Why are the best ethnic places in LA always the hardest to find? Is it because then you have to know what you're looking for, thus preserving the mystique and the demand for authentic food?
I've been going to what we lovingly call "Kentucky Fried Shau May", in the Garfield-Lincoln Centre in Monterey Park, for nearly ten years. I've passed the plaza where Giang Nan sits a hundred -- two hundred -- five hundred times and always assumed it contained a dentist, a laundry, a dirty nail salon, and a place to get SR-22 insurance. I'd read about Giang Nan (pronounced, approximately, "jeng naan") but only remembered a positive review from Jerome -- not even what kind of food it was.
Well, we went last night, a group of friends and I did, and it was... sublime. It was immediately apparent from the first look at the menu that this is a Jiangsu restaurant.
The ambiance is not going to win any awards -- you're greeted with stacked up tables, a pile of menus and one table containing a hundred teacup-chopsticks-napkin-plate-ricebowl setups. The usual fake plants, the obligatory counter with the dusty glass display. Not exactly haut decor, but not precisely hole-in-the-wall either.
Tea was brought, and a plate of peeled celery with sesame oil ("jade celery"). It was very refreshing but, as we found out later, it had a different purpose.
We ordered lion's head meatballs (this is something like "pork balls with steamed egg york" on the menu), xiao long bao with pork and with crab and pork, "house special de-greased and braised pork knuckle", red-cooked tofu, chicken and chestnuts in clay pot, and winter melon braised with fresh peanuts.
The lion's head meatballs were, of course, delicious. The XLB were some of the juiciest I've had. The skins were not as thin as other places (notably DTF in Arcadia), but also did not have the hard knot at the top. Some places have XLB with a top knot so stiff you can't eat it -- not so Giang Nan. I have to admit that I didn't see the point of the crab -- it was there, but it didn't add so much to the pork that was so good.
The house special pork (c'mon guys, get an English speaker to help you with that name) was actually a big piece of pork shank, salty and sweet and came off the bone with no effort whatsoever. It was so fragrant that we could smell it before it came out... the waitress, who was already boggling over a white guy, a black girl and a Latino guy eating with chopsticks and ordering in Mandarin, dropped by to say, "That's your meat you smell."
Red-cooked tofu -- perhaps the only thing better would have been red-cooked pork belly, but we already had enough pork, and the tofu was incredible. It held together in its little domino bricks until we got to it with our chopsticks -- a light touch (or the use of your soup spoon) is required for this dish or you'll end up slopping braise sauce down your shirt (not that I know from experience or anything). For those of you who aren't up on your eastern Chinese cookery, red-cooking is the use of a soy-based sauce to braise food; when you're done with it, you reduce part of the braising liquid to coat the food, and the remaining part is saved for the next red-cooked dish. After a while it develops a very rich, deep flavour. I'm not sure why it's called "red cooked", other than as a direct translation of the Chinese 紅燒 (hong shao).
The chicken with chestnuts was really a revelation. I didn't know chestnuts were a big part of Chinese cookery (though I shouldn't be surprised), but it is chestnut season and the waitress suggested this dish. It had a deep, unctuous, somewhat gingery sauce, rounds of chicken on the bone, cooked so tenderly that even the cartilage was pleasant to eat, plus buttery, soft chestnuts and whole garlic cloves, served in a clay pot. I loved this the best, even including the house special pork. It was, however, so rich that we understood the dish of celery -- the celery cuts across the rich sauce so that it doesn't temper other things you might eat.
As for the tung qua (the winter melon), honestly, to look at the dish you'd never know what it was. It looked like steak fries made of wobbly clear jelly. It tasted just like winter melon, though, with a slight earthy flavour from the soft peanuts. A subtle flavour that got a bit washed out by the strong, salty, sweet sauces on the other dishes, but still good nevertheless.
We ate like kings; we still took home half the food. And the best part? The bill, including tip, out the door, was $54. That's for seven dishes (including the celery), and we took home a LOT of food.
What an unbelievable value. While I'll miss Green Village (which is still dark and still evicted and still not serving up its delicious bean curd with pork sauce to me), this is a worthy, worthy substitute... but you have to be able to find it first. I urge you to go. Take a Chinese speaker with you if you can -- not because of communication issues (they speak English just fine) but because the menu is oddly translated and there are a dozen specials written up on the wall in Chinese only.
306 N Garfield Ave, Monterey Park, CA