Good afternoon! This is the (delayed) third diary entry for a trip we just finished taking through the San Gabriel Valley with some friends. You can find the map here, which has some photos and may also have comments as the trip goes on, tied to each location we visit, and organized according to date. I’m also posting rawer pictures (just from my phone) on my Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/perigee/
On Sunday we did more shopping and dining and had various experiences culminating in Chengdu Taste which I may write about at length.
But first the itinerary in order:
Alhambra Farmer’s Market
100 S 2nd St, Alhambra, CA 91801
A good, solid, 2 – 3 block farmer’s market. Lots of Asian produce. Unsure of seasonality for LA, but it seemed like maybe we arrived between different seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially fruits. I got a few apricots, and a bag of delicious spicy (too spicy to eat a lot of at one time) cheddar popped glutinous rice. Yum!
After finishing off the Farmer’s market, we stopped at the local Starbucks to get some coffee/tea, then headed of to…
King Hua Restaurant
2000 W Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801
King Hua was a good choice for dim sum. There were some quality issues with some of the dishes, but also some real standout hits that were very well executed and very tasty. I’m cross-referencing here with the menu available online, because the receipt/order slip was entirely in Chinese (except for the item numbers):
Also note we didn’t get these in numerical order – the order slip shows a strict numerical ordering that didn’t reflect the random way dim sum dishes tend to come out to the table in.
- Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumplings (#1) – Good, big shrimp pieces, solid, standard plate for dim sum.
- Steamed Pork and Veg Dumplings (#3) – These were good and non-standard. The zucchini half slices signified that they were pork and veg instead of pork and shrimp and other possible mixes. Anyhow, they were quite good, seasoned and cooked well, and there were also (to my delight, since fun gor, which these resembled, usually have peanuts) NO PEANUTS. Tasty!
- Beef Balls (#4) – A good version of a standard dish, this had either cilantro or scallion, and water chestnut. Standard versions also use dried tangerine peel but I’m not sure I tasted that. Also it’s often served with Worcestershire sauce, but this did not. Still quite good – most of our party (except those with a beef against beef) liked it.
- Beancurd Roll with Pork in Oyster Sauce (#5) – As with all Beancurd Rolls, this one came out of the steamer preternaturally hot. Nuclear hot, as I like to say.
- Steamed Juicy Pork Dumplings (#12) (Xiao Long Bao) – Good. I think the wrappers were a little thick, but the broth was tasty.
- Deep Fried Lotus Root Puff (#35) – Never seen this before anywhere else. The filling was a pickled or preserved shredded lotus root. I’m not sure, but I think the yellow starch (ridged, here) was not lotus root. It was compelling and quite tasty. I would order it again.
- Deep Fried Taro Puff (#41) – These seemed a little less tender than I’m used to, and the fluffy part kind of stiff. The filling was also not as intensely seasoned as I’m used to. Not my favorite, but there were still some stars to come.
- Baked BBQ Pork Pastry (#42) – I quite liked this. The pastry was well executed and the overall seasoning was quite good.
- Deep Fried Shrimp Roll with Seaweed (#45) – We had a problem with this. One of our party reported a bad shrimp in the roll. I don’t think any others did, but it was kind of an odd deep fried dish.
- Supreme Pork Dumpling (#93) – This was an absolute star. The wrappers were perfect, the broth was yummy, the veg was well executed. All very tasty, and even better with the vinegar. Would very much be happy to order again.
Wing Hop Fung (永合豐)
725 W Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91754
Last year we visited Wing Hop Fung and found many interesting, high quality prepared food items, tea, and Chinese pharmacy items. This year, it wasn’t quite as new to us or good, the prepared foods, candies, etc, were reduced, and they had fewer art items (but they still had the super expensive large copper elephant sculptures). Some of us got a couple of things here and there, but it didn’t hold our interest as much as last year.
青島麵館 Qing Dao Bread Food
301 N Garfield Ave G, Monterey Park, CA 91754
The cook and waiter at Qing Dao were all awesome, friendly, cordial, and helpful, and answered with written and spoken Chinese when we had questions about the menu. We came for the delightful lacy-bottomed fried dumplings (they steam these in a pan, and then fry them dry, with a little extra water and starch, and the starch fries into a lacy pattern that forms around the bottoms of the dumplings).
Note also the charming gingerbread man tablecloth underneath the clear plastic in some of the shots. We also had to sit 3 to a 4-top table next to each other. 4-person tables are the biggest available in the tiny dining area.
- Pig Lips with Cucumber in Garlic Sauce – This was weird but good. The texture of the fatty lips kind of reminded me and some others of beef tongue, like you might get sliced from an Italian deli. The garlic was strong and raw, but if you like dressings made of strong, raw garlic and a nice vinegar, this could work for you. I liked it.
- Boiled Sole with Parsley Dumplings – Yummy. This and the fried dumplings both came with a raw garlic, ginger, and vinegar/soy sauce. Beware you may want to go light on the sauce (do a quick dip rather than a soak). But we liked the dumpling filling. The skin might be a little thick for your tastes.
- Pan-fried Pork with Leeks Dumplings – Also good. The skin had, through the cooking process, sort of turned into an ideal Sheng Jian Bao wrapper, slightly risen, fried golden brown, and the crispy lace was very tasty. The filling was also good. Note we think “leeks” here are actually Garlic Chives. But it seems to be regional that they’re called leeks in the SGV.
- Pie with Leeks, Eggs, and Dried Small Shrimp – The filling for these was really good, but the actual wrapper was oddly thin flour tortilla-like. Which left them oddly fragile. Good filling, though.
After Qing Dao Bread Food, we took a siesta to prepare for dinner at the legendary Chengdu Taste.
For context, let me say here that this was one of the most remarkable, striking, and intense dinners I’ve ever had. It took a strength of will or a willingness to abandon all preconceptions. It also took discipline to adjust and tune the mala yu that we had here so that we could survive and enjoy the meal.
Like I said in my first post about this trip, there is a need in eating Sichaunese food to manage the “ma”, the Sichuan Peppercorn’s numbing spiciness, and the “la”, more conventional chile peppers’ spiciness, and a mystical third ingredient, the smoky-sweet plum drink, to tune these two, and enable yourself to really enjoy the food. Release all preconceptions about what’s “too spicy” or “too tingling”. It’s necessary for you to lean into the meal, into the spiciness, and the numbingness, to really get into the flavors and sensations you’ll encounter.
Part of this balance is very much your responsibility. You select the dishes you’ll be eating, and you handle the mala yu balancing with the dishes you do eat and in what order, and how much, as well as the plum drink. But it’s also the cook’s responsibility – each dish has its own mala yu balance. There should be enough “ma” in your dishes to keep you able to eat those spicy ones.
For what it’s worth, the meal we had on Friday, at Chong Qing Special Noodles, seemed like a training session for the meal we had at Chengdu Taste. It’s my sense that comparatively, the meal at Chengdu Taste was much more intense than at Chong Qing. It seemed like at least one time in the meal, each of us had to intentionally take a break, because the intensity got to be a little too much for each of us. I feel like with practice, we might be able to avoid that.
Also, we ended the meal with tingly mouths and a sort of altered sense of taste and a weird energy (sort of like coming down from a high) that stayed with us for a few hours afterwards. I kind of liked the end product, and I enjoyed the dinner immensely. It was probably one of the most engaging meals I’ve ever had, on an entirely different frequency from, e.g. fine dining, or eating other exotic (to me) cuisines.
3233, 828 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91803
We were able to book a reservation for our party of six on Sunday, when we called on Saturday afternoon, and despite its popularity and high ratings, the dining room wasn’t entirely full at 7:00 p.m. on a Sunday. I’m not sure why – maybe something was going on?
Now that I’ve frightened you beyond all bounds of reason, here’s a list of our orders, with more details:
- Toothpick Lamb with Cumin – A mostly “la” dish with, I think, light peppercorns, this is a great dish – the cumin really opens up the flavors of the dish, and the smoky spiciness of the chiles is really quite delicious.
- Sautéed Eggplant – Also mostly “la”, with a smoky spiciness, a classic.
- Wonton with Red Chili Sauce – Classic Sichaunese preparation. You can’t see it in the unstirred serving format, but under those wontons is a sweet, spicy, tingly, mala yu vinegar and oil, peppercorn and chile sauce that’s quite delightful.
- Chicken in Pepper Sauce (Numb Taste) – (aka Spring Onion Chicken in Pepper Sauce) – recommended by Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats, nobody in the party had ever tried it, but when they asked me to pick some dishes, this was one of them, and everyone LOVED it. The green peppercorn tasted brighter than red or black peppercorns. It was still tingly and numbing, but it was also brighter in a way that went really well with the brothy-sauce that lived underneath the bright green float of green pepper sauce.
- Boiled Fish with Green Pepper Sauce – This was a must-order dish for the whole party. Those who’d been to Chengdu Taste before adored it, and we who hadn’t were quite interested too. We got the menu item that didn’t include “fresh” fish. According to the server, the “fresh” version has fish balls (meatballs made of fish, that are not soft and silky like the fish filets in this version. Different from the Chicken, the peppercorns in this mala yu dish were black, and the tone of the spicy tingliness was much deeper and more complex. This was one of the mainstays of our meal, but we had to be careful to manage the mala spicy/tingliness, so we used a lot of plum drink with this too.
- Chengdu Style Fried Rice – I was called to order 3 dishes on top of the ones our party already knew about. So aside from Serious Eats, I also consulted Chowhound. I found a Chowhound review/writeup on Chengdu Taste that, aside from the dishes we and Kenji López-Alt recommended, recommended any Fried Rice, and the dish below, the Dry Stir-Fried Potato. So of course we ordered the Chengdu style, because when faced with a choice, ALWAYS order the house version. During the meal, we THOUGHT it was maybe not spicy (it can be hard to tell if your mouth is tingly, numb and ON FIRE). I’m happy to confirm that it wasn’t (we got the leftovers and tried them Tuesday night). Anyway, it was goood.
- Dry Stir-Fried Potato – This was another recommendation from Chowhound. Be careful, because another style of potato is on the menu (Sautéed Shredded Potato). What you want is the one described as SLICED. This is the one. Some of the chips are crisp-fried, and others are still a little steamy-soft. But it’s all tossed in a deeply smoky, somewhat spicy, Sichuan-style spice mix. And it’s just absolutely delicious. Highly recommended.
- Pitcher of Plum Juice – You NEED to order plum juice. At least one glass for each diner. Once again, a full pitcher was just right for our 6 diners.
Don’t let your chiles see your fear. They’ll get hotter. 🙂
Fosselman’s Ice Cream Co.
1824 W Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801
Traditional for our touring group, Fosselman’s is a fairly conventional, old ice cream parlor with some tropical, Asian flavors. I personally got a scoop of lychee ice cream and a scoop of burgundy cherry ice cream.
My flavor palate was completely screwed up by the dinner I’d just had. I couldn’t taste any of the cherry flavors, but I could smell the lychee flavors. Regardless, the coldness and the creamy texture were a welcome and comforting change for me and I really appreciated the opportunity to change gears.