|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
Behold the Sichuan hot pot, a pint or so of scarlet liquid frothing in a chafing dish, spitting up bloody geysers, roiling and bubbling around bits of meat and tofu like a sulfurous brimstone pool. You have tasted hot Asian food, no doubt, searing Thai curries and blistering Korean stews, but this is a heat of a different order, truly corrosive stuff, a pure tincture of chile and spice, thick as cream, overlaid with a garlic pungence that may ooze from your pores for a week.
The stretch of Valley Boulevard between Alhambra and Rosemead is home to one of the greatest concentrations of Chinese restaurants in the world, vast malls and miles of storefronts, converted coffee shops and retrofitted hardware stores, pizza parlors and drive-ins, serving the cuisines of every conceivable region of China and some that you haven't wrapped your mind around yet. There are dumpling houses and noodle shops, tofu specialists and barbecue pits, stir-fry palaces and a tiny shop that is locally famous for the interesting things it does with carrots.
Still, last week, the restaurant with a line out the door and a parking lot jammed to bursting, a place so saturated with fragrant steam that from the outside it vaguely resembled a sauna, was the new Taiwanese restaurant Lu Gi, which specializes in the fearsome Sichuan bowl of red, a cook-your-own spectacular that may be the perfect thing to eat on a chilly Wednesday night. In a part of town obsessed with Japanese shabu shabu, Cantonese sandy pot and Mongolian warm pot, Sichuan hot pot is the real deal.
Like Pink's, Roscoe's and Chili John's, Lu Gi is essentially a one-dish restaurant, and every table in the place seems to host an induction burner, a bubbling pot and a garlicky cloud of steam. (It is permissible to nibble on Taiwanese snacks, perhaps a seaweed salad or cheeselike slices of pressed tofu in a fairly powerful chile sauce of its own.) Men shuttle back and forth carrying brown bags from the liquor store down the street (Lu Gi still has no beer and wine license), though almost everybody settles for iced coffee or tall glasses of bittersweet wintermelon tea. And if you are not Chinese, a waitress may well try to dissuade you from sitting down at a table.
“American people do not like this food, I think,” one told me, grimacing slightly. “It is too . . . too . . . spicy.”
When you manage to convince the waitress that you won't even think of demanding kung-pao chicken or pan-fried dumplings, she will fetch a hot pot, a big, stainless-steel vessel fitted with two half-moon-shaped bowls, one filled with an innocuous clear broth and the other with the Disco Inferno. She clicks on the hot plate, and the two broths immediately bubble to life.
With the hot pot, a basic affair of the two broths, tofu and vegetables, it is customary to order foods to cook in the boiling brews: vivid pink, frozen curls of meat, sliced black mushrooms, slivers of freeze-dried tofu or plates piled high with dark Chinese greens. As with shabu shabu, you pick up a bit of meat with your chopsticks and swish it through the boiling broth for a few seconds until it is just done — or drop it in and fish it out with a little strainer.
The chile broth is the perfect medium in which to cook gamy shavings of mutton, gelatinous chunks of beef tendon, quivering blocks of tofu, which pick up and amplify the strong undertones of garlic and spice. Delicate little fishballs, fillets of bass and fresh shrimp dumplings are best simmered in the clear medium, and the waitress may hover for a few moments to make sure you don't drown them in the overpowering sea of red. Vegetables — try the crunchy slices of Chinese wintermelon — go anywhere, as do slithery rice noodles, which cook surprisingly quickly in the boiling soup.
By the end of the meal, when you have finished simmering a tableful of meat and greens in the broth, and it has boiled down to almost an espresso thimble of red goo, it is probably as caustic as lye, which you may well discover when your guts knot up five minutes into the drive home. Sometimes there is no pleasure without pain.
539 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 457-5111. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $20$25. No alcohol (yet). Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dish: hot pot.