View more photos in the “Adrenaline Junkie Cuisine” slideshow.
The action in San Gabriel Valley restaurants at the moment is in northern Chinese cooking, kitchens serving the rough, plain dishes of the vast areas north and east of Beijing. If you were going to prepare a Ph.D. dissertation on immigration patterns as seen through dumplings, it would be a good place to start.
But for the misfits and adrenaline freaks for whom capsaicin and organ meats are the drugs of choice, the dudes who will drive 55 miles at the slightest hint of a great fu qi fei pian, only to scoff because it lacks even the slightest hint of sliced lung, it is the west, the ever-shifting landscape of Sichuan and Hunan restaurants that still holds sway, where for every disappearing Lucky Dragon a Hunan Seafood pops up, for every vanished Best Sichuan a Szechwan Best, at least until that one vanishes too. In certain circles, longtime friendships are broken off and punches are thrown because of fealty to the true Chungking restaurant or the pretender down on Garfield, to Dong Chin Tung or Xiang Wei Lou.
Lately, I’ve been going to Hengyang Chilli King in Monterey Park, a bright café named for the second city of Hunan and a specialist in what has seemed to become the usual standards of Hunan cooking as presented here in Southern California. This means gigantic steamed fish heads with chile, preserved pork belly fried with garlic leeks and coruscating frog hot pots that have finally replaced THC-tinted memories of whatever Henry Chung used to serve in San Francisco in the ’70s.
Hunan is kind of the Chinese heartland, landlocked and agricultural, and local Hunanese cooking is as rustic as hell, whiffy and dominated by fresh chiles, intense smoky flavors, dried vegetables and fermented everything, a cuisine where even something as straightforward as stir-fried shredded turnip takes on a dozen levels of stink.
Hengyang Chilli King is the sister restaurant of the nearby Hunan Chilli King in San Gabriel, with which it shares a menu, a chef, and a propensity for forests of untranslated wall signs, which, as a conspiracy theorist, I surmise describe fantastic rare-mushroom dishes, wild game and stews of exotic dried vegetables. (I’ve been promising myself Mandarin lessons since the ’80s.)
Both restaurants announce themselves with fragrant puffs of garlic and toasted chile, smoke and charred meat. At both, if you’re not careful, you can end up with a tableful of what is essentially the same dish, rabbit or lamb or preserved pork or fried eggs or duck tongues or splintery chunks of frog, stir-fried with a colorful mosaic of garlic and hot chopped peppers. The basic formula is delicious, a real wonder to behold, but it gets monotonous after the fourth or fifth iteration if you don’t vary it with something like stewed wild pumpkin farmer-style; sliced dried cucumber tossed with shredded fresh shiso; a wintery stew of chicken with chestnuts, translated as “bangly” on the menu; or cauliflower in “pork oil,” cooked with enough crunchy lardons to power a dozen French salads. Does the menu item described as black bean with hot pepper leave out a key ingredient? It does not — and the garlicky, spicy sauté of the pure hot green chiles is the vegetable dish of a hot-food aficionado’s dream.
But Hunan Chilli King, the older of the two, has that sticky, slightly formal mini-mall closeness that some people confuse with authenticity, a sense that the owners decided to sacrifice creature comforts in the service of better food. Hengyang Chilli King occupies a sunnier, more open storefront on a block of clothing boutiques. Its kitchen is occasionally manned by young Chinese dudes chopping to the rhythm of house music; its co-owner will occasionally ask his customers if it’s okay to switch away from the Chinese channel for a while so that he can watch football. As big a fan as I normally am of Chinese game shows featuring blindfolded contestants who thrust gloved arms into viper-filled Ming urns, the combination of house-smoked bacon and the NFC title game was okay by me. And of the two, the Monterey Park restaurant is the one that accepts credit cards and serves beer, an upgrade in anyone’s book.
If you’ve been driving around San Gabriel lately, you may have noticed the big new restaurant called Yunnan Garden, a block west of the Mitsuwa market on Las Tunas, and thought the name seemed familiar. Yunnan cooking is not unknown in the San Gabriel Valley — the restaurant Yunchuan Garden, for one, has been serving Yunnan dishes for years. And Yunnan Garden turns out to be related not just to the Hacienda Heights Yunnan Garden but to Yunchuan Garden — which was briefly even called Yunnan Garden after it started life as Hua’s Garden, and then became Yungui Garden before it assumed its current name — although in this version it has been chopped and channeled into a sort of user-friendliness that until now has been basically lacking in this part of town.
The cooking still leans toward Sichuan classics, including a killer cold case of chile-laced tripe, pork stomach, beef shank, tofu, yam jello, you name it — Yunnan is more or less in the neighborhood. The warm sliced fatty pork with garlic is very good. But where you used to have to guess your way around the menu, a new, clearly labeled photo insert now makes it easy to order the restaurant’s specialties, not just the water-boiled fish, fried chicken and dan dan mian, but famous Yunnan dishes like the intensely herbal chicken soup gently cooked in a clay Yunnan steam pot, and a Yunnan dried-beef dish I’d never seen before, meat sliced paper thin and fried with big handfuls of fragrant dried chiles — it tastes like a Yunnan version of northern Italian bresaola. The dish you will see on every table is crossing-the-bridge noodles, a mild broth kept mysteriously hot under a sheen of oil, into which the waitress pushes vegetables, sliced raw poultry and rice noodles, which cook within seconds. Unfortunately, as at its sister restaurant and as in the refrigerator of your cheapest friend, the alcohol selection is limited to cold cans of Bud.
Hengyang Chilli King and Hunan CHilli King: Hengyang open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Hunan open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer at Hengyang. Takeout. MC, V at Hengyang; cash only at Hunan. Recommended dishes: sautéed preserved meat with garlic leaf; sautéed cauliflower with pork oil; house special steamed fish; bangly (chestnut) with chicken; dried cucumber with purple perilla.
(Hengyang) 138 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 573-9258.
(Hunan) 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-7993.
Yunnan Garden: Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Budweiser only. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: crossing-the-bridge noodles; Yunnan dried beef; boiled fat pork in garlic sauce; cold appetizers.
545 W. Las Tunas Ave., San Gabriel, (626) 308-1896.