With today marking the beginning of Chinese New Year, and 2011 being The Year of the Rabbit, we thought it only appropriate to sample a variety of dishes featuring the honored animal.

While Americans generally consign rabbit to the mantle of “exotic meats,” the use of rabbit is not uncommon in some Chinese regional cuisines, particularly in Sichuan and Hunan provinces. Despite this, rabbit is not easily found on menus even in the San Gabriel Valley. Follow us down the bunny trail [ed. note: see Easter posts], which in this case passes through San Gabriel and Rowland Heights, for three places to experience some distinctly differing Chinese treatments of rabbit.

#75 "Family Style Rabbit" at Hunan Chilli King, San Gabriel.; Credit: Jim Thurman

#75 “Family Style Rabbit” at Hunan Chilli King, San Gabriel.; Credit: Jim Thurman

On a large and varied menu at Hunan Chilli King, #75 is “Family Style Rabbir” (sic). If one isn't Chinese, or with Chinese friends, be prepared to be met by a stunned reaction upon ordering and quickly becoming the center of attention with the staff and cooks. A large plate of chopped bunny bits, smothered in chilis, scallions and garlic cloves arrives at the table, bone-in. What to do with the bones? You eat them! The term rustic is overused, but it is an apt description for Hunan style, which is reminiscent of American Midwestern cuisine, save for the liberal use of hot chiles. Mild really means spicy, and ordering spicy often turns into an epic of Scoville-ian proportions. Another note? The sweetness of star anise, an interesting contrast to the chiles. Rabbit is one of the more expensive items on the menu, but the portion is large enough to require bringing two or three friends along.

For the Sichuan version, head to Shufeng Garden in Rowland Heights for Rabbit With Red Spicy Sauce. Here you'll find a similar, bone-in chopped rabbit, covered with red pepper flakes, blackened pepper, scallions and garlic cloves. Spicy, yet more complex than the Hunan version, it is also slightly more gamey. But in a good way.

Wei Kei soup w/ Rabbit Meat (S #13) at Nature Pagoda Restaurant, San Gabriel.; Credit: Jim Thurman

Wei Kei soup w/ Rabbit Meat (S #13) at Nature Pagoda Restaurant, San Gabriel.; Credit: Jim Thurman

The small, brightly lit Nature Pagoda Restaurant sits across the street from Prospect Plaza (a.k.a. Xiao Long Bao Plaza) and has doubtless been passed many times by folks seeking an XLB fix. Traditional, herbal Cantonese dishes are featured here, primarily in soup and hot pot form. Healthful food is stressed, though there is plenty of sausage and pork belly on the menu. With ox pizzles and hasma on the menu, rabbit is tame by comparison. #13 under soup is Wei Kei with rabbit meat. In this application, the rabbit is bland, rather like overcooked roast beef. But an earthy slightly sweet broth makes up for the blandness. The rabbit, which can be easily flaked off the bones, sits alongside fungus, jujube and herbs. Satisfying on a chilly SGV evening. Claypot rice with rabbit meat is also available, but you'll need to read or speak Chinese [ed. note: Eddie Lin, are you reading this?] to find it.

So, there you have it, our choices for Chinese New Year themed dishes. Next year, the Year of the Dragon, you're on your own.

Hunan Chilli King: 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 288-7993.

Nature Pagoda Restaurant: 312 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 570-8333.

Shufeng Garden: 18549 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights; (626) 839-7589.

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