In northwest China, there is a region known as Xinjiang and although lamb is rarely eaten in other parts of China, Xinjiang is known for its barbecue lamb or mutton. In fact, the Mongolian tribes who inhabited these areas were the ones who introduced lamb to the rest of China. Due to its geographical location, the food of north western China has been influenced by both Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, which can be seen in the use of cumin in their cooking.
One of the most popular ways to prepare and eat the lamb or mutton is cut them in chunks, do a dry cumin/chili pepper spice rub on them, pierce with wooden skewers and then grill on a coal-fired barbecue. Considering how compact these skewers are, they have become a popular street-food staple in Beijing and now can be found in the city of San Gabriel.
Open for more than a year, 818 JN Kitchen is tiny. Their dining room can probably only fit 14 to 16 people at one time and part of the kitchen where all the grilling happens is the size of a phone booth. What it lacks in size, 818 makes up for in a variety of tasty skewers and other foods that will definitely not break the bank. In fact, most of the menu items were priced at $6.99 or lower with skewers that range from $1.20 to $5.00 a piece. This is recession dining at its best. After my group settled down and checked the menu, we placed our skewer orders and decided to share some other dishes as well.
The first to arrive was the Special Home Guoba Soup. It was the least popular dish of the table. The soup seemed more like a gravy than broth and no one knew what to make of the torn pieces of what seemed like crepes that filled the bowl. I was pretty ambivalent about it myself. I didn't dislike it, but I was fine with just having a small sampling before moving on to the next dish.
A plate of Oil Pancakes soon arrived. Another thing that Northern Chinese cuisine is known for is their breads, which is why this made it to our table. Unfortunately, I would have been fine without it. It was very dense and dry. Perhaps, this oil pancake wasn't meant to be eaten alone, but torn in pieces and dipped in a stew or hot pot? Whatever the case may be, the oil pancakes were disappointing.
The next two dishes turned everything around. First, there was the Beef Pancake, which was a Pac-Man looking sandwich and one definitely worth chasing and devouring. Basically, you had something like a roast beef with cilantro and green onions between a toasted sesame bread. One is a snack, but two or three of them could be dinner. What are sliders again?
Then there was the Cucumber Salad with a sesame paste. It was so refreshing and I loved that the cucumbers were so crunchy and juicy. Our table loved it so much, we ordered a second plate just so everyone could get second helpings.
The last two dishes we shared arrived in between the skewers. One was the Pork and Leek Dumplings. The dumpling wrapper was thicker than I would have liked and although the filling was a bit oily, it still had good flavor.
The second one was a plate of pickled mixed vegetables, which was also both refreshing and crunchy. These vegetables acted as the perfect foil for the highly seasoned skewers, almost like a palate cleanser.
So now let's talk about the skewers. While I did mention that Xinjiang is known for their lamb skewers, there's actually quite a variety of other grilled meats offered at 818 JN Kitchen. Along with lamb, there were organ meats like lamb kidneys and chicken hearts as well as chicken, shrimp, quail eggs, corn and even yellow grouper.
The first skewer that hit my plate was the lamb. Considering the meat had a dry rub of cumin and chili peppers, the flavors were intense. One of my dining partners created a mixture of soy sauce and chili sauce in a plate to dip her skewers in and I soon followed suit. It added even more zing to the meat. As for the lamb itself, it erred more on the dry and chewy side, but that worked for me.
My next two skewers were the Chinese sausage and quail eggs. Although the Chinese sausage was a bit salty, I would order it again. Like the lamb, it was both chewy and also bold in flavor. It was actually almost cute seeing the little quail eggs on the skewer. They were a bit over boiled, but I still enjoyed them.
The grilled steak wasn't on skewers and the meat was a bit tough, almost like jerky, but still no complaints from me.
Next to last was the grilled corn, which wasn't seasoned at all, but perhaps, it's not meant to be.
Last, but not least, was the grilled yellow croaker fish. Of all the skewers, this was the mildest in flavor. I'm not sure whether they forgot to crust it with the cumin and chili pepper or they did, but the cumin and chili just did not adhere well to the fish skin, but in the end, it was crispy and the fish meat was quite delicate.
To end, there are a couple of things I do want to point out. One, the quality of the meat may not be up to par for some. As long as you don't expect tender cuts of meat and are fine with the meat being grilled to the point of being chewy, you'll be good. It's really all about the bold seasoning that make the skewers the stars of the show.
Also, since the same cumin and chili pepper seasoning is used and depending on how many skewers you eat, they all may start tasting the same. I think ordering the cucumber salad and/or the mixed vegetables and eating them in between the meats can give your tastebuds a rest in between bites. Finally, English is pretty limited at this restaurant, but the menu is in English, so there shouldn't be a problem pointing out what you'd like to order.
Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at 818 JN Kitchen and I didn't even have to sell my car to pay for my share of the meal. One thing I also learned while I was there was that the owners are all friends who are actually from Xinjiang and decided to open this restaurant together, which definitely tells me that this restaurant really does know its Xianjiang skewers.
To see pics, go to:
818 JN Kitchen
818 E. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776