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.

starting off with cold appetizers

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.

hot and sour bean noodles

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.

delicious lamb bits

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.

fragrant tea-smoked duck

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

Gluttons and Gourmands: Diamond Jim Brady

February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Diamond Jim Brady

In An Alphabet for Gourmets, M.F.K. Fisher’s mid-century farrago of essays exploring food and memory in the world around her, each of the 26 chapters is devoted to a different episode or idea, with a tidy alliterative title to boot (such as “A Is for Dining Alone”). As might be expected, my gaze landed on the seventh essay, “G Is for Glutton.” In that essay, Fisher invokes the name of the most celebrated American appetite in the nation’s brief but heavy existence, one Diamond Jim Brady.

Brady is a historical figure is who is familiar to historians of both 19th century robber barons and the turn-of-the-century restaurant world. Despite accumulating a fortune in the railroad business (natch), Brady’s name lives on as the epitome of gilded-age gluttony, linked to fantastic displays of eating. Fisher refers to Brady as “the greatest glutton in American history,” citing accounts of his reach that portray him somewhere in between a Roman demigod come to life and a folk hero. “His stomach was about six times normal size,” she wrote, and he would eat nine portions of sole Marguery in a night as a matter of course.

Another account, probably culled from a more recent biography, tends to cover similar ground in the mythic American imagination. “‘The usual’ evening meal began with an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup. The main course was two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a variety of vegetables. He topped it off with a platter of pastries and often a two pound box of candy.”

A New York Times profile, however, provides greater scrutiny to the tales surrounding Brady and regards all those accounts, such as dinners where “Brady ate ‘everything that was set before him — to the sixth and seventh helping,’” as amusing but impossible puffery. There’s also some background to the story of Brady’s great encounter with the sole Marguery dish.

 Could it be that Brady was a gastronomical fraud — a garden-variety overeater whose feats have been exaggerated? Should there be an asterisk next to his name in the annals of gluttony?…

It was Rector who propagated the sole Marguery story so treasured by M. F. K. Fisher. In his telling in Morell’s book, Rector first heard of the dish — in which sole fillets are poached in fish stock, garnished with shellfish and served under a rich buttery sauce — after Brady had returned from a trip to Paris. Diamond Jim “spoke of this dish so feelingly to my father that I was immediately taken out of Cornell University, where I was in the third year of law school, and sent to Paris to get the recipe for the fish sauce,” Rector recalled.

O.K., hold it right there. I checked with Cornell University. Neither its development office nor its registrar has any record of a George Rector ever having been enrolled at its law school.

Rector is to be believed, just three weeks after his father’s directive, he had insinuated himself into the kitchen staff of the Café Marguery, then one of Paris’s premier restaurants. “It required exactly two months of working 15 hours a day for me to get the hang of” the dish, Rector said, “and finally, when a jury of seven master chefs voted my sauce perfect, I sent a cable to my father telling him I was leaving on the next boat for America.”

The story only gets cuter and tidier from there. Rector claimed that Brady himself awaited him on the gangplank, shouting, “Have you got the sauce?”— whereupon young George was hustled straight to Rector’s to get to work. “At exactly eight o’clock that same evening,” Rector said, Diamond Jim and his chums sat down to their sole-fest. And then, nine servings later, Brady passed his compliments to the chef by saying, “Even right now, if you poured some of that sauce over a Turkish towel, I believe I could eat all of it!”

Even if upon inspection the truth of Brady’s prodigious appetite looks a little small on the plate, the larger story still holds up and continues to tickle our fancies, unusual for a country whose restaurants until recently were more famed for efficiency and marketing than for epicurean atmosphere. Despite the health problems that plagued him toward the end of his life (caused in no small part due to his overindulgences), his life spawned the imaginative 1935 Preston Sturges vehicle Diamond Jim (the end of the movie finds the despairing Brady character vowing to eat himself to death) as well as a modern-day monument to him in bistro form.

On the Wings of Visitors Come Sweet Things

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the day before the new year, the line at Art’s Bakery is bustling with customers who have a single-minded intensity. The object of their affections is the nazook, the specialty of the house and the reason why passing drivers will abruptly pull over at the sight of short lines there. Satisfyingly rich but not cloyingly sweet, the golden brown pastry is a key staple in Armenian hospitality—the flaky sweets are oft served with a dose of heavy coffee or else a cup of brisk black tea, the kind that is sometimes enjoyed with a sugar cube clenched in between teeth. Either way, nazooks make for a perfect afternoon repast to offer visitors.

Some nazooks are stuffed with sweet fillings, usually a confectionary array of nuts, but the ones at Art’s are more austere, with a subtle and sugary middle. Even without an extravagant filling, the golden, buttery crust yields easily to a warm interior that is closer to the consistency of a chewy shortbread or than the moist sponginess of cake. The almond-infused pastry is a tender and addictive treat, though, especially when it is enjoyed still warm from the oven. Thanks to the popularity of these sweet treats, the ovens at Art’s fire several times a day, and the odds of getting your hands on freshly baked treats are good (provided you get there before they sell out).

If you find yourself expecting friends or family to pay a visit, you would be wise to pick up a small batch of Art’s finest. A regular size nazook and a smaller version (“mini nazook”) are sold at $6 a pound, which usually comes to less than a dollar each, a deliciously affordable luxury. But be careful: these pastries are so addictive that your guests may not leave until the nazooks run out.

Art’s Bakery
1122 E Chevy Chase Dr
Glendale, CA 91205
 (818) 552-5053
www.artsbakeryglendale.com

In Search of Sour: A Tale of Two Bowls

February 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last year, one of most intriguing things I tasted was a bowl of noodles from a newly opened Shaanxi joint in the San Gabriel Valley. Despite the self-effacing name, the minced-meat noodles were a bold mix of bright, fresh flavors, led by a tantalizingly sour soup. Since then, I’ve gotten so addicted to tangy tastes that I’ve been nosing around the city, searching for another mouth-puckering fix.

One recent (at least to me) discovery has been Guilin sour-spicy rice noodles, a popular fixture at Guilin restaurants that is famous in much of China. Guilin is a city located in the southern Guanxi province, a state that is close to the great cities and Cantonese cooking of the Pearl River Delta. However, Guilin is also about as close to Hong Kong as it is to Changsha, the capital of the Hunan province. While the food of Guilin seems to absorb a diverse array of culinary influences, the hallmarks of Western Chinese cooking make regular appearances across the menu. Cold appetizers like pig ears and shredded bean curd come drenched in spicy chili oil, and jars of slightly pungent chili paste are within easy reach at the table.

In Guilin, rice noodles (mifen) are a popular breakfast staple and snack, but the dish also has a fascinating history. Some accounts of the dish’s origins date back to the age of unified China’s first emperor, the prolific and harsh Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C. – 210 B.C.).  During the construction of the nearby Ling canal, workers from Northern China were brought in to provide much of the brutal labor, probably in the form of a corvée workforce. As a result of this new population and its diet, clever cooks in the area fashioned noodles out of rice to suit the tastes of these workers, who were much more familiar with the wheat noodles of the north than the quotidian rice dishes of the south.

Finding Guilin food in the San Gabriel Valley is not difficult, and before long, I had an opportunity to sample a couple different varieties of Guilin sour-spicy beef noodles, a fragrant dish that seems to recall Vietnamese pho as much as a sturdy bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

At Gui Lin Cuisine, the menu includes plenty of vegetable, meat, and dumpling dishes, but the specialty of the house is the rice noodles. The large bowl of soup comes with thin slices of beef, fried peanuts, vegetables, and pieces of wilted lettuce. The peanuts are a welcome and unexpected addition to the soup—they contrasted nicely with the spiciness of the soup—but the wilted lettuce leaves add nothing to soup except perhaps trappings of authenticity. (It showed up in both bowls of Guilin noodles I tried, and I wondered if a pickled green or two would have been both heartier and tastier.) While the plentiful numb-spicy (mala) flavors make this a less-than-subtle dish, the tantalizing sour flavor is a pleasing complement that seems to propel the addictive quality of the spicy soup even further.

The sour and spicy beef noodles at Dandan’s Guilin Rice Noodles are mostly similar to the ones at Gui Lin Cuisine. The rice noodles come with familiar accoutrements (though on request, the restaurant will serve the noodles and broth separate), and the taste is nearly similar, though Dandan’s version has an herbier taste that seems to indicate a sprinkling of Sichuan peppers. However, the dish at Dandan’s ranks a couple notches higher in my book thanks to the noodles. Tender with just a touch of springiness, Dandan’s noodles taste fresher than the overcooked specimens at Gui Lin Cuisine. Overall, I wonder if there is not a yet an even better exemplar of this Guilin specialty hiding in the rhizomatic world of the San Gabriel Valley, but these two fill the gap and temper my sour fixation for the moment.

Gui Lin Cuisine
138 E. Garvey Ave., #C
Monterey Park, CA 91754
 
Dandan’s Guilin Rice Noodles
140 W Valley Blvd., Ste. 203
San Gabriel, CA 91778

Our Daily Bread: Glendale Fine Bakery

January 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

There are no faded pictures of bucolic mountaintop valleys in bloom on the walls of Glendale Fine Bakery, no images of the crumbling remains of past glories. In short, no immediate markers of the usual nostalgic* immigrant narratives that usually adorn most panaderias, pancit houses, pupusa joints, and noodle shops around Los Angeles.

A friend introduced me to Glendale Fine Bakery by describing the décor as Soviet chic: The front counter window is half empty, and in one corner of the small room that serves as the retail storefront, cooking oil is stacked haphazardly against the wall (not artisanal olive oil, mind you, but economy-size gallon jugs). The walls are mostly bare, with only a lone clock keeping the hours, and by the door, a display case that looks as if it might have advertised carrot cake at Marie Callender’s in better days sits in dusty repose.

Spend enough time lurking around Glendale Fine Bakery and you’ll realize that the Spartan decorations do nothing to dissuade a steady stream of customers eager to bring home the shop’s fresh-baked bread. There’s not a huge selection on tap, about a half-dozen varieties of bread plus coffee by the pound, but customers are regular and plentiful enough to keep the bakery open, and baking, 24 hours a day. Most popular is white- and wheat-bread lavash, the almost-parchment thin strips of unleavened bread that you probably know from Middle Eastern-style kabob houses. Here, the lavash is fresh and springy, worlds better than the half-stale specimens on sale at the market.

Lavash

But a good percentage of the predominately Armenian customer base opts for the madnakash, a heartier ovaline loaf that tears off easily into fluffy pieces and is versatile enough to work with dips, sandwiches, or your morning toast.

Madnakash

It’s tough to conclusively recommend this as the best Armenian bakery in the area—Glendale and surrounding neighborhoods are teeming with enough bakeries, pastry shops, and specialty stops to keep you sated well into the next presidential term—but clutching the still-warm bread in your arms on the way out is a reminder of one of life’s small and endearing pleasures. From matrons on Sunday afternoon to late-night cabbies, the clientele of Glendale Fine Bakery recognize the virtues of daily bread, fresh from the oven, and it serves as the best and most delicious picture of home.

*Swiss Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia” in 1688 to describe the afflictions of Swiss mercenaries who exhibited a “sad mood originating from the desire for return to one’s native land.” The syndrome was linked to melancholic medical conditions until the middle of the 19th century, at which point it largely became the provenance of philosophers and romantics.

 
Glendale Fine Bakery
316 E. Maple St.
Glendale, CA 91205
Open 24 hours

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
626/309-0836

Knuckling Down at Giang Nan

December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The steaming hunk of pork knuckle comes out of the kitchen, fatty scents wafting over to our table as soon as the waitress steps out of the kitchen with the dish in hand. On the table, the dish looks like a porky gelatin mold—the wobbly chunks of meat and gelatinous cartilage are super soft, falling off the Jurassic-size bone with no more than a glance. At Giang Nan, the de-greased pork knuckle is part of a nice collection of Shanghainese (and Jiangsu?) recipes, which have been dished out in the back of a Monterrey Park strip mall for the better part of a decade, a not inconsiderable amount of time on the fierce San Gabriel Valley dining scene. There are all kinds of treasures to be enjoyed here. Filled with salty duck egg yolk, the house special lion’s head meatballs are ombudsmen for the balance and light touch of the Shanhainese school of cooking, and there are lots more dishes to savor, including crab-filled dumplings and the delectable and simply prepared jade celery starter. Sadly, I’ve never tried the glutinous rice balls in fermented rice mash, which some count as the best Chinese-style dessert in town. You can’t eat it all, but I know I’ll be back here soon enough.

Giang Nan
306 N Garfield Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91755
626/573-3421