Photo by Anne FishbeinNO MATTER HOW ASSIDUOUSLY YOU MAY FOLLOW the Chinese restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley, it is astonishing how easy it is to find a place that serves not just an unusual dish or two, but a whole new cuisine, a down-home Taiwanese breakfast menu, say, or Chiu Chow dim sum, or a kind of noodle-shop cooking practically unknown outside Inner Mongolia. No mini-mall restaurant is so small that it may not surprise you; no corner of a gilded Hong Kong businessman's menu can safely be ignored.
The J.Z.Y. Cafe is a sleek new restaurant on the lower level of a small San Gabriel mall, next door to a legendary Vietnamese spring-roll parlor and downstairs from a passable Cantonese banquet hall, in a space last occupied by a northern-style noodle shop where everything seemed perfumed with the citrus-pine scent of the Chinese herb osmanthus. J.Z.Y. is a bit fancier than the usual Chinese mini-mall restaurant: The walls glow in brilliant shades of vermilion and forest green, and a fountain burbles by the entrance. The plain wooden tables are surrounded with Eastlake chairs; a burnished bar at one side of the room looks like an import from a chic Taiwan coffeehouse. The soundtrack leans toward Simon & Garfunkel tunes tastefully rendered on the Chinese er hu. Customers sport Dolce & Gabbana sweaters and Chanel handbags, Gucci pumps and chunks of jade as big as Mike Tyson's fists. At lunch time, J.Z.Y. can seem a little like a Chinese version of the Polo Lounge.
But the restaurant, the first American satellite of a venerable Beijing shop that also has branches in Taiwan, is as much of a cultural center as it is a café, and the menu is a virtual encyclopedia of the kind of seasonal Beijing snacks and ultratraditional Beijing desserts that might once have been served to the Empress Dowager, re-created in painstaking detail. Even if you eat Chinese food every day of your life, you have probably never seen dishes like some of these: slices of cool, crunchy bean jelly tossed with julienned vegetables and a nostril-searing sauce of sesame and grated wasabi; “cherries” of pork stewed with cabbage; cold noodles tossed with fried pork and bean ketchup; a sweet porridge made with purple sticky rice.
Most of the customers check off their orders on little Chinese-language paper menus attached to clipboards on each table, but a cheat sheet is available, a thick volume that identifies each preparation with photographs, notes on ingredients, and a small essay on seasonal appropriateness. After a few meals here, and a couple of passes through the menu, you could probably give your own lecture on Chinese food ways — or at least the imperial uses for haw cake.
Actually, though the menu may seem comprehensive, it is also fairly short: a few cold dishes, a few stews, a few kinds of noodles. The house cold plate is a compendium of the sorts of things you might order at a noodle shop, but raised to a different level: boiled peanuts with the peculiar crispness of fresh celery; pressed tofu with the rich denseness of roast pork; blandish boiled seaweed; bouncy simmered egg. Cool slices of long-cooked pork “arm,” arranged like the petals of a flower on the plate, exude levels of piggy complexity you may associate with great Italian prosciutto, though the flavor hints more at anise than at cheese.
Where, in many Chinese restaurants, soup can be an undifferentiated salty fluid, J.Z.Y. is as careful with its stocks as any French chef. Hun tin, floppy won ton stuffed with a rough paste of smashed pork, float among shredded scallions in a clear, delicate consommé, and spurt their own, meatier broth into your spoon when you bite into them: a superb contrast. Tofu, as soft and slithery as the homemade stuff, drifts in a thickened stock inflected with the subtle sweetness of exotic fungus. Crunchy, melonlike slices of white gourd bob in a broth tightly poised between the pork richness and the salty funkiness of dried scallops. Even the soup for the noodles — a supergamy beef-organ soup for the ox-tendon noodles, a rich lamb broth for the lamb noodles — is fine.
And this is one Chinese restaurant where you absolutely must try dessert: rich puddles of walnut purée or bitter-almond “tea”; fried, stuffed cakes shaped to resemble ears; elephant trunks and celebration cakes, osmanthus-scented “cool cake” and rice-flour balls shaped around sticky chopped nuts; the most extraordinary sliced lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and painted with an herbed syrup.
1039 E. Valley Blvd., Suite 102C, San Gabriel; (626) 288-0588. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10$20. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: liang fen; white gourd stew with dried scallop; hun tin; sliced lotus root stuffed with sticky rice.