Trying to find a particular Chinese regional or local specialty can be quite an adventure, even among the hundreds of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. The search
for these items, be it Datong-style braised rabbit heads or Tianjin-style earhole cakes, can produce tales worthy of an explorer.
This time, the tale revolves around the efforts by one Chowhound poster to find a dish he'd enjoyed in Beijing: mustard cabbage. The dish is popular around Beijing, but proved frustratingly elusive in greater Los Angeles. Even with the help of the SGV hounds, it was more than two years after his initial query before word came of a place in Rowland Heights that had it. He arrived only to find the item crossed off the menu, his hopes dashed.
Normally, now we'd just point you to the menu and maybe make an attempt at providing pronunciation. Not this time. That's because the mustard cabbage isn't found on the menu: It's an off-the-menu item that must be special-ordered in advance. A week in advance.
So what is the dish? Strips of cabbage are slathered with hot mustard, a splash of rice vinegar and a dash of sugar before being wrapped with twine. This cabbage in bondage ferments in the hot mustard for a week. Back at the restaurant a week later, a plate of three is placed on your table. If you're not Chinese, expect the waitstaff to come out to watch what happens next.
Served chilled, the initial bite triggers a burst of eye-watering, sinus-searing heat. It walks the perfect balance: a little stronger and you'd be reduced to a whimpering heap. A bit weaker and you could shrug it off. Give the thumbs up to the staff through watery eyes and go in for a second piece.
The dish bears some resemblance to kimchi, only hued yellow instead of red, and with mustard taking the place of chili peppers. At $5.99 for three, it might seem a bit pricey, but keep in mind that it's a non-menu item, special ordered and somewhat time-intensive.
If you're not a Chinese speaker, it can be a bit of a challenge to get the dish. Here's what we recommend. When you decide to try this item, make a high-quality printout of one of the photos above. Take it in to the restaurant, point to it and place an order. Go back a week later, again bringing the photo with you as insurance, and (hopefully) enjoy. We make no guarantees, as miscommunication can happen. And should it happen, take it in stride, chill and try again. It's all part of the hunt.
Follow Jim Thurman on Twitter @JThur01.