Saturday, August 09, 2008

Chung King Restaurant - San Gabriel

Since I'm on this Beijing Olympics tangent, did anyone else get choked up when Sichuan earthquake survivor Lin Hao marched in the parade of nations? In case you missed it, when the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, the 9-year-old was trapped with 30 classmates. Twenty of them did not survive. He managed to climb out, and despite a broken arm and head injuries, went back in to save two other classmates. Then he urged everyone to sing until they could be rescued. He lost both parents in the earthquake, and afterward walked with his sister for 7 hours until they reached safety.

What does that have to do with food? Not much. I don't often talk about current events, but gosh, I still get teary-eyed whenever I see replays of that moment. So it's a bit of a stretch, but let's talk about Sichuan cuisine. Also, spelled Szechwan and Szechuan. The preferred spelling now is Sichuan, so that's what I'll go with.

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According to Wikipedia, Sichuan, located in the southwest corner of China, means "four rivers." The four styles of Sichuan cuisine are separated by location - Chung King/Chongqing (Ah, understand the significance of the restaurant's name now?), Chengdu (Where Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) originated.), Greater River (Yangtze), and Lesser River (Jialing).

Sometimes I'm not quite sure why some things stay in the queue for so long. I've been going to Chung King Restaurant in San Gabriel for several years now after reading Jonathan Gold's review in LA Weekly. Come to think of it, this is one of the few restaurants that I actually tried after reading his review. I'd driven past it many times before and watched it change ownership and didn't think much of it. Must have been his descriptions of the ma la, the mind-numbing spice, from the use of real Sichuan peppercorns.

My first visit was with my brother, actually, most of my visits here are with my brother. He's one of the few people I know who sometimes gets spicy cravings. So that's when we hit up Chung King.

On this particular visit, I was with my brother, his wife, and cousin Q, who really didn't enjoy the spicy dishes. The interior is clean, although the decor seems stuck in the 80s.

After this photo was taken, we switched tables because a woman came in wearing an overwhelming amount of perfume. Ugh! Not when I'm trying to eat!

Complimentary tea.

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Fried green beans for $6.99. One of the best versions of fried green beans I've ever had. Those black specks are some kind of pickled radish? Sort of reminiscent of olives even. The skins are slightly wrinkled from the wok, still crispy-tender, with saltiness from the pickles. Though Sichuan cuisine is mostly associated with the numbing spice of the peppercorns, it's also known for pickling, salting, drying, and smoking as well. This is a good, non-spicy dish if you're intimidated by Sichuan peppercorns.

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Another great non-spicy dish is this rice crust with pork and vegetables for $7.99. I've had this dish before in Vietnam. The rice is deep-fried and looks like rice crispy treats. The pork and veggies actually comes in a separate bowl and when the waitress pours the gravy on top, the rice starts crackling. Snap! Crackle! Pop!

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Pay attention because it's only a 6 second clip. Turn up the volume and strain your ears to hear beyond the talking, and you just catch the snap, crackle, pop. If the video doesn't show up on the blog, you can also watch it on YouTube.

It's a fun dish, although not the most interesting flavor-wise. We only ordered it for the novelty factor for cousin Q.

But this! I go here for their Kung Pao chicken for $7.99. If you thought you knew what Kung Pao chicken tastes like, this version blows them all away. For one thing, Chung King uses real Sichuan peppercorns for that slightly citrusy, perfumey aroma and numbing spicy sensation. American-Chinese versions skip the peppercorns completely. Loads of chili peppers. Crispy chopped chicken. Slightly vinegary marinade. Man, I'm getting a craving just typing the description.

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The spare ribs with prickly ash and spicy salt for $7.99 are lightly coated and crispy, with the citrusy perfumey aroma of Sichuan peppercorns. If you want to taste and experience the prickly ash, or peppercorns, without the interference of chili peppers, this is a good dish to try. Be aware though that even without the presence of chili peppers, the Sichuan peppercorns makes this dish numbingly spicy.

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On another visit with Henry Chan's Food Videos and his cousin, Pong, he asked the waitress for suggestions. So we got diced chicken with hot peppers for $7.99. This looks similar to the Kung Pao chicken, except the chicken is lightly coated and deep-fried first. The marinade seems to lack the slight vinegar notes that I love about the Kung Pao chicken.

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Also, there's loads more Sichuan peppercorns. Those are the nubby round peppers in the picture below. Loads and loads of them.

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The beef in small pot for $12.99 also had more Sichuan peppercorns. All three of us love spicy but this was just insane. Pong remarked that the water even tasted different after eating the peppercorns. Indeed, the water seemed to take on the lemony floral flavor notes of the peppercorns.

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Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) for $7.99. By this point, we really couldn't taste our food anymore. Too many Sichuan peppercorns for one meal.

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Another visit, this time with my brother. I had Kung Pao chicken cravings again. We weren't that hungry so we walked to the back of the restaurant to check out the cold offerings. Chicken heads, chicken feet, pig's ears, and other unknown cold meats.

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Bean sprouts, cucumber salad, seaweed, peanuts with tiny fish, cabbage, and pickled radish.

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Choice of three items for $4.95. The pig's ears and cucumber salad were excellent. The pickled radish was a bit too salty for me. I should have doubled up on the cucumber salad because it was just so good.

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We also ordered the cold Sichuan noodles for $4.25. Fresh egg noodles, peanuts, scallions, sprouts, soy sauce, and more chili and peppercorns.

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Toss to distribute the sauce. Beware! Sometimes this is OK, sometimes it's numbingly spicy. Ask them to tone down the peppercorns if you can't take the heat.

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And another shot of my very favorite dish here.

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The original location on Garfield Avenue in Monterey Park is still open, although with a different owner. This is the new location of the previous Chung King. I prefer this location for easier parking and air conditioning, a must when I'm eating spicy food. However, this location is small and gets busy during prime dinner time. Sometimes there's a small crowd outside the door.

Chung King Restaurant
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

1 year ago today, Bo Luc Lac (Vietnamese Shaking Beef).


  1. As if everything up being up North ain't hot enough. All the dishes looks so scary red and deadly. I wish I had a bite or 2.

  2. Hey WC - The original location of ChungKing on Garfield was one of our favorite restaurants when we lived in LA. I still remember the first time I walked into the tiny restaurant, and felt the "San Gabriel sticky" tables. It completely changeed the way I looked at Sichuan cuisine. BTW, the original chef from ChungKing, is now the head chef at our favroite restaurant here in San Diego. Thanks for helping to bring back such nice memories....

  3. I think I have to make a trip to Chung King! Everything looks deliciously numbing :-) Question about the peppercorns - every time I try to use them, my dish turns out sandy and gritty - should I remove the "petals" that cover the peppercorn? or...?

    The original chef is in SD? I'm in SD! What restaurant?? I had no idea I was so close to great Chinese food!

  4. i just went to a szechuan eatery here in hk few weeks back..goshhh crazy hot! i'll post the pics in facebook (i think my food blog doesnt give me enough space for all my food related adventure ya?)

  5. I found the crispy rice bars topped with gravy very intriguing. Was the rice bars sweet?
    I was wondering if I could try it with those bubble rice bars.. hmmmm..

  6. Those chilies looks so intense that I'm getting a bit sweaty and uncomfortable even though I'm thousands of miles away ;-)

  7. What a lovely display of good food! My husband would love this, his chinese blood loves anything spicy!!!

  8. My husband and I tried this restaurant last year and came to the conclusion that we must have ordered the "wrong" things because everyone else's food looked better than ours.

    I WANTED the kung pao chicken, but thought it was an uninspired choice. Now, with your blessing, I will go soon to take care of that craving!

  9. Bill,
    Up north as in SGV vs. OC? Are you talking inland vs. coastal weather?

    Yes, I remember your posts about Ba Ren. Maybe you should try this location and see how the original chef's skills hold up? :P

    I can't believe you missed Kirk's many mentions of Ba Ren! But yes, try there, and maybe try here too and tell me which is better. I don't cook with peppercorns much, but when I do, I actually grind them. But yes, you keep the "petals" too, or that's how they do it here.

    You can try Flickr. I switched when I started running out of space in March. Blogger really doesn't give enough photo space.

    The rice was plain. Definitely not sweet as this was a savory dish. Were you thinking of experimenting with packaged rice puffs? These aren't like those ones.

    If you can't eat spicy, how can we eat together? :P

    The ma la type of spicy takes some getting used to!

    Sometimes it really is just a matter of choosing the "right" dishes as you say. There's plenty more that I wonder what I'm missing out on.

  10. the rice crust dish looks weird! i've never seen anything like it. what part of vietnam is that from?

  11. Tania,
    I think it's actually Chinese since I ate it at a restaurant in Saigon that specialized in Chinese cuisine. :)


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