Truth be told, we've never been big on Chinese food. The starchy chop sueyhouse entrées we ate growing up in South Carolina always made the after-dinner fortune cookies and orange wedges something to look forward to. Even the Chinese cuisine we later found in Boston and New York (save a few memorable dim sum experiences) couldn't compare with the electrifying Latin American and Japanese flavors we'd come to expect in those cities.
But recently, a friend in Los Angeles told us that eating around the San Gabriel Valley, just 10 miles east of downtown, might change our minds. The heart of L.A.'s Chinese community had migrated from Chinatown to the valley in the eighties, he said, boasting that he could have Chinese food nightly for a week and never dine in the same province twice. So we set out on a gastronome's mini-odyssey through east-central Asia: four full days of eating nothing but Chinese food in L.A.
The Long Beach tarmac was searing when we landed, and our first instinct was to fight fire with fire. The region of China most renowned for chile-laden dishes is Sichuan, so we headed to Chung King, named for the province's largest city. The restaurant is in Monterey Park—a low-lying grid of shopping plazas and stoplights like all the towns in the San Gabriel Valley—and a happy-cat statue, a gold Buddha, and a wheezing soda fridge passed for ambience. But as soon as our waitress set down our plate of three cold appetizers, we decided that any fancier set-dressing would have distracted from the actions developing on our Formica tabletop.
Strips of garnet-colored beef jerky glazed with prickly ash (often called Sichuan pepper), chiles, and star anise had an alluringly tongue-numbing sweet-hot flavor. We alternated bites of the fiery jerky with the cooling tangle of shredded-kelp salad dressed with sesame oil and studded with garlic and fresh cilantro. A mound of fried peanuts sprinkled with splinters of crisp, cured minnows played a register between the two, with salty, nutty, fishy, and sweet flavors working off one another.
The house specialty—fried chicken with toasted chiles—arrived radiating an aroma of smoky capsicum that reminded us of Mexican mole. Perfectly fried cubes of chicken breast with a thin, crunchy crust were tossed with a roughly equal quantity of peppers, whose flavors, a combination of Lapsang souchong tea and roasted nuts, were alarmingly addictive and downright incendiary.
The "skin-like dry bean curd with leek" was a dish of soft, crinkly ribbons of tofu skin, with the look and texture of paper-thin fettuccine, doused in a soothing broth (mercifully pepperless) with parsley-like tones. Slender strips of seared baby leek with a deep onion flavor gave the dish a pleasantly bitter edge. But our favorite item was the only frog's legs we've ever been moved to write home about. Stir-fried with pickled red-and-green peppers and slivers of fresh ginger, these legs had been trimmed to neat lollipops with an earthy white-meat flavor like blue-crab legs or red snapper.
Next day, a couple of blocks from Chung King, we found ourselves on the Mongolian steppe, enveloped in a cloud of toasted cumin. At Little Sheep, diners huddled over steel bowls of roiling broth set into large, circular tables and dunked chopsticks loaded with pea shoots and fat-marbled sheets of beef and lamb into the swim. The Mongolian hot pot resembles Japanese shabu-shabu or French fondue, except something about those countries' approaches to dipping protein in soup is too courtly by half. Here, the pot is filled with explosively flavorful bouillons that incite elbow-raised free-for-alls.
Our seasoned broths arrived in short order. A central divider separated a murky brew dyed red from dried chiles—with bay leaf, walnut-sized pods of African cardamom, and small, whole, orange-hued chiles the size of raisins bobbing on the surface—and a more restrained, chile-free chicken consommé with fresh ginger and longans.
The most sought-after dunk was the fatty lamb—paper-thin slices that melted to just a cobweb's worth of lusciousness, coated with spice. We tossed pale-green baby bok choy and beef into the cauldron with reckless abandon, but glassine rice vermicelli, Buddha's-hand melon, and enoki mushrooms were standouts, soaking up the broth as they were transformed into something otherworldly and, believe it or not, refreshing. We had never known Chinese food to be anything but rib-sticking, but here were dishes that engaged aromatic, grassy tastes with sour ones, salty ones with sweet; the interplay of flavors was ethereal and restorative at the same time. We had eaten so much, yet we were left wanting more.
The dumplings at Din Tai Fung, in prosperous Arcadia, were similarly invigorating. We'd been told that the restaurant—which has outposts in Taipei, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and 11 locations in Japan—is L.A.'s spot for xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, and the line that stretched out the door at lunch proved the point. We watched through plate glass as a crew of chefs composed the golf ballsized dumplings in a spotless kitchen, rolling out small circles of dough with a wooden dowel, spooning minced crab and pork into them along with a spoonful of gelled consommé, pinching them into place, and gathering them in round steel steamers—10 to a serving.
Eating a soup dumpling is a ritual (for the uninitiated, the procedure is helpfully illustrated on the chopstick wrapper): pick up the dumpling in a Chinese soupspoon and poke through the wrapper with a chopstick so the oniony broth bathing the filling flows out. Pour a few drops of sweet, funky black vinegar or soy sauce (in fact, it was the only cruet of soy sauce we encountered during our trip) into the spoon, garnish with slivers of fresh ginger, and slurp it up!