What the Doctor Orders

Photo by Anne Fishbein

In the course of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Seymour Benzer invented gene mapping, came within a hairsbreadth of inventing the transistor, and jump-started the hard science of molecules and behavior. The genes governing memory and the biological clock were discovered in Benzer’s Caltech lab; the science of genetic dissection began with the mutants in Benzer’s fruit-fly room.

What may be more relevant, Benzer is at the moment investigating the connection between genes and gastronomic preference. Little has made me happier in the last several months than learning that a great biologist has spent even a small amount of his time genetically manipulating fruit flies to enjoy wasabi and hot chile, which they are predisposed to avoid. I’m not sure what the eventual implications will be for world cuisine, but they’ve got to be good.

When he is administering chiles to himself rather than to mutant drosophila, Benzer tends to frequent the Chinese restaurants of the nearby San Gabriel Valley, where he has exerted a certain amount of effort in the last few years looking for a specific Sichuan-style shrimp dish that used to be the specialty of a local chef. He once put an order of the shrimp under his lab microscope, attempting to isolate the secret ingredient. He believes that cardamom may have been the key, but he hasn’t tasted a decent version of the shrimp dish since the chef in question moved back to Taiwan. Still, he recommends Lucky Dragon in Monterey Park.

“The restaurant is good,” he said. “Stay away from the duck with dried tulips.”

Monterey Park, of course, is far richer in real Sichuan restaurants than it was even a couple of years ago, when most of us were happy even to live in the same time zone as such miracles as spicy spare ribs, water-boiled kidney and fu qi fei pian, whose existence we were previously able to intuit only from cookbooks, and not many of those. If the eel with pickled pepper bore less relation to the kind of eel you find in Chengdu than it did to a Panda Express egg roll, there was no real way to be sure. If the twice-cooked pork had really been cooked three times, or only once, who knew — until now?

Does the phrase “home-flavor” mean anything specific? It seems to indicate that the dish is cooked with pickles and a spicy, supersalty chile paste. Is sizzling-rice soup really a Sichuan dish? The books indicate that it is, and the singing rice crusts, which explode into a sort of mega–Pop Rocks frenzy when a waitress ladles over them a thick, saucy bowl of braised shrimp or pork, are on the menu at most of the local Sichuan restaurants. Are “water-boiled” dishes mild? Not unless you follow the Sichuan rationale, which more or less posits that a vast quantity of Sichuan peppercorns acts as a local anesthetic numbing your mouth against the onslaught of chile heat.

Lucky Dragon is a newish Sichuan restaurant a few blocks west of the other restaurants in Monterey Park’s Sichuan belt, tucked into an anonymous storefront near an aquarium-supply shop, outfitted with the usual deli counter and glass-front refrigerator. For $3.25 you can get a small assortment of cold dishes, perhaps a dish of five-spiced peanuts fried with tiny fish, sliced pig’s ears in chile oil, briny shredded seaweed or the aforementioned fu qi fei pian, thin, chile-slicked slices of cold simmered beef and tripe.

The restaurant bills itself as Hunan/Sichuan, but many of the dishes listed in the sizable Hunan section on the menu are the same things you see in Sichuan restaurants all over town: home-flavor kidney, twice-cooked pork with asparagus, beer duck and any number of bacon dishes. Lucky Dragon’s Chinese-bacon dishes are among the best in the San Gabriel Valley — chewy, pungent with smoke and deeply salty, steamed in a bowl with vegetables or fried with hot chiles, with green garlic, or with dried, pickled string beans.

You will also find all the Sichuan standards: delicious fried eel with chile, frog with pickled peppers, a mapo tofu that practically vibrates with the narcotic fragrance of Sichuan peppercorns, and a maximally spicy bowl of water-boiled fish slices. Lucky Dragon’s version of hot fried chicken cubes is actually better than the one down the street at Chung King, which I have always considered one of the great dishes of Los Angeles — a scattering of crunchy dark meat coated with salt and spice, tossed with scallions, and dry-fried with an almost comical quantity of fried red chiles, which are supposedly there just for the aroma.

Do they have Benzer’s shrimp?

They do not, although the fried shrimp with hot pepper have not been the source of many complaints, squat, crunchy, intense things also buzzing with the numbing alternative heat source that the locals sometimes call ma. Do Sichuan peppercorns repel fruit flies? Only Benzer may truly know for sure.

Lucky Dragon, 321 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 573-5060. Open daily 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16–$28. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: steamed Chinese bacon; Chung Qing hot fried chicken cubes; mapo tofu.

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