When we non-Chinese visit one of the San Gabriel Valley's handful of grand Cantonese restaurants, such as King Hua in Alhambra, we usually are there for morning dim sum, with its accessible, crowd-pleasing array of dumplings and snacks, or for a friend's banquet, where we enjoy the suckling pig and baked lobster while studiously trying to avoid the platter of spiky sea cucumber making its way toward us on the lazy Susan.
But the best cooking in these restaurants is to be found neither in morning bacchanals nor at your college roommate's wedding reception but on evenings in the restaurant itself, where the menu suddenly becomes baffling in its complexity, the prices often loom higher than they do at Mozza or Animal, and you find yourself wishing that you had called ahead for a shot at the chicken steamed with mushrooms and Chinese ham, the stewed partridge with Chinese herbs or the marinated whole duck. Do you want the duck web with kidney? I'm guessing you do not. And the list of chef's specialties includes baked lobster with cheese.
So you fall back on your rudimentary ordering strategies. King Hua doesn't have ong choy with fu yee — Chinese watercress with fermented bean curd — but the pea leaves with garlic I am offered instead are salty, plentiful and great. Salt 'n' pepper tofu cubes are self-explanatory, but are as crisp and gushy as you had hoped. The steamed spot prawns, plucked live from a tank and brandished thrashing before they meet their fates in the kitchen, are pretty much the best ever: sweet, briny, tasting completely of the sea. Will the waitress, given the opportunity to make a recommendation, suggest deep-fried pork chops with honey, a concoction sweeter than a bag of fun-size Milky Ways? Unfortunately, she will. At such times there is always dried-scallop fried rice.