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By Steven Li on 2007-02-18

February 18, 2007


They must go though countless bags of dried chili peppers at Sichuan restaurants. It’s been more than 12 hours since my last bite of beef stir-fried in pickled peppers but my lips! They have blown up to enormous proportions because of the heat, and my tongue is still swollen from one to many peppercorns. I had more than my share of whole peppers. Just cause I really wanted to taste them, you know? Curiosity really burns.

Chung King is know wide and far, thanks to the New York Times and Jonathan Gold. But save for the newspaper articles on the pasted on the windows and tables, you’d never guess the extent of Chun King’s popularity from the modest storefront, comfortably worn down interior, and eager to please owners.

We began our meal with an assortment of cold appetizers selected from the tray counter at the back of the restaurant. From the left: kelp shreds with chilies and brown peppercorns, fuqi feipian, and pig ears in hot sauce. The pig ears were my favorite of the trio, with its balance between crisp and meaty. However, I could not help but think of how just incredibly oily all the dishes were, every slice of ear was literally dipped in oil. It didn’t occur to me how much bare, hot oil I was ingesting till after I paused for a minute, and went, uuuugh. So much oil! But that’s they way it’s made at most restaurants, so I’ll suck it up and won’t eat so many ears next time!

In contrast, the dish of konnyaku in a soy-based sauce, topped with peanuts and green onions was very mellow and refreshing. I like the mix of the crispy, cool slippery jelly and the sharp peanut bits. There was just the slightest hint of heat, the konnyaku would later prove to be a lifesaver that we’d often turned to when burned by our later, pepper-dominated dishes.

Our stir-fried beef with pickled peppers contained far more peppers than beef. You see how the beef looks plentiful in the picture? Deceiving! The only beef in that dish is what you see on top. So basically it was a huge plate of stir fried peppers with some vegetables. The beef, however little there existed, was very tender, almost buttery I dare say. It was an especially tongue numbing trip when coupled with a pepper or two and a spoonful of rice. Those peppers really do you in. My tongue wasn’t gasping in the face of heat, but was far beyond that stage. It was just numb to death with a mild burn. I think the numbness went all the way to my head. heehee.

One of our few non-spicy entrees was the fried Chinese bacon with garlic sprouts. I think I like this more than American bacon! The slices are thicker than the bacon you usually get at a typical breakfast, making for a more meaty, savory treat. The supple ribbons of fat running proudly though each strand had a nice sear and melted oh-so-gently into the lightly hued pink meat. Nothing quite like pig fat, meat and hot rice, eh?

Sorry, the picture is so bad, but everyone started to attack this dish so quickly, I didn’t have time for a retake! This was the group favorite of the evening, fish fillets sautéed with bean sprouts in a hot bean curd sauce, then topped with green onions and peanuts. The success of the dish lay in the contrast of textures and flavors, from the bright crunch of sautéed sprouts, to the peanuts and then a searing hot fish that burned, yet begged you to come back for more of its smooth and flaky meat in a light bean curd based bath. Salty, hot and wanting.

And to celebrate the new years, we made sure to get noodles for long life! Three kinds of noodles, in fact! The dan dan mien paled in comparison to what I’ve had in various Sichuan restaurants in Rowland Heights. I could taste nothing but spiciness. And spicy is good. I like spicy. But I don’t like spicy when it overkills everything else and the whole dish ends up tasting like spicy in many textures.

However the Sichuan cold noodles were an instant favorite. Mellow, plain and cool to mute the every growing numbing tingling fires in our mouths. The “house special sauce” was sweet and thick, lightly glazing over every strand of the chilled noodles. This, like the konnyaku, saved me from begging for a cup of milk.

Any aid that the cold noodles might have offered was murdered and torn apart by the “ants climbing on a tree” noodles, thin glass vermicelli stir fried with minced pork, eggs, and little peppers. These peppers could not be as easily avoided like the larger ones in the previous dishes. Look carefully, little bits of red, everywhere! I loved, but hated them at the same time. Where it’s so hot you need and should stop, but it’s so good, you just can’t. It’s as if some invisible for propels you to go bite and bite and you want, but cannot, no you cannot stop. You want more! And that’s how Sichuan restaurants stay in business!

OOoh, this one, the fish flavored eggplant was glorious! There was no “fish flavored” element that I could recognize, but sweet slices of juicy eggplant were stewed in a spicy concoction that called for a glossy layer of pure hot oil right over the top. It was hot, but really, you had to keep on going. The eggplant was the equivalent of savory soft butter balls in hot oil. The meat of the eggplant was loosely bound, falling over and encasing the steaming rice, bringing with it the fearful heat we love to crave.

That was without a doubt the fieriest meal I’ve had in a long time. But it was very enjoyable! Even though the restaurant is tiny to begin with, it was completely full from the moment we arrived till after we left around 9:30pm. Unlike a fair share of restaurants in this area, service was bend-over-your-back extremely friendly and helpful. I think by the time the third dish came around, the waitress remembered to keep an eye on my water glass, cause it was filled a good seven or eight times throughout the dinner! One thing I don’t plan to engage in again is stuffing more than three peppers in my mouth at once, just to get a taste of plain, unadultured Sichuan peppercorns. Not too wise. But hey, now aren’t you curious? Not even a little? ;)

Happy Chinese New Years!!!

Chung King
206 S. Garfield Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 280-7430

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