Shufeng Yuan: Not Your Garden Variety Sichuan
May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
A point of agreement among many Chinese food cognoscenti in Los Angeles is that the collection of stellar regional Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley might be drifting east. Originally based around the bedroom communities of Alhambra and Monterey Park and tonier neighborhoods like Arcadia, the diasporic Chinese community in Los Angeles has expanded east, into cities like Rowland Heights and Hacienda Heights, bringing along its potent dining scene. Malan Noodle House, with its complicated matrix of noodle shapes and styles, is a standout, and other local chains, like Happy Family and Stinky Tofu King, have established outposts on the eastern fringes of the SGV.
Aside from a stop at a mammoth temple nearby, my favorite reason to visit Rowland Heights, a sprawl that resembles a wealthy suburb of Taipei, is Shufeng Yuan (or Shufeng Garden), the most refined Sichuan restaurant in town. Despite modest renown amongst local fans of Sichuan cooking, Shufeng Garden sits on the ground floor of a forgettable multilevel strip mall, with no English sign to trumpet its lip-tingling treats. Fortunately, the drab storefront hides a more exciting interior. Wall-to-wall photo images of bright-green forests paper the walls, giving the impression that a wuxi battle scene in a bamboo forest might break out at any minute.
There are many familiar sights, though, on Shufeng’s menu. There is the obligatory and delicious selection of cold dishes (sort of like Sichuan-style amuse-bouches), including the Vast Morsels-favorite chili-pickled pig ears. Fried peanuts, strands of bean curd, pigs ears, and other pickles can be ordered from a glass case at the front, three of each to an order.
Classic Sichuan favorites are also on offer if that’s what you’re after. Jonathan Gold is a big fan of the dan dan mian here, rating it as one of his dishes of the year in 2009. While not quite as pungent as other exemplars around town, the mapo dofu is more than respectable, silky and spicy, with hints of those infamous Sichuan peppercorns lurking behind every bite. The hot and sour bean noodles are an unfamiliar dish to my eyes but a pleasantly tangy, though surprisingly subtle appetizer. (I was expecting a bit more of a singe given the spicy Sichuan pedigree here.) Rather than the chewiness of most noodles, these have a gelatinous and slippery mouthfeel.
The most obscure and head-scratching item on the menu is the dish listed as “Taiwanese letters.” Rather than a Sesame Street-style exercise in literacy, the dish is actually a green cooked in what one imagines to be the Taiwanese style, which probably means cooking the green down to an agreeably rich consistency with chicken broth.
The best part of the Shufeng Garden is the diversity of dishes that aren’t as easily available around town. Rabbit, lamb, duck, and steamed toad have made appearances on the menu. Of course, there are also dishes that you expect to see in a dragon’s den of spicy cookery—slices of beef in a cauldron of blood-red broth that would probably work wonders in scouring your clogged drain—but the dishes like the lamb with chilis are exceptional testaments to the breadth of the Sichuan cuisine. Speckled with Sichuan dried facing-heaven chiles, the lamb ribs are hearty chunks of meat on the bone that provide a pitch-perfect mix of char, cumin, and heat—certainly the highlight of the day when we visited.
The tea-smoked duck is a rarer pleasure. There is plenty of succulent meat to enjoy (a welcome change from many dried-out duck experiences), and chowing down on the sizable portions is a carnivorous, teeth-gnashing delight. The flavor of the duck seemed pretty muted and almost bland next to its more potent peers on the table, but as leftovers served with hot steamed rice and pickles, the rich and smoky flavors of the duck come to addictive fruition.
Shufeng Garden used to have a sister franchise in the San Gabriel Square near Valley and Del Mar, but it closed sometime last year, leaving the owner to focus his energies on the Rowland Heights restaurant. That means that the interesting and always delicious menu at Shufeng Garden demands an extra 20 minutes worth of freeway driving deep into the SGV. While there are certainly other options for getting your Sichuan on in the SGV, being a patient driver for a little while longer delivers delicious results.Shufeng Yuan 18459 Colima Rd
Rowland Heights, CA 91748