When Chengdu Taste opened in Alhambra in 2013, it ushered in a new era of San Gabriel Valley restaurants featuring the spicy, numbing, peppercorn-laden dishes of Sichuan Province. More specifically, it shifted the focus of Sichuan dishes from those originating in the city of Chongqing to those from the provincial capital of Chengdu.
But there are still plenty of old-school Sichuan places serving Chongqing favorites, including dishes such as la zi ji (spicy chicken cubes).
While there is some overlap of the two cities' cuisines, there are differences as well. Chengdu-style food is plenty spicy but somewhat less so than Chongqing's dishes. This becomes immediately apparent when confronted with a plate of Chongqing fried chicken cubes.
A dauntingly large pile of dried red peppers overwhelms the chicken to the point where it’s hard to spot any meat. However, much like another famous Sichuan dish — water-boiled fish — the peppers are there for flavoring rather than consuming. You're supposed to pick through the peppers with your chopsticks for the morsels of chicken.
The dish is made by taking cubed chicken thigh meat and bits of chicken skin, coating them in cornstarch, wok-frying them and tossing them with scallions, ginger, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and the dried peppers. Often this is done with a splash of bright red chile oil, then it’s finished off with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The end result is crisp, crunchy, salty and spicy. Really, it’s Sichuan-style fried chicken.
Normally, we'd be able to recommend that you go someplace named after the city to sample this and other Chongqing dishes. However, in the last six months, the two restaurants in L.A. named for Chongqing have closed. And don’t bother looking for la zi ji at acclaimed Sichuan spots Chengdu Taste or Szechuan Impression, either, because they don’t have it.
Not to worry, though, because most older Sichuan places still serve the dish, albeit under a wide variety of names. It’s just a matter of deciphering what it’s called and where it is on the menu. (Hint: It's usually under "House Specials.")
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You’ll find it in San Gabriel Square at Spicy City (140 W. Valley Blvd.) and a short distance east of there at Lucky Noodle King (534 E. Valley Blvd.). It's also available at the sister restaurants Yunnan Restaurant in Monterey Park (301 N. Garfield) and Yunnan Garden in San Gabriel (541 W. Las Tunas Drive), where it’s listed as “Chung King fried chicken cubes w/ hot pepper.”
If you find yourself even further east, in Rowland Heights, there is the one-time standard bearer of SGV Sichuan, Shufeng Garden (18459 Colima Road), which calls it “Shufeng Spicy Chicken” — and there's yet another iteration across the street at Chuan Ma Noodle House (18438 Colima Road).