Last we left our hero Chinese food explorer, he became so bewitched by Tasty Noodle House in the San Gabriel Valley he went not once, but twice. To refresh your memory, the San Gabriel Valley is home to some of the best Chinese food in the United States. Yours truly made a pledge to thoroughly explore this region and stopped abruptly after falling in love with noodles and dumplings, like a failed Odysseus lured away by Sirens. Luckily, New York snatched me away and now that I’m back, I’ve retaken my pledge, striking things up again last week with Zach Brooks of Midtown Lunch who joined me for a meal at Chung King.
What I liked so much about Tasty Noodle House was the surprising purity of the ingredients, the clean and clear qualities of the food. Chung King is the hot and sweaty alternative. Tasty Noodle is Portland, Oregon. Chung King is New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
That’s because Chung King serves Sichuan food, something I learned a great deal about reading Fuschia Dunlop’s fantastic book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. The Sichuan pepper of the title offers up a sensation totally unique in the world of dining; it’s the gastronomical equivalent of going to the dentist, numbing your lips, your tongue, your gums, sometimes your entire face. It’s wonderful.
Here’s the sign out front:
And here’s Zach studying the items in the cold bar:
See, there’s a menu of hot things but then you can go to the cold bar and get additional stuff. Zach was into that idea.
I almost stopped in my tracks when I saw cold duck heads as one of the options:
Fun fact: did you know “Duck Heads” was the original title of “Duck Tales”?
But let’s not be squeamish or culturally insensitive. Americans eat weird things too. In fact, if you logically think about what’s in a pack of Twizzlers, it’s hard to argue that cold duck heads aren’t a better alternative.
But, I’ll confess, we didn’t order those. We did get some of this stuff though:
We selected peanuts with little dried anchovies, pickled cucumbers, and some kind of cold spicy beef:
The cold stuff was good, but the hot stuff is the reason to go to Chung King. This dish, probably their most famous, is called water-boiled fish:
There’s nothing watery about it. It’s basically pieces of very tender fish positively saturated in spicy chili oil. Spooned over rice, you get an equal ratio of protein, heat and fat. Each bite is both lavish and slightly punishing. It’s a lot of fun to eat.
The chicken cooked with lots of chili peppers was more familiar to me, after my years of eating at Grand Sichuan in New York:
These chicken bits were battered (something they don’t do at Grand Sich) turning this into a riff on popcorn chicken, as Zach pointed out on Instagram. It’s a pretty delightful experience, popping these into your mouth and feeling the heat overwhelm you, then the sichuan peppers kick in like novicaine.
But the best dish was the one our waitress recommended, the lamb:
Piled high on the plate with glistening pieces of meat, chiles, scallions, you name it, we did the most damage here, eating way more of this than we should have. We packaged the leftovers up and Zach was kind enough to pass it my way (he pointed out that he has young kids and wouldn’t be eating any of these leftovers) so Craig and I heated this all up for dinner and we did it without a microwave. I put the chicken pieces on a cookie sheet and popped those into a very hot oven; the fish I heated up in a pot. The lamb we just ate cold. It was still the best part.
And so our hero adventurer has returned to his mission, his mission to eat his way through the San Gabriel Valley, from dumplings to duck heads and beyond. (Ok, I’m stopping short of duck heads.) Now the question is: where do I eat next?