How many Westsiders long to move to the San Gabriel Valley, or at least within reasonable striking distance of real Chinese food? It's a not-so-secret sorrow and even with my sub-ten commute on foot I sometimes question the sanity of living so far from the Motherlode.
Yunnan Garden (formerly Hua's Garden) at 301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park south of the 10, is not a chow discovery per se, having been touted as perhaps the best Yunnan-plus-Sichuan place in town by the storied Jerome, J.Gold and Carl Chu. However, my compadres and I had a good run at the menu and it's worth reporting what we ate. Incidentally, although my hack Cantonese and my friend's Hokkien were not useful with the Mandarin-speaking waitrons, the English speaking proprietor was extremely solicitious, steering us away from the Kung Pao chicken "too popular!" and recommending Yunnan dried beef for a future visit. Fear not, there is little discrimination here. On another visit, I would also try the cold dish counter up front where maybe lurk the brisket-and-tripe makings of my favourite "couple's delight" appetizer.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 I must try their version.
- 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.
Yunnan Garden moves into my pantheon of the finest the San Gabriel Valley has to offer, and offers tremendous bang for the buck (we spent under $15 each and had copious leftovers). One of my close family friends is Yunnan and now I see what she's been raving about.
Low End Theory