Sunday, July 19, 2009

Will Sweat for Food: Chung King

Another finally made it story for me...I finally made it to Chung King, the much loved Sichuan eatery in San Gabriel. I head out to the San Gabriel valley around three times per month, but my usual quest is dim sum or other dumplings which are Cantonese or Northern Chinese in origin. I'm not as schooled in the piquant stews and stir fries of Sichuan, but after hearing and reading raves going back many years, I was ready to remedy this experiential deficit and sample some of the dishes I'd heard so much about.

The popular Chung King Fried Chicken was a delightful take on the dish, with small, very salty chunks of fried chicken served in a pile of chilis, garlic and peppercorns. A salty snack that I wish I could get at a ball game.

I also loved the pork and pickled chilis. Shredded pork bits are enhanced by the little green pickled chilis which impart flavors of brine and vinegar onto the pork.

We also ordered the braised beef and noodles, a rich, spicy soup with braised beef. The broth was a deep brownish reddish color and had a flavor of beef braising jus and spices; it would have been nice to cut it with some lime. The beef itself was tender but not as flavorful as I would have liked, yielding perhaps to the spices.

The highlight of the meal, though, was the boiled beef, one of the most talked about dishes at Chung King. The dish features a bowl with slabs of beef and cabbage bathed in a soup of spice and peppercorn. The beef was sensational, a spicy revelation. The best pieces were those on top, which protruded from the broth and were coated with chilis and peppercorns. Placing these on my tongue, tasting and feeling the effect of the spices and Sichuan peppercorns was something I don't get much, a totally new culinary experience.

Chung King, and the boiled beef in particular, is less about flavor, though there is plenty of that, than about the physical interaction with the food. There is so much flavor with the heaping piles of garlic, ginger, scallions, chilis and peppercorns, that it is almost a taste overload that seeps from your senses of taste and smell into the other senses. There is so much to interpret that your entire body gets into the game. While Sichuan food is known for spiciness, I didn't have much in the way of the burning mouth or lips which are typical of more conventionally spiced meals. What I did develop was a tingly sensation on my tongue (a commonly reported effect of Sichuan peppercorns). I also began sweating and didn't stop until the meal was over, despite the cool, air conditioned Chung King dining room. It was a fully physical culinary experience, beyond mere taste and flavor, and one I hope to experience more of in the future.

Chung King
1000 S San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776-3113
(626) 286-0298


Thi N said...

Water boiled fish is even better than water boiled beef.

Also, try the version on the specials menu - fish with wild tofu, I think it's called.

sku said...

I had the water boiled fish on my next visit and can't decide whether I prefer it or the beef. The fish is almost a blank canvas to the spices and has a great texture after being boiled in spice, but the beefy juices impart more flavor to the spice mix; both were great.

I'll definitely try the fish with "wild tofu," whatever that is, thanks for the recs.