For those who remember pre–civil rights–era Los Angeles, it's ironic that communities that once did not allow Chinese people to reside within their borders now sport a significant Chinese-American population: San Marino, South Pasadena and Rancho Palos Verdes, for example. But the greatest irony is that of Arcadia, which once vehemently excluded Chinese-American residents but now has become the face of the globally known San Gabriel Valley Chinese-American community. A city whose entire character has changed as its single-story homes have been replaced by mega-mansions built to the lot lines, thanks almost exclusively to the influx of Chinese homebuyers. A city whose famed Santa Anita racetrack is probably now better known these days for hosting the summertime 626 Night Market and its panoply of Asian food offerings than for horseracing. And a city whose signature shopping mall, Westfield Santa Anita, is beginning to resemble an Asian community center.
While the Santa Anita mall has a long history of Chinese food options (albeit originally just your typical food-court Chinese), it is now becoming a conspicuous powerhouse for Asian food in general, and Chinese food in particular. The seeds of this food transformation began in 2013, when the famed mainland Chinese Sichuan hot pot specialist, Hai Di Lao, opened its first U.S. branch here. Even with a $50 or more per-person tab at lunch or dinner, Hai Di Lao was booked for months, and the precedent was set. While more authentic Chinese eateries opened up in the interim, 2016 was the year when the mall’s Chinese food scene exploded. In the spring, Beijing-based Sichuan-style restaurant Meizhou Dongpo opened up Dongpo Restaurant, its second American branch following up its surprisingly successful initial opening in the Century City mall, supposedly bringing much of its kitchen staff from Century City to Arcadia. A few weeks later, the big dog, the legendary Taiwan-based Din Tai Fung, opened up its massive 300-plus-seat flagship restaurant to replace its two modestly sized locations a half-mile away — but there are long waits here, too. And at the end of 2016, Johnny Lee opened his acclaimed Hainan chicken specialty eatery, Side Chick, as part of Westfield Santa Anita’s Asian food court alley around the corner from Din Tai Fung.
Now in 2017, the beat goes on. Once again it’s a famous Chinese mainland-based chain, Sichuan Kungfu Fish, opening its first U.S. location (and its second North American location — there's one in suburban Toronto) in Westfield Santa Anita. The opening of Sichuan Kungfu Fish in mid-August shows just how far Sichuan-style food (as well as other regional Chinese cuisines) has evolved in the United States in the 21st century.
When "authentic" Sichuan food first came to the United States in the late 20th century, it was all about the chilies and fiery spiciness, as typified by the water-boiled fish at Chungking Restaurant in Monterey Park. At the time, the ma la numbness of Sichuan peppercorns was virtually unheard of in local restaurants, since those peppercorns were banned from the United States as a carrier of citrus disease. It wasn’t until a dozen years ago, when properly treated Sichuan peppercorns were allowed into the country, that ma la came to our local Sichuan restaurants (though bootleg peppercorns did previously manage to slip through for personal use).
While San Gabriel Valley Sichuan cuisine is now synonymous with those numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and the establishment of destination purveyors of ma la such as Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression is making the biggest splash, Sichuan cuisine continues to evolve in the San Gabriel Valley. Chengdu Taste has opened Mian, its noodle spinoff, Chengdu Impression has a broad Sichuan menu that goes beyond numbing and spicy, and a number of small restaurants have opened up featuring Sichuan grilled whole fish and fillets — most impressively, Sichuan Kungfu Fish, just a few doors down from Dongpo and Hai De Lao.
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It’s not clear what the relationship is between kung fu and either Sichuan or fish, but the restaurant plays it up to the hilt. As you open your relatively slim menu, you are urged to “choose your opponent” from Top Secret Sea Cod, Professor Swai, Killer Catfish and Commander Tilapia. You are given your choice of several spicy and nonspicy base sauces, along with a number of sides and appetizers. There are also set dinners for two based on the same opponents. Those still in a fighting mood can select from a listing of “Fighting Skewers.” Fish dishes are served hot pot–style in fish-shaped vessels.
All in all, the presentation and the ambiance at Sichuan Kungfu Fish are in line with the new wave of more upscale Chinese restaurants opening up in the San Gabriel Valley in the past two years. The entrees at Sichuan Kungfu Fish run generally in the $20 to $35 range. One interesting section of the menu is marked “Reservations Required,” which is apparently Chinese for “order in advance.” Included in this section is the "Ultimate Seafood Boss," containing lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops, clams, sea cucumbers and mussels for $199. (It does serve five to six people, so pricing is comparable to the individual and set dinner items.)
A lot has happened in Arcadia in the past few decades. And in traversing Westfield Santa Anita these days, perhaps the ultimate irony is catching yourself wondering “What are those non-Asians doing here?”
400 S. Baldwin Ave., #2360, Arcadia; (626) 898-5733, kungfu-fish.com.