Made my first trip to Chun King in Monterey Park tonight (206 South Garvey; 626/280-7430) Many thanks to Chandavkl for the referral. It was excellent. Very authentic Szechuan food, very different from what you'd find in a Szechuan restuarant on the West Side -- even the good ones.
First, let me say that I'm on a restricted diet and, seperately, I avoid red meat. I'm also squeamish when it comes to some organ meats, frog and blood. So item #78, Braised Pig Intestinces & Blood in Casserole, is going to need a report from someone else.
I went with one friend - not really enough to get a wide selection. But we ordered several dishes; all were delicious, so I'm going back again soon with more friends in tow.
First of all, the place settings are Chinese style -- you get a small plate and a small bowl, a tea cup and chopsticks. They didn't give us spoons at first, so we asked for them. I don't know whether they have forks.
The tea (a passion of mine) was a good oolong, I think, smokier than the usual jasmine or "chinese restaurant tea" you get at many restaurants, but not as astringent as the "Bo Lay" you get at some Cantonese restaurants.
We started with #113, Sichaun Cold Noodles in Special Sauce. Both of us are are ex-pat New Yorkers who developed a taste for Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce which, incidentally, I never encountered in China. We ordered these to see if they are similar. This version is more of a rice vinegar/chili oil/sesame oil sauce, without sesame paste, but they're very yummy. My friend and I liked them immediately and we agreed that the more we ate, the more we wanted.
I asked our waitress (Linda, a very nice young woman from Shanghai who seemed to be the only waitress who spoke English), if they had Dou Hua. Dou Hua is a soft, custardy tofu (dou fu), which can be served with all manner of toppings. In China, I once got it from a street vendor in the "ghost city" of Chengdu, who had what looked like a medicine chest, with little bottles of soy nuts, chili oil, pepper, scallions and a few options, including sugar, which is popular with young children. He assembled our dishes with the skill of a chemist. We ate in a playground, on children's plastic stools, from flimsy plastic bowls. The chili oil pushed the edge of pain. It was still one of the best snacks I've ever had.
Soon the old city of Chengdu will be demolished and the ruins will disappear beneath the Three Gorges Reservoir. But that's a rant for another time.
At Chung King, their chili/pepper condiment is a lot like what that vendor dished out to me, though without the cruncy soy nuts. As my friend observed, the dou hua is basically a vehicle for the delivery of the sauce. And the sauce is worth it. Fiercely fiery, with plenty of Szechuan peppercorn Those peppercorns may illegal, but you'd never know it at Chung King, by the way.
I'd give you the menu number, but even Linda wasn't sure which number it was. I just asked her for Dou Hua, she said she had it, so we got it. This, by the way, is something to eat with a spoon. Don't even think of trying this with chopsticks - it's too soft.
My craving for one particular dish had lured me to this place -- Chong Qing Chicken (Chong Qing Ji Ding). It's menu item #10, Fried Chicken Cubes with Hot Pepper. In China, I often had it with the bones in. (In China, I nicknamed 'em chicken knuckles. Lots of work to eat but worth it.) That is probably item #8; "Chung King-Style Hot Chopped Chicken." The waitress didn't think we'd like that because of the bones. I may try that one next time.
What arrived made me very, very happy: small nuggets of boneless fried chicken, served on a plate piled so high with scarlet chilis and purple-black Szechuan peppercorns that you have to pick through the chilis to find the chicken. It's well worth the search. It's an incendiary dish, and there's nothing quite like the combination of the chilis and those mouth-numbing peppercorns. The taste was exactly what I remembered, though this version was a little oilier than what I had in China.
Our other 'entree' was the Rice Crust with Fresh Squid, #104. This is the best sizzling rice dish I've ever had, here or in China. The Rice Crust is delicious, and the topping is a very savory mix of meat , mushrooms and vegetables in a thick gravy. The squid was very fresh and tender, and the salty, rich unctousness was a perfect counterpoint to the pungent chilis and peppercorns.
We also ordered Dry Fried String Beans. Their version doesn't have chili, unlike the Szechuan Sting Beans I had in China, but they were cooked and seasoned perfectly. Just enough seasonings to compliment the 'al dente' string beans. This is not a unique dish -- many restaurants, even on the West Side, have similar dishes with similar tastes. But their version is very good.
That was it. We had enough food to feed 3 or 4 people, easily. The check was under $32.
Some dishes I want to try on future trips: Fried Peanuts with Small Fish, Braised Fish with Hot Bean Paste Sauce, Braised Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce. Tomato and Egg Soup. Quick Fried Shredded Potato with Venegar. Braised Bean Curd with Minced Meat in Chili Sauce (which I think is Ma Po Dou Fu). Celergy with Ginger Sauce.
In short, I was delighted to find the authentic taste of Szechuan within a reasonable drive. And my friend, who likes Szechuan and Hunan cooking but had never had the real thing, was as happy as I was.
Got to go now. I'm having a craving for the leftover noodles...