Let’s just call it New Fusion: the current brand of culinary mashup that distinguishes itself from old fusion because it relies not on gimmickry and cultural appropriation but on mixed identity and global citizenship. If New American can distinguish itself from simple American food with a little “new” in the title, I don’t see why fusion, with all its difficult connotations, can’t do the same. L.A. can probably claim the status of New Fusion capital, what with our Korean tacos and Thai fried chicken sandwiches and udon carbonara. These things bear no more resemblance to wasabi mashed potatoes than uni-and-avocado toast resembles a Big Mac.
Now comes Chang’an, an odd kind of restaurant that can perhaps be described as a Chinese gastropub. Located on the top floor of a three-story strip mall in San Gabriel, Chang’an welcomes you with one of those blackboard signs that’s jammed with drawings of butchered meat cuts and twee fonts spelling out phrases such as “100% organic” and “People who love to eat are the best people.” But rather than burgers and jazzed-up pork belly on the menu, you’re more likely to find watiaoyu: boiled fish and frog in fiery chili broth.
Chang’an is interesting less for its food, which is mainly fine and only rarely fantastic, than for what it symbolizes culturally for the San Gabriel Valley and its significant Chinese population. This is a restaurant catering to a moneyed class of young Chinese diners who want atmosphere and wine and beer with their traditional and not-so-traditional Chinese food. Chang’an was not built for American diners, as almost nothing is in this part of town. The menus are in Chinese (there are bilingual menus, but they list far fewer dishes than the Chinese menus). But unlike the multitude of SGV restaurants that are by and for the Chinese community, these customers are almost entirely young and trendy, and this room — with its long bar and televisions playing hip-hop videos and high tables and booths set with wine glasses — looks as if it could be set in West Hollywood.
Things that matter more to the older generation, like regional specificity, are not important here. The huge, multipage, mildly confusing menu is full of Sichuan dishes and Cantonese dishes and Japanese-style seared beef tongue and a beef tataki with capers that’s sort of Italian-ish. A meat dish is just as likely to be garnished with grilled asparagus and saffron fronds as a shower of cilantro leaves or Sichuan peppercorns. There’s a focus on grilled, skewered meat that’s part Chinese and part Japanese — the cumin-heavy lamb skewers are delicious with one of the nuttier Japanese ales from the extensive beer list. A focus on live seafood — killed and cooked to order — is reminiscent of the best Chinese banquet halls. Whole abalone, which was only available from the Chinese menu when I dined there, was smothered in so much garlic and scallion it was hard to taste the seafood. But the prestige associated with paying a premium price for such a delicacy was not diminished.
If you ask your waiter for recommendations and specialties, he’ll push you toward a carefully composed salad of chrysanthemum greens (advertised as crown daisy greens) held in circular place by a thin wall of shaved cucumber, and dressed in a lightly creamy dressing that tastes of peanuts and sesame. It’s about as far from traditional as Chinese food comes. Servers will also steer you to a whole lobster, cooked Cantonese-style and chopped into pieces and arranged dramatically on the plate with claws and head aloft. The ginger and scallion and other flavors are perhaps a little too mild, but the lobster is cooked beautifully.
Lotus stuffed with sticky rice is the prettiest lotus presentation I’ve seen, laid out in a long dish in slices and drenched in a sweet sauce, but the lotus itself lacked the mild earthiness I’ve come to expect from it.
Plenty of Sichuan-style dishes present meat or fish in red oil with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns, and while they’re fine, they don’t come close to the complexity and perfume of similar dishes at the better Sichuan restaurants in town. But some of the seafood here is exceptional, in particular, the house special cod dishes. The “special boiled black cod” presents the silky, white-fleshed fish in a delicate milky liquid, with shiso punctuating the broth the way basil perfumes a Thai curry. You’ll pay upwards of $35 for many of these seafood specialties. This is, quite proudly, not a restaurant for bargain-seekers.
The drinks list is notable mainly because there is a drinks list, and it’s a long one. There are a few cool beers in amongst a lot of standard choices; wines from Australia, Chile and France (think lower-end labels from Penfolds and Lafite); and colorful, very sweet cocktails. There's also sake and expensive bottles of champagne. This is absolutely the right setting for a celebration, if you like a clubby atmosphere rather than a banquet hall for such occasions.
At a restaurant like Chang’an you can see the unfolding influence of money and youth, and how these facts change the way a culture eats. Slowly, the way Korean and American culture now influence one another, we can see a modern global Chinese way of life emerge, one that’s affected by L.A. and Europe but that’s Chinese through and through. As one more arm of the New Fusion revolution, it is endlessly fascinating and occasionally delicious.
CHANG'AN | 227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel | (626) 872-0906 | Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight; Sat. & Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight | Dishes: $6-$36, more for market price seafood | Full bar | Lot parking