Chung King is the real deal
Following the guidance of fellow hounds, I went to Chung King (206 S Garfield Ave, Monterey Park, 626 280 7430). It's a seriously un-Americanized Szechuan place in an unassuming but very clean storefront a block or so below Garvey on the east side of the street. I managed to walk right past it the first time.
Seeing as how almost nothing on the menu was familiar to me, despite my having eaten at numerous "Szechuan" places, I decided to go whole hog. Well, okay, not quite so whole-hog as the pigs' intestines with blood. Instead I had the duck and beer in small pot, and I have to say it's the strangest thing I've ever eaten. It's a big bowl of opaque red liquid. It looks like chili oil. It turns out to be duck, mushrooms, gelatinous black fungus, a vegetable I can't name that looks like a long yellow sheet-metal screw, a very large number of red chilis, and a very large number of things that might be peppercorns but look and taste more like juniper berries.
What weirded me out was not the chilis. I know all about that. Once my sinuses cleared out I was fine. What weirded me out was the juniper berries. The taste combination of beer and chilis with the juniper berries was seriously odd. Of course, it's probably not odd if you grew up in Szechuan. But if you grew up in a white suburb on the east coast then it's two whole notches beyond even your most adventuresome Chinatown fare. Between separating the duck meat from the bones, trying not to eat too many chilis and juniper berries, and trying not to splash this dangerous red liquid on my shirt (I failed), it took an awful long time to eat. Pretty cool.
Chung King is also a pretty friendly place. Not much English is spoken, but they fully exercised their ten words of English trying to dissuade me from ordering the dish. "Hot!" I ended up chatting to various people in the restaurant, all of whom were quite pleased to be eating real Szechuan food. Pointing at the absurd density of chilis in the food and asking "Can you eat that?" seems like a sure-fire conversation-starter.
Yeah, that impossible ratio of chilies to edibles is one of the amazing things about authentic Szechuan food. You look at the plate and start to sweat before you've had a bite. Happily, the food isn't as pungent as it looks. But close.
Having read the previous posts, my skeptical wife (she's from Tsingtao via Beijing and has been to ChungKing) and jumped in the car and made our way from SD to LA, all the while she reminded me that:
1 - What we've been eating in those so called "Szechuan" dishes that we've eaten in places such as Juon Yuan or Spicy City here in SD, were really Beijing Style Szechuan - using a cross between Hunan (alot of red chili's) and Szechuan.
2 - I may have a real difficulty with the "heat" of real szechuan.
3 - Even though we used to live in Rowland Heights and have eaten in many Chinese Restaurants that she's never come across anything like the "real-deal"
Well she has now. I was saving my review until a second visit...but since Stan's beaten me to the punch here goes.
We had 6 dishes, and took home several cold dishes...
In order to clearly develop a baseline I started with the familiar - The Husband and Wives dish#121 - Beef and Lung Slices w/Special Hot Sauce. Now I'm not a great fan of this, I guess it's personal problem that I have with tripe(which I love)flavored with vinegar...now my wife and In-laws love this stuff. Well to my most pleasant surprise, this dish had what looked like tendon, crunchy and chewy, and the numbing heat!!! A slow numbing sensation slowly spread through my mouth, having never experienced this feeling, I can now understand why a friend told me that it's really easy to get addicted to this style of cuisine. Now this was a dish I could eat on a regular basis.
The #122 the pig ears was wonderful stuff as well, chewy, with some crunch. For those who've never had this...it's really good stuff.
#123 Spicy Pig Tongue was rich, smoky, with a ham/bacon like texture. In fact we took containers of this and #121 home...imagine me sitting on the porch on a nice warm afternoon having a couple of Sapporo's munching down on this stuff...sweat dripping down the side of my face...sometimes life really is good.
#125 Dried Beef, this was also excellent. For those who've had the Chinese style beef jerky, this would be no surprise...but with the peppercorns! This was a great dish.
As you can see, we had a hard time separating ourselves from the cold table and never made it much further...
At this point the waitress (the usual somewhat abrupt characters that work in these places) started smiling...I guess we provided a bit of entertainment for her....looked at me and said "Wow, you good, you can eat spicy food"...guess she never saw someone of Japanese ancestry eat this type of food. I told her that my father in law was from Hunan, and that I've been trained well. It also gave me great pleasure to see all of the other customers swaeting, removing their jackets, and coughing. But I never found the numbing heat to be nearly as hot as the chili pepper, bean paste, chili oil heat.
Next we had the #113 Cold Noodles - I actually finished this dish myself, my wife barely had a taste. As accurately stated by David C. in an earlier post, "that the more we ate, the more we wanted".
Our final and main course was fish boiled in hot sauce #16 - this was very much like the "fish flavored" Szechuan dishes that I'm used to. Vinegar and red chili's flavoered this dish. But what made this dish was the wonderful texture of the fish...soft, moist, you could still taste the flavor of the fish, even with all of the hot sauce.
All in all, a wonderful experience.
We didn't have the time, nor the ability to try any of the other dishes...next time we'll do take-out of the cold dishes and eat more of the hot dishes, especially the rice crusted. One more thing, the pig tongue is also wonderful in dishes that usually require ham, I took an order home and used it cooked with garlic chives and in fried noodles and rice......
What a great chowhound find...worth the 125mile drive..at least just once, to experience a vastly different cuisine.