Like a lot of Angelenos, I learned to eat Hunanese food at Charming Garden, an elegant dining room that was part of the churning second wave of Monterey Park Chinese restaurants, strategically positioned across the atrium from Empress Pavilion, which was for years the best high-end Cantonese restaurant in town. At Charming Garden, one ate golden-skinned smoked pomfret flown in from Taiwan, crunched through tofu skins tricked out to resemble Beijing duck and sipped delicate pigeon broth from scented bamboo cups. There were noodles tossed in a Sichuan-peppercorn-intensive “hot herb” sauce that I have never run across again, exquisite parades of cold dishes and various minced proteins wrapped in lettuce leaves, as well as an almost infinite variety of meats and seafoods sautéed with hot chiles. Beggar’s chicken was cooked so long that its bones dissolved into a savory, calciferous condiment. What I never quite realized at the time was that the cooking at the restaurant may have been less Hunanese food than it was Charming Garden food, passed through the filter of the high-end Taiwanese kitchen and tweaked to appeal to the refined Hong Kong palate. Still, compared to the sticky-sweet “Hunan” restaurants of the ’70s, Charming Garden food seemed real enough.
True Hunanese cooking, though, is rough, peasanty stuff, inflected with feral fragrances and fresh-chile heat, strong pickles and fermented everything, a dozen different intensities of smokiness, lots of steamed dishes and a sheaf of techniques that seem adapted from a Han Dynasty Boy Scout cookout. In the Hunanese kitchen, the chiles tend to be fresh and the seafood tends to be dried, and even a preparation as simple sounding as long beans with shrimp, at least as prepared at the new San Gabriel Hunanese restaurant Dong Ting Chun, may be overlaid with layer after layer of complex aromas, some of which you ordinarily might cross the street to avoid. (The dish, a brilliant green stir-fry of vinegared beans and tiny, armpitty fermented shrimp, is actually pretty spectacular once you get past the first blast of stink.)
Dong Ting Chun, which may or may not be related to the Hunanese restaurant chain of the same name in Shanghai, is a comfortable place fitted into the San Gabriel Square space that was once home to Chu’s Mandarin and Green Village among other illustrious tenants, filled at noon with fashionably dressed shoppers from the mall’s Chinese department store, eating fashionable lunches of pickled-egg hot pots, beer-braised rabbit and smoked pig’s tongue. Dong Ting Chun may be the most accessible local Hunanese restaurant since Charming Garden closed a few years ago, although it still isn’t quite set up for those of us illiterate in Chinese: The bargain-lunch menu is untranslated, the main menu is a minefield and nobody at the place really speaks enough English to explain to nonadepts that the mild, delicious paper-wrapped fish will be to their liking but the burnt-rubber essence of the Dong Ting fried fish may not be what they are looking for in a supper entrée.
Every meal at Dong Ting Chun is an adventure: Will fried mudfish be great or a murky disappointment? (The latter.) Will you like the baby-squid hot pot? Only if you have a high tolerance for chile heat and rubbery dried seafood. Is the sunny-side-up egg with hot pepper really what it sounds like? The egg is pretty much fried over, hard, but the fried hot peppers are for real. (Some of us couldn’t stop eating it.) Does the chewy yet luscious dish called Chairman Mao’s braised pork explain the depredations of the Cultural Revolution? Not likely, although the mellow flavors of star anise and long-cooked garlic cloves are nice, and the pickled bamboo shoots have an almost supernatural crunch.
Pumpkin pie? Fried pumpkin pancakes sprinkled with sugar.
I had assumed that the paper-pot section of the menu was a typo for pepper pot, the sort of ferocious simmered dishes common to Hunan and Sichuan chefs, but they are in fact paper pots, crinkled squares of foil, and sometimes parchment, folded into a Sterno-burning apparatus and filled with liquidy dishes like hacked frog seethed in chile oil or bubbling tofu cooked with minced chicken and slabs of fresh ginger, an ideal antidote for the surfeit of spicy food that makes up a Dong Ting Chun meal. (Purple Japanese eggplant sautéed with garlic and long beans is another one of the rare mild specialties.)
The Chinese equivalents of ham and bacon appear on Hunan menus as often as their counterparts do in Kentucky, and you will find the pungent house-cured ham, as different from its HoneyBaked equivalent as imaginable, stir-fried with dried turnips, dried tofu and green garlic tops, steamed with spicy fermented soybeans or with smoked duck, tossed into hot pots and insinuated into vegetable dishes. The chewy house sausage fried with leeks may be even better.
The famous dish at the Shanghai Dong Ting Chun is a steamed fish head plastered with fresh and fermented chiles, and at the San Gabriel restaurant you will find fish heads on two tables out of three, enormous things, painted Santa Claus red with a solid quarter-inch layer of chiles, grinning as merrily as the disembodied noggin of a rock cod is capable. There are a few obvious nuggets of meat at the base of the beast’s skull, but the rest of the meal will probably see you engaged in something like a scavenger hunt, digging out sweet morsels of cheek meat, prying open bony carapace, probing the animal with your chopsticks like a surgeon, trying to discover hidden pockets of flesh. At Dong Ting Chun, it always pays to get a head.
Dong Ting Chun, 140 W. San Gabriel Ave., No. 206, San Gabriel, (626) 288-6558. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$25. Recommended dishes: pumpkin pancakes; Chairman Mao’s braised pork with garlic and bamboo; stir-fried eggplant with long bean; Dong Ting special sausage; fried beef with wild pepper.