Far, far away from the shores of Santa Monica and the hills of Topanga Canyon, east of the hustle of downtown Los Angeles, is a sprawling suburban area with signs in Chinese advertising food establishments, markets, banks and massages. In this sprawling east L.A. suburb are found some of the most incredible culinary gems and treasures, such as Chung King on San Gabriel Blvd. in Monterey Park.
Unless you are of Chinese descent, you are the minority at Chung King, which makes the experience all the more exciting and authentic. The menu is of course in both Chinese and English, and features quite a variety of dishes that you won't find at your local Panda Express. True Sichuan cuisine is known for its very spicy flavors, with dishes peppered, literally, with red peppers and seeds that both titillate and numb.
My Sichuan-experienced tour guides started the evening with Ma Po, a tofu dish in spicy Sichuan sauce. Not too spicy, this dish is drizzled with scallions and drenched with flavor. It was the perfect segue into the much more serious plates we devoured thereafter.
Next on the plate was Beef with Zi-Ran Pepper, and Fried Chicken Cubes with Hot Pepper, and of course a side of rice for the fire. Both the beef and chicken entrees were extremely flavorful, with bites of spicy combined with garlic and pepper sauces. The cubed and fried chicken was crispy but not greasy. It was as I ate these two entrees that I was introduced to the Sichuan peppercorn, which helps to numb the bite from the spicy flavors. (Sidebar: this little peppercorn which is actually a dried citrus flower used to be illegal for import into the US because it was believed to be a carrier of a citrus tree disease, but it is no longer contraband!!) After a few minutes of runny nose hotness, this little lifesaver did in fact begin to somewhat numb my tongue, something the Chinese call "ma la", or literally "numbing and spicy". A strange sensation, thanks to the peppercorn, I was able to continue eating.
The last entree brought out was a Boiled Pork in Hot Sauce. Similar to Vietnamese pho, this bowl of broth and meat and LOTS and LOTS of garlic and red pepper sauce is not for the faint of heart or mouth. The pork flavor is redefined within this delicious stew, and you'll be sure to warm your mouth, stomach and heart with this comfort food. Boiled dishes are actually a mainstay in Sichuan cooking, and after this dinner, they will soon become a mainstay in the Moonlighting Fooditor's eating...
Next in The Many Flavors of China Series: Hunan!!