Initial reports on the new Macau Street have focused on the fried duck chins, the grilled chicken knees and the waiters in yellow pirate blouses who could double as extras in a dinner-theater production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Also there is the café’s popularity. The wait for a table is long, especially for a Chinese restaurant in a stretch of Monterey Park where good Chinese restaurants are as thick as pigeons on the ground, and the parking lot is filled with an awful lot of Mercedes AMGs for a place whose menu doesn’t crack 10 bucks even for whole steamed fish or shark’s fin soup. Flat-screen TV sets are tuned to ESPN and Nickelodeon, so that both suburban dads and their offspring can zone out during dinner. If you try to muscle your way toward a seat that may not officially belong to you, a stooped Chinese woman will cut you off at the knees like an All-Pro free safety with vengeance on her mind.
But when you finally get to your table, all around you everybody has ordered the same thing: the house-special crab, which is to say a plump, honestly sized crustacean dipped in thin batter, dusted with spices and fried to a glorious crackle, a pile of salty, dismembered parts sprinkled with a handful of pulverized fried garlic and just enough chile slices to set your mouth aglow. There are a lot of fried crabs in the San Gabriel Valley at the moment, but I have never tasted one nearly this good. If you are lucky, you may draw an animal whose goopy, delicious innards crisply laminate the inside of its carapace. At $8.95, Macau Street’s house-special crab may be the single greatest bargain in Los Angeles. The one time I tried to order the curry crab, a famous Macanese dish also listed on the restaurant’s photo-menu of specialties, the waitress shot me a look that I last remember receiving from an algebra teacher in eighth grade. She let me have the curry crab (which mostly went uneaten), but I ended up with the house-special crab too.
Like everybody else, or at least everybody whose idea of the Macau table comes from cookbooks, travelogues and the occasional plate of “African” chicken at local Hong Kong–style cafés, I had assumed that the cuisine was all about Portuguese influence and trade routes, Cantonese cooking inflected with exotic spices, spicy crab and a dozen kinds of salt cod, almond cookies and suckling pig, creamy tea and thin red wine. The Portuguese introduced thick curries, flaky pastry and coffee to East Asia, also chiles, peanuts and the delicate art of deep frying. Macau is famous for its cuisine, which is legendarily good enough to lure Hong Kong residents onto hourlong hydrofoil trips to the former Portuguese colony, but the food that everybody talks about is the earthy Eurasian crossover fare.
Macau Street, dubbed after a local name for the crowded outpost, may be many things, but a fusion restaurant is not one of them — the cooking is almost purely Cantonese, even the dishes on the Traditional Macau Dishes section of the menu, which includes most of the best food in the place. Pork neck, which I have never seen on another Chinese menu, rubbed with seasoning, extravagantly salted and slow roasted, so that the slices are rich and sweet and tender as a caress, could pass for the best cha shiu pork in town, even without its house-made fermented-bean dipping sauce. The roasted squab is as crisp of skin as it is moist of flesh; the roasted pork includes lacquered slabs of suckling pig almost too soft to pick up with chopsticks. There is a daily tong shui, long-simmered healthful soup, served in a ceramic pumpkin, and the Saturday soup of chicken and Asian pears was as balanced and superconcentrated as a great French chef’s consommé.
The noodles at Macau Street tend to be rather ordinary, but it is possible to have an astonishing meal even if you stray from the menu of Macau specialties. I liked the hollow-stem vegetable ong choy served with a stingingly tart sauce of fermented tofu, the string beans dry-fried with salty crumbles of pork enriched with Chinese olives, and the fried duck tongues — called “chins” on the menu — soured with lemongrass. The clay-pot rice, baked to order and served scorching hot, is especially good here; in the version prepared with chunks of preserved duck and blackened slivers of the house’s dense, fragrant Chinese sausage, the perfumed oil from the cured meat insinuates itself into every grain. And when the clay finally cools, you can peel the crust off the bottom of the vessel and eat it like a big, crunchy potato chip.
A meal here is unthinkable without at least one dessert order of the Macau egg-custard tarts, sun-yellow things encased in flaky pastry so intricately layered that it makes puff pastry seem crude as Wonder Bread. And I have become strangely addicted to the “small cookies,” crisp, chewy, sweet, salty disks that are studded with tiny cubes of cured lard the way that oatmeal cookies are studded with raisins. “Small cookies” are as close as you may ever come to the Wonka-designed product in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that reproduced all the sensations of a three-course meal in a single stick of chewing gum.?
Macau Street, 429 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 288-3568. Open daily 11 a.m.–1 a.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$28. Recommended dishes: house-special crab, roast squab, roast pig neck, egg tarts.