Had a great meal at Yungui Garden last night, 301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park south of the 10. It's a well known destination but the name has changed so often I thought it was worth a repost. Plus we tried some new things and I picked up tips from my expert friend Xiaoyu. Didn't get around to the Yunnan dried beef, and now Xiaoyu claims he's done with the genre and is moving on to Shanghai cuisine...
Low End Theory
030905: Confusingly this restaurant is now called Yungui Garden, the third name change I am aware of for English signage.
- Yunnan Rice Noodle Soup aka "Across The Bridge Noodles". Limpid broth brought to table with raw meats that cook in the soup when assembled by server. Not spicy, but an excellent foil to the nerve-jangling dishes below. A Yunnan specialty and worth trying especially for the subtle, pho-esque herbs.
030905 note: the name of the restaurant in Chinese script is Yunnan Rice Noodle Restaurant.
- Yunnan Chicken in Claypot [aka Airpot].
A tricked-out steamer, the Yunnan airpot is something I've only seen here. Inside is a rich, brown chicken soup fortified with Chinese medicinal berries (some familiar from house special dessert at Teochew palace 888 Seafood) and small mushrooms. If lack of Chinese food is the illness, consider me cured.
- Ma Po Tofu.
Let the games begin. Soft tofu is cooked in a casserole with ground pork, chillis and something more. This incredible dish is the root of many a Cantonese rip-off, but the Sichuan version has a secret weapon in the Sichuan peppercorn, imported illegally as I understand it, which imparts a dreamlike numbing sensation, exacerbated by cold water! Try tea or the salty soups instead for relief. I've eaten at the excellent Little Sichuan in San Mateo, but Yunnan Garden uses far more, or far fresher Sichuan peppercorns. A true test of one's sensory physiology, and not to be missed.
- Chongqing chicken.
Recommended by the proprietor instead of Kung Pao chicken (I was actually looking forward to the stripped-down, Sichuan chicken chilli and peanuts), this dish was at least half dried red chillis by volume, an astonishing challenge to the adventurous eater. My friends stayed clear but I ate enough of the dried chilli to end up in some trouble. Chicken itself was crispy fried and quite dry i.e. sauceless but moist. Tasty. NOTE: Avoid dried chillies unless you have an ironclad constitution. They are not the relatively manageable dried red ones of similar size found in the Indonesian store.
- Water-boiled fish and beef in Szechuan special sauce.
A famous, misleadingly named dish again celebrating the numbing hot chilli/peppercorn duality. Soupy red broth is filled with excellent fresh fish, beef slices, and Chinese cabbage. Although the flavour of this dish was superb, it wasn't nearly as spicy as some I've tried (still killing by Cantonese standards) and thus falls short of the Sichuan ideal where one emerges from the fire purified. Best Szechuan is across the street and their version is even better.
030905: Having eaten this again last night I stand corrected, it is as spicy and delicious as one could wish for (perhaps toned down for my non-Chinese friends previously?). Very tender beef and fish mixed together. According to my friend Xiaoyu, the final step in the cooking involves adding dry spices, then a load of hot oil on top. Thus, anything extracted from the pot passes through this layer of deadly spiciness.
- Lamb with cumin.
Delicious lamb is as tender as one could wish and the cumin + not-incendiary chilli flavour quite heavenly. Scores big for ingredients that you'll almost never see on a regular Chinese menu.
030905: Cumin note is exceedingly popular in China these days, and probably originated from the Northeastern Islamic cuisine.
030905 extra dishes
- Twice-cooked pork.
A Szechwan classic, this dish uses fatty belly meat sliced thinly, cooked in a mix of spices to impart flavour, then stir-fried with sliced leeks. Yungui Garden's version was better than the one at Best Szechwan, particularly if the pork is eaten together with leeks. Xiaoyu said that neither approached his Platonic ideal, perhaps because the flavours imbued from the first cooking step could be more intense.
- Fuqi feipian
Delightful and classic Szechwan cold appetizer that Carl Chu translates as "table scraps". Often called "Couple's Delight" on English menu, a common version is brisket and tripe, both thinly sliced and served with a stunningly delicious numbing-hot sauce. Yungui Garden's dish has only brisket but is still a winner, probably my favourite from the cold dish counter out front.
- Other things from the cold dish counter that we really liked. Only $3.50/plate with up to three choices.
pig ears - chewy thin slices.