fillings of spiced beef or flash-fried green beans. You will find decent tea-smoked duck and even ham with honey sauce.
Vegetable dishes tend to be pretty good too: pea tendrils tossed quickly with oil and a little salt, pudding-like slabs of Japanese eggplant cooked down with garlic and chile, cubes of tofu dusted with flour and fried until the inside becomes molten. An excellent version of the Shanghainese standard of string beans fried with garlic and crumbles of pork is cooked at a heat high enough to break the starches in the vegetable down into sugars and make the beans limp enough to describe a parabola when you pick them up with your chopsticks.
Still, the kitchen’s heart is in the eastern dishes. And where Green City’s braise of chicken with chestnuts is a gentle, woodsy thing, the version at Chang’s Garden is cooked quickly in a superheated clay pot, almost like a chestnut-intensive take on the popular Taiwanese dish sometimes called three-glass chicken, the dark cooking juices are reduced to a sticky, fragrant glaze and the small chestnuts pop with heat and flavor. The popular cold pork appetizer at many of the Shanghai restaurants in town is delicious but a bit inelegant, presented on the plate like sliced Spam. Chang’s Garden’s version is as gorgeous as a three-star French terrine, bits of pork suspended in a transparent matrix of jellied meat juices above a tissue of skin. It is a gorgeous dish, sprinkled with matchsticks of shredded ginger, and it is even better with a few drops of the region’s famous black vinegar, as dense and viscous as anything from Modena.
Tungpo pork, a specialty of Hangzhou, is one of those dishes that shows up more often in treatises on Chinese cuisine than it does on actual menus, a tricky preparation of braised, steamed pork belly named after the Sung dynasty poet Su Tungpo. ("Why him?" you may ask. "Perhaps it is just because he would have liked it," surmise Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsu Feng Lin in their book Chinese Gastronomy.) The geometric precision of the square-cut belly is reputedly vital to the success of the pork, as is the deep brown color of the surface of the dish, the smooth, clean, custardy texture of the abundant layer of fat, and the soft meatiness of the steamed pig flesh. Tungpo pork is like the graduate-school version of the pork pump endemic on Los Angeles Chinese menus, the summit of the Chinese art of braising.
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I had never tasted tungpo pork until I visited Chang’s Garden (although I own maybe 30 or 40 cookbooks with recipes for it), and I may have to spend time in the better restaurants of eastern China before I can deliver a definitive assessment. But while the version at Chang’s Garden may not have been quite as life-changing as a proper Beijing duck tasted for the first time, or even the first encounter with a great steamed fish, it is a splendid dish, rich and nuanced and tender as a trembling block of tofu, the translucent fat glowing almost like stained glass under its mahogany veneer, the flavor riding that same thin edge between blandness and funkiness that you find in a really fine plate of carnitas.
And as good as the tungpo pork is at Chang’s Garden, it may not even be the best steamed-pork dish on the menu — the spareribs steamed in lotus leaves with pounded-rice flour and a little rice wine are magnificent things, little essays on the virtues of long-cooked pork.
Chang’s Garden, 627 W. Duarte Road., Arcadia, (626) 445-0606. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Inexpensive lunch specials, Mon.–Fri. Dinner for two, food only, $24–$38. Recommended dishes: pork spareribs in lotus leaves; green beans in Chinese pancake; stewed chicken with chestnuts.