With the demise of the Beijing duck restaurant Quanjude and the Taiwanese makeover of the Islamic-Chinese restaurant Tung Lai Shun, the Sichuan restaurant Chung King may be the premier San Gabriel Valley destination for traveling food people at the moment, a restaurant you just can’t find in Chicago or New York. The Western Chinese cooking, sizzling with four or five different kinds of chiles, vibrating with the flavors of extreme fermentation and smacked with the cooling, numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns, lies halfway between dentist’s-chair Novocain and the last time you could afford a lot of blow. It never fails to leave visitors exhausted, narcotized and happy, drenched in foul, garlic-laced sweat.
The fabled fried chicken with chiles, a salt-drenched, firecracker-red concoction whose half-bushel of dried peppers is supposedly tossed in there for the fragrance, is the sort of thing you could probably eat until you burst. The assortment of cold dishes from the buffet up front — fried peanuts with tiny dried fish; chewy strips of dried beef with chiles; shreds of sliced brisket and tripe; smoked chicken legs; crunchy, slippery slivers of pig’s ear slicked with red oil — pulsate with heat. The beef hot pot makes the spicy, soupy beef at Fu Shing, a dish I once considered the single hottest dish in Los Angeles, seem as harmless as cherry Kool-Aid. The innocuous-sounding water-boiled fish may be the spiciest dish of all, and if you happened to take a spoonful of the stuff expecting something like Chinese bouillabaisse, your head would probably explode from the mega-Scoville shock.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Chung King occupied a small storefront on the southern end of Monterey Park’s Sichuan-restaurant strip. Street parking was scarce, air conditioning was nonexistent, and if you accidentally passed the place, you may have detoured miles through the hills if you were the sort of person who stubbornly avoids U-turns. If you wanted beer — and trust me, you want beer with this food — you imported it from the liquor store down the block. Your shoes stuck to the floor, your clothes reeked, your elbows glistened with scarlet oil. It was glorious.
Chung King recently moved into the space vacated by Crown Café, a Hunan-style restaurant that had in its favor an undeniable authenticity — the cooking had the take-it-or-leave-it quality of a Chinese country café — but could also leave you feeling as if you were on the wrong end of Mao’s Long March. (A country boy himself, Mao would have loved the potatoes in vinegar, although the semicooked potatoes in question were distinctly an acquired taste.) The Chung King people have spiffed the place up. The result is a Chung King with amenities: cold Tsingtao, a functional air conditioner, a parking lot, comfortable booths, a dining room in which you are no longer at constant danger of being poked in the eye with a rogue chopstick. And although the famous chicken dish seems to have stabilized at a slightly lower level of red death — the ratio of chiles to meat is down to about three to one — the cooking is as sharp as ever: salty house-smoked bacon cooked with musky slivers of green garlic; numbingly rich (and spicy) mapo tofu with chiles and crumbles of pork; and white-cut chicken with sizzling rice, which may be the least spicy dish on the menu, but can be as loud as a dozen bowls of Rice Krispies when the waitress pours its brothy sauce over the lozenges of hot, deep-fried grain.
A heap of spareribs, chopped into thumb-sized chunks, fried to a deep, golden crispness, is dusted with salt, chopped fresh chiles and scallions. The point of spareribs with prickly ash, of course, is the piquancy of the prickly-ash buds (Sichuan peppercorns), whose role, some say, is to desensitize the mouth enough to let it experience even higher levels of chile heat than usual. Chung King’s version used to be definitive, an essay in numbness and crunch, until a government ban on the spice caused them essentially to ease it out of their recipes. Sichuan peppercorns have been legal for a little while now — you can find them at any Chinese market — but only with the move have they finally made it back into the food at Chung King: The dish is worth ordering again.
The Sichuan wontons are still a bit stiffer than they might be. The aggressively pungent hot pot of hacked frog with fermented peppers and bamboo shoots is delicious, although you won’t eat more than a couple bites of it. “Beer duck” are two of the most beautiful words in any language, but the dish, unfortunately, does not realize its potential.
Every person in the restaurant seems to be eating a plate of minced pork with dried tofu and peppers, and you might as well try some — it tastes like a Shanghainese dish that has spent half a year bulking up with steroids, capsaicin pills and heavy weights. But still — you may wonder why you should eat a meal that will leave you feeling as if you’d just finished a couple of rounds with Oscar de la Hoya. Some of the dishes here may challenge your threshold of pain, but you owe it to yourself to take a run at Chung King at least once.
Chung King, 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 286-0298. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Beer. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14-$24. Recommended dishes: cold appetizer assortment (especially peanuts with tiny fish, spicy shredded pig’s ear and smoked chicken leg); fried chicken with chiles; water-boiled fish; Chinese bacon with garlic greens; fried spareribs with prickly ash.