La La La Means I Love You: New Chong Qing
December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
Continuing on with semi-recent forays into the San Gabriel Valley, this post inaugurates the first review of a Sichuan restaurant, one of the eight great traditions in the pantheon of Chinese food and one of my favorite cuisines. Famously, the range and complexity of flavors in play during a Sichuan meal has led to comparisons with self-made men in the poetic imagination of Chinese food writers of antiquity. (the Benjamin Franklin of Chinese food?) In the greater L.A. area, we are lucky to enjoy decent re-creations of some Sichuan classics thanks to the wonders of the San Gabriel Valley.
To get over to New Chong Qing, a restaurant that some count as one of the better Sichuan joints in town, you’ll have to venture a few miles north of Valley Blvd., the mainline of Chinese dining in L.A. While you drive up San Gabriel Boulevard, you’ll have to stop yourself from pulling over at the better-known Chong Qing (one of the seemingly endless variations on the name of the Sichuan province’s capital city in the area).
New Chong Qing has actually earned some critical attention—Jonathan Gold featured the spot a few years back, but as his pick for hotpot. As much as I enjoy a proper hotpot, spices and steam creating a heady buzz that brings out the fullest, Novcaine-grade power of Sichuan peppercorns, I only get in the mood a couple times a year, usually when temperatures dip below the 50s. Fortunately, I read a review or two that pointed to the versatility of New Chong Qing menu beyond just hotpot, and curiosity piqued, I decided to stop by.
Beyond the hotpot choices, the modest menu at NCQ sticks to a more limited offering of Sichuan standards, but the results were promising, leaving me with a satisfying, lip-tingling buzz.
To tease the appetite, I started with dan dan noodles, a popular and, in recent years, well-scrutinized dish around town. The version at NCQ is quite good, though a bit smaller than at other places. The nutty flavor of sesame mixes easily with the herby tones of Sichuan peppercorns, spikes of chili oil, and fatty bits of ground meat, all without becoming too oily or heavy. At only $3.99 a bowl, it’s almost a mandatory order.
One dish I can’t resist ordering whenever I see it is the Sichuan-style eggplants. Fortunately at NCQ, the chef’s touch is deft. The eggplants are cut into medium-thin strips and avoid the mushiness or woody flavor that often mars other versions. The creamy, umami delight of the well-cooked eggplant is addictive, especially when urged onward by generous doses of the mala (numbing spicy) flavors at NCQ. Another winner is the sautéed pea shoots (dou miao), which was the seasonal vegetable on offer on the afternoon I was there (not pictured). The flash-fried treatment is perfect for the pea shoots, wilting the delicate greens and preserving the faintly sweet, crisp taste of the fresh peas.
As a main, the fried chicken cubes were a welcome addition to the table. While the dish is self explanatory, this being a Sichuan joint, the morsels of chicken come draped in a flood of bright red chili peppers. I found the hunt for meat amidst the chilis to be a little disappointing given the smaller-than-expected portion of chicken, but the crisp texture of the fried chicken, married with the spicy zing of chili and peppercorns, is intoxicating. Sadly there was no beer to be had to pair with the spicy chicken, a critical but not-quite-mortal flaw in an otherwise satisfying dining experience. While the small menu is no match for some of the deeper collections of Sichuan dishes at other spots nearby, NCQ is a solid addition to your San Gabriel rolodex.New Chong Qing
120 N San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91775