Sunday, December 03, 2006

The East Is West: The Best Chinese Restaurants in Southern California

By MARK BITTMAN

THERE are probably more Chinese in Los Angeles than in any metropolitan area outside of China. (The same very likely could be said of Mexicans, Iranians, Koreans, Japanese and more, which is what makes Los Angeles the best international eating city in the world.) Fifty years ago, most Chinese immigrants were concentrated in a typical downtown Chinatown, which still exists, but more as a relic than a vibrant community.

In the last few decades, in typical Southern California fashion, the Chinese have claimed a freeway. It is the portion of I-10 known as the San Bernardino Freeway. This road runs through the San Gabriel Valley, straight east from downtown, all the way to Jacksonville, Fla. (to the west, it runs only 10 miles, to Santa Monica). And for its first 50 miles or so, from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, it is a modern-day Chinatown, a string of multiethnic communities that all have a large, dynamic Chinese population. There is strong evidence of this in the chains of Chinese supermarkets, the likes of which exist nowhere else in the country. (In these stores, announcements are made first in Mandarin, then in Korean, then Vietnamese; then Spanish, and last English. Really.)

There is equally strong evidence in the restaurants of Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park and other nearby communities. Before World War II, this was an area of horse farms, orange groves and the like. Now it looks like every other new, freeway-oriented section in the parts of the country that have been overdeveloped in the last 20 years.

Yet these places are not without charm. You can see it on the Main Street of Alhambra, where you will, if you follow my advice, drop everything, and rush to eat at Triumphal Palace. (Don’t you love this? “Honey, let’s go to Alhambra and eat at the Triumphal Palace.”)

Triumphal Palace

The restaurant follows in the tradition of popular places such as NBC Seafood, Mission 261 — about which, more in a moment — and the ill-named New Concept. Their menus are large and long — several pages, at least — and often feature esoteric and very expensive ingredients such as abalone, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

For my money — and though it’s upscale by comparison, it doesn’t take much — Triumphal Palace is the best of the lot, with food that is full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame. The roast duck, which looks like every other Chinese roast duck you’ve ever had, is so good I suspect it’s not “roast” at all, but fried in clarified butter; it’s that crisp, tender and flavorful. It needs nothing, and certainly not the accompanying marmalade-like substance, which you should not allow to touch the duck. Other dishes are similarly simple, and just about as good: stir-fried Dungeness crab with scallion and ginger; pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops; a pretty dish of chicken slices, huge shiitakes, ham and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), served in layers.

For all of this, Triumphal Palace is perhaps better known for its dim sum (served every day at lunchtime) than for its dinner dishes. Like many of the grand West Coast Chinese restaurants, from Vancouver on south, the dim sum is ordered from a menu — you’re invariably given a short pencil and a printed sheet, to tick off what you want — cooked fresh and served hot, rather than being hawked from steam carts. (Still, the problem of everything coming at once can only be solved by staggering your order.)

Six of us — one of whom now claims she will be married here — shared 24 dishes (about 18 of which came within 10 minutes), and while all except the predictably sad desserts were good, some were incredible. These were barbecue pork belly, firm cubes of slow-cooked, crunchy-skinned fresh bacon that, I swear, were a dead-on replica of a dish Alain Ducasse used to serve at about five times the price; Chiu Chow-style dumplings, with thick, chewy, slightly crisp rice-flour exteriors filled with (could it be?) jasmine-scented meat; deep-fried carrot cake, in fact a savory-sweet custard-filled dumpling; boiled baby bok choy in fish stock, which, like the duck I’d had at dinner, contained some secret ingredient that was the Bomb; and a wonderful layered creation of pan-fried sticky rice with egg.

On a recent Sunday morning, the place was packed, as usual. The design is faux Deco-slash-modern, not horrible, but with the inevitable stark lighting. Still, the walls are of wood, there are tablecloths, and the chairs are padded and comfortable. At dinner the napkins are cloth, and the plates are changed frequently.

Mission 261

Triumphal Palace has taken the place of Mission 261 as My New Favorite Restaurant, but the latter — in an adobe complex, at least some of which was the city hall of the (no sarcasm here) lovely center of San Gabriel — has a couple of astonishing advantages. First off, it may be the best-looking Chinese restaurant in the country, with its whitewashed walls, oak-beamed ceilings and internal courtyard. Second, you can enjoy your dim sum alfresco, and to sit outside on a sunny Sunday morning eating two dozen spicy, high-quality little dishes is about as close to paradise as I’ve been.

And if it is not quite up to the currently high level of the dim sum served at Triumphal Palace, it remains very, very good. What I found disappointing at Mission 261 was dinner, which had fallen a long way from its own lofty standards of just a couple of years ago. Still, the shrimp with scrambled eggs, the steamed fish, the braised pork — these remain winners.

Chung King

Sadly, it seems that almost all of the large, fancy Chinese restaurants east of Los Angeles start out with a bang and then taper off toward mediocrity. With the smaller, less ambitious, perhaps more regionally loyal places, consistency is more predictable. This is certainly the case with Chung King, an unlikely dive on Garfield, one of the more important through streets in Monterey Park.

I’ve been a semi-regular here for about five years. The food is strictly Sichuan (Chungking is the largest city in Sichuan Province) and, honestly, it puts just about every other Sichuan restaurant in the United States that I’m familiar with to shame. You know how some Chinese restaurants have little chili symbols next to the hot dishes? Every dish in the entire first column of the menu here, with — literally — one exception, has a little chili symbol next to it. Fully half the dishes are blazingly hot — they must go through a coffee-sack of dried peppers daily — but tamed by the mouth-numbing sensation of floral-scented Sichuan peppercorns. This is a mind-body experience not to be missed: your body, abused with chilies, is crying “Please stop,” while your mind, entranced by the incredible flavors, keeps directing the chopsticks from plate or bowl to mouth and back again.

I’d go here with four or six people, so you can order a variety of dishes (ignore the steam table set up in the back unless you’re trying to spend less than five bucks): the brick-red boiled pork in hot sauce (oh, boy), fried chicken with hot pepper (do not make the mistake of ordering chicken with chili and peanuts, which is more the standard kung pao), fish slices in small pot (“only” an 8 on the 10-scale of heat), and maybe something tame like one of the great rice-crust dishes, which are essentially mild stir-fries served on freshly made rice cakes.

Non-Chinese speakers may have a problem here (even the English “expert” has trouble), but among the other customers are certain to be plenty of fluent Chinese-and-English speakers, willing to help. At least that’s how I’ve gotten by. (Note that it is cash only, though it would be hard to spend more than $20 a person anyway.)

Chang’s Garden

Chang’s Garden, a little farther east and nestled right under the mountains in scenic Arcadia, is not quite as ugly as some of the other little joints around, but it’s ordinary-looking enough and, like so many restaurants in Los Angeles, it’s in a strip mall. I was steered here by my friend and sometime-guide Carl Chu, who knows more about Chinese restaurants in America than anyone, and whose “Chinese Food Finder: Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley” is indispensable for the adventuresome eater.

The food at Chang’s Garden is Shanghai style, which means often quite sweet and usually quite fatty; the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, for example, has a nicely braised rib tucked inside the pocket of rice; the scallion bread is as crisp and greasy as a slice of good pizza; pork lacquered with brown sauce is almost but not quite sticky-sweet — in fact it’s nicely balanced.

But some dishes show the subtler, more sophisticated side of Shanghai cuisine: I especially liked the mildly delicious shrimp in tea leaves, and the fish chowder — I’m quite sure the broth was made from meat, unless there’s some especially meaty fish out there I don’t know about — with loads of fish meat, egg and scallion.

Foo Chow

Finally, there’s Foo Chow, in the original downtown Chinatown, one of the few Chinese places left in Los Angeles proper that won’t make you want to hop in your car and head east to Alhambra.

Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” was filmed here, but clearly with help from a brilliant set designer, because the place is, well, a dump. However, it’s inexpensive almost beyond belief, and it boasts the most cosmopolitan crowd I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant. Furthermore, there are some dishes here you won’t have elsewhere, especially the selection of creations made with red wine sauce (the wine is a kind of rice mash); while the chicken in red wine won’t make you forget coq au vin, it is delicious, though it cannot vie for a second with the fried eel, which is first marinated in red wine and then deep fried; it’s irresistible.

Perhaps I’m not lavishing enough praise on these places in general; when in Los Angeles, I tend to forget that the average Chinese food here is better than the best Chinese food in 90 percent of the rest of the country. So if not every dish in a given restaurant is a winner, I feel as disappointed as I would if Ferran AdriĆ  let me down. But come here, get in the car, drive out the freeway, and start eating; the occasional disappointment will be overwhelmed by the frequent ecstasy.

VISITOR INFORMATION

All restaurants are open daily.

Triumphal Palace, 500 West Main Street, Alhambra; (626) 308-3222. Dim sum about $15 per person; dinner $25 to $30 per person.

Mission 261, 261 South Mission Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 588-1666. Dim sum about $15 per person; dinner $25 to $30 per person.

Chang’s Garden, 627 West Duarte Road, Arcadia; (626) 445-0606. About $20 per person.

Chung King, 206 South Garfield Avenue, Monterey Park; (626) 280-7430. Cash only; $15 to $20 per person.

Foo Chow, 949 North Hill Street, Los Angeles; (213) 485-1294. About $15 per person.

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