I don't make it to the SGV all too often, but I did round up a bunch of friends last night for a dinner at Seafood Village in Monterey Park. Situated near the corner of Atlantic and Garvey, just driving out there from Hollywood was a bit of a trek with Thursday night traffic. I was very much put at ease, though, upon exiting off the ten and heading south on Atlantic and all of a sudden seeing familiar names in the plazas. No, I'd never visited before, but I've trolled the message boards long enough to recognize a name or two. Kind of like when I drove down 3rd street for the first time and thought, "Oh so *that's* where that restaurant is."
From what I understood, Chiu Chow cuisine is considerably more delicate and subtle in flavor, adopting almost a Vietnamese aesthetic. Again, following my family style rule of thumb (number of diners minus one plus a starch dish), we were able to dissect the large menu and get a wide variety of tastes.
Note that I did not keep track of any actual menu item names, as I did not speak with the waiter. I was lucky last night to merely be the organizer of the event, and I'm not the type of 'Hound that has to have final say over what we order.
At the table while waiting were boiled peanuts and what tasted like pickled radish. By the time our soup came out, I was convinced that I could have eaten just the peanuts. The soup was a great brothy chicken soup which received a jolt of both sweetness and texture from corn kernels. Then the hits started coming.
The house special crab, similar in preparation to a lot of Asian restaurants where it's served where the outside is seasoned and prepared, and then the whole crab is carved up into a bunch of pieces and its legs. I was ashamed for about a femptosecond as I shed the chopsticks and tore into the crustacean by hand.
We also had a wonderful shrimp and walnut dish, a great beef and pepper dish, some steamed veggies, a chow mein with chicken dish and the house special fried rice.
Being a novice to Chiu Chow, I was surprised at the absence of the pungency (not to mention spiciness) to which I am accustomed in my Chinese food. One thing I note is that almost all the dishes seemed to have a thick "gloss" to them, as if they had all been served in a stock reduction for thickening (or it could have thickened by other methods I'm sure). I think this helps dishes like the beef where it's got such a naturally bold flavor, and the "gloss" acts to mute it somewhat.
It somewhat worked with the shrimp, as the already delicate flavor of shrimp was made even more dainty by this method of preparation. I think that dish was ultimately salvaged by the chopped walnuts (which were also glossy). It failed outright, in my mind, with the chow mein dish, as the flavor neutral noodles and the flavor neutral chicken were rendered altogether quite inert as a result of this sheen. See pic below to see what I'm talking about.
Dishes in which the stock was absent, most notably the house special fried rice with crab, acted as a wonderful complement as its dryness gave you almost a palate-cleansing mouthfeel.
For dessert, we finished off with what we joked was "Dessert With Three Delights" or "Four Treasure Dessert"... often unidentifiable objects floating in a broth. It was a sweet soup, filled with what I could identify as water chestnut as well as a translucent seaweed looking thing that I'm assuming was a mushroom of some sort. It was quite delicious, and even though it had a pronounced sweet element, I loved the subtle earthiness also.
Total damage to stuff us with seven dishes cost us $19 each after tax and tip.
I'd definitely want to try this style of Chinese food again, but I'm afraid that I don't quite "get" its apparent popularity (there seems to be quite a few fans of Chiu Chow here on the boards). Sure, it's more subtle than, say Sichuan cuisine, which is like comparing a long hot bath with getting kicked in the junk. Perhaps next time I will have to exert myself and steer the ordering toward things like the cod or the duck.
What am I missing? What are other great examples of Chiu Chow and is my assessment accurate or just ill-informed? What are elements to seek out and what are the dishes (and specifically, where are the restaurants) that exhibit them?
Seafood Village Restaurant
684 W Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91754