Little Malaysia seems to concentrate on the Nonya cooking of Pinang, an island off Malaysia’s west coast: hot and spicy, liberal with such root spices as ginger and turmeric, tending more toward clean sweet-and-sour flavors than toward the coconut-milk richness of much Malaysian and Indonesian food. But it‘s when multiculturalism rears its head that things really start happening on the plate. The Hainanese chicken-rice dish (rice simmered in stock, accompanied by a chile dip and a few pieces of poached chicken) is easy to like — subtly fragrant with ginger, grains separate and just barely oily, the flavor of the chicken clear and distinct. Curried fish head, a standard at Singapore’s Indian restaurants, is delicately flavored and tartly sauced here, although the job of digging out the fish‘s cheeks, jowls and lips is hardly a dainty one. 3944 N. Peck Road, No. 8, El Monte; (626) 401-3188. Open Tues.–Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $11–$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Living Fish Center
It wasn’t until we looked at the prawns leaping about the dimly lit tank, and at the plates of half the customers, that we figured out what this restaurant‘s specialty might be. I said a couple of words to the waitress. The chef came out from behind his counter and dipped a hand into the tank, rippling the still, clear water until a number of prawns sprang up to nip at his fingers. He plucked the liveliest specimens from the water and brought them back to his station, where he quickly removed their shells. A few seconds later, the prawns were presented on a mound of crushed ice, heads intact and very much alive. I bit into the animal, devouring all of its sweetness in one mouthful, and I felt the rush of life pass from its body into mine. It was weird and primal and breathtakingly good, and I don’t want to do it again. You may want to try the fish soup or the Korean sashimi instead. 4356 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 953-1740. Open Mon.–Sat. 1 p.m.–mid. Dinner for two, food only, $15–$45. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.
This restaurant has a minor specialization in earthen-pot entrees, soupy things served in great clay vessels as big around as satellite dishes, and first among these is the fish-head earthen pot, the front half of a gigantic carp stewed in an aromatic stock, laced with sharply spicy chiles and mellowed with bean paste, the thing to get here if you don‘t mind your dinner looking back at you. The rest of the fish, one presumes, finds its way into the popular dish of fish tail braised with a seemingly infinite amount of garlic cloves. The steamed lion’s-head meatballs may be the best food in the house, big and fluffy, decked out with ruffly manes of cabbage, fragrant with garlic and star anise, bathed in half an inch of the mother of all brown sauces. 970 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 625-1195. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $19–$32, more with live seafood. Beer and wine. Validated lot parking. AE, MC, V.
Mei Long Village
Even if Mei Long Village served nothing but dumplings — terrific steamed bao stuffed with sweet red bean paste, flaky sesame-flecked pastries filled with root vegetables and bits of pork, flying saucers of what seems like Chinese filo dough surrounding a meager but intense forcemeat of sauteed leeks — it would be worth a visit. Mei Long Village is also the perfect place to try any of the famous Shanghai standards: sweet fried Shanghai spareribs dusted with sesame seeds, garlicky whole cod braised in pungent hot bean sauce, big pork lion‘s-head meatballs, tender as a Perry Como ballad, that practically croon in the key of star anise. The new-wave Shanghai classic jade shrimp, stir-fried with a spinach puree, is especially good, firm, subtly garlicked, garnished with deep-fried spinach leaves improbably glazed with sugar. And did we mention the stir-fried jellyfish head with ginger? Oops! Must have slipped our minds. 301 W. Valley Blvd., No. 112, San Gabriel; (626) 284-4769. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$30. Beer only. Lot parking. MC, V.
Specials at Yazmin have included a steamed cake of yams and pounded rice, topped with a curl of burnt onion and a sprinkling of chewy dried shrimp, like what you dream is in those little bamboo baskets when you try a new dim sum place; a clay pot filled with a beef stew almost like a black, carrot-rich Malaysian pot au feu violently flavored with lemon grass, cumin and chile; bean-curd sheets and fish-cake-stuffed tofu served with braised vegetables in a mild yellow curry instead of the usual bean sauce. There’s also an incredible “Indian” fish curry, served in a Chinese clay pot with a mild, complex curry and meltingly tender eggplant, and an impeccable Malaysian version of the Indonesian dish beef rendang, cooked in spices and coconut milk until it falls apart at the touch of a fork. 19 E. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 308-2036. Open Tues.–Sun. for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $13–$20. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Disc., MC, V.