The vast Cantonese banquet halls process thousands of customers a day. Gleaming Hong Kong-style cafés are as numerous as the red beans in a Chinese milk shake. Intimate seafood restaurants steam tankersful of live prawns each week. Still, the basic unit of Cantonese dining in Los Angeles seems to be the barbecue joint, and it is scarcely possible to drive three blocks on any major thoroughfare in Chinatown or Monterey Park without seeing a window or two filled with the characteristic conga line of impaled pigs and dripping roasted ducks.
Where a great American-style barbecue place typically has all the amenities of the license-renewal line at the DMV, a Cantonese barbecue restaurant can be fairly swank, with plush carpets and marble hallways, crystal chandeliers and Michael Bolton CDs. A separate takeout counter to one side of the entrance will probably offer the full range of Chinese barbecue specialties – lacquered ducks, simmered pig's intestines, salted chicken, barbecued pork – but the adjoining restaurant will also have a long menu of basic stir-fries, an array of noodle dishes and some hot pots, even the more expensive sorts of live seafood. (I ate yee mein and fried bean curd almost a dozen times at my favorite barbecue restaurant, Luk Yue in Monterey Park, before I realized it served barbecue at all.)
At a formal Chinese restaurant, you may feel a bit out of place unless you have brought along 10 of your friends; at a Chinese barbecue, it is perfectly all right to show up at odd hours, by yourself, and eat only a bowl of won ton soup or a plate of roast duck over rice. Barbecue restaurants are often open both for porridge breakfasts and for late suppers. At a barbecue restaurant, it is perfectly all right to ask the waiters for translations of the ubiquitous blackboard specials – and for them to get a little testy when you do.
Of the hundred-odd Hong Kong-style barbecue places in the San Gabriel Valley, perhaps the newest is Zest, a bright, sprawling restaurant near the eastern edge of Alhambra, in a building that was once home to the best of the first-generation Chinese seafood restaurants, Wonder Seafood. If you have been to enough barbecue places, you could probably navigate your way through Zest blindfolded, past the counter up front, around the hostess station, ahead to any of the big round tables that bear crisp tablecloths at night and are bare for the bargain lunches. If you have been to enough barbecue places, you probably also know this menu by heart: sizzling pork chops fried with spicy salt, seafood chow mein, anise-scented Cantonese beef stew with turnips over rice. Many of the dishes at Zest – the hot pot of roast pork and oysters, shrimp sautéed with snow peas, Shanghainese-style pork with preserved vegetables – are ordinary. A hot pot of frog and roasted rice was off-putting, a little slimy; wedges of deep-fried bean curd have been bland, almost chalky.
But something is clearly going on in the kitchen here. The tables are stocked with a couple of different kinds of chile sauce and jars of marinated Thai peppers, and there are far more spicy dishes than you might expect at a Cantonese restaurant. A soup made with delicate dried scallops is fine, as chewy as you might ever wish a soup to be. The “Zest-style” lobster is just wonderful, hacked into pieces and fried with chiles, ginger and herbs. It is crusted with garlic and absolutely juicy within. The “Vietnamese” lobster is substantially the same, with maybe double the quantity of chiles, and sluiced with sweet Asian spice. (The Zest-style lobster is more or less the house specialty, and nearly every table in the restaurant inspects a live lobster at one time or another during the meal.)
The actual barbecue at Zest is first-rate. Try the lengths of crisp-skinned sausage with the spicy, smoky taste of good Louisiana hot links; fried chicken whose skin shatters like the burnt sugar atop a crème brûlée; soft slabs of roast suckling pig garnished with strips of its crunchy skin. The meaty barbecued duck is complexly gamy here, flesh tight and chewy, slightly smoky, touched with a stinging, salty marinade – its strong taste approaches that of a wild mallard. And the honeyed roast pork, the vermilion outside intensifying to a crunchy black at the edges, has the smokiness, the garlic, the satisfying, jerkylike chaw of a Texas barbecued brisket . . . which is to say, it is the only Chinese barbecue I have ever eaten that tasted like, well, barbecue.
2505 Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 281-9968. Open Sun.- Thurs. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-11 p.m. $3.95 lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$22, more with live seafood. Beer and wine. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: honey barbecued pork; Zest-style lobster.