By Emma Gallegos
By now, I’ve memorized the tics of the best restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.
Sure, the best restaurants don’t have to be tucked away in unassuming strip malls with the kind of signage that necessitates illegal U-turns. The best food doesn’t have to be enjoyed over the strains of someone with Mariah Carey’s phrasing and penchant for swelling strings, if not her range. I’m sure the best chefs don’t necessarily request that the dining room decor resemble a garage sale.
But when I find myself at a restaurant like Hunan Chilli King in San Gabriel with menu items scrawled in magic marker on fluorescent posters, I’ve started to feel like I’m in good hands. (I thought I’d made it out of the woods because there was a satellite TV beaming from China instead of music, but by the time I got my food, live-recorded footage featuring one of Ms. Carey’s acolytes was rolling.)
And I was in good hands. This was my first experience with cuisine from the Hunan province, which is the most famous for bringing the heat – if you don’t count Sichuan.
All you true believers out there may be disappointed to discover that I didn’t try the dish the restaurant is known for. The Hunan steamed fish head was $16.99. True believers would call this a steal but it didn’t quite make the cut for a budget dining column.
Instead, I tried the pork in a Hunan brown sauce for about half the price ($8.99) – tender pork in a brown sauce with thin celery stalks, red peppers and almost translucent peppers that brought the heat. The vegetables were sauteed just long enough to absorb the chili and garlic but were still crispy.
The waitress suggested “on choy” with a garlic and bean curd sauce ($7.99), a cooling vegetable that’s somewhere between spinach and bok choy. It took the edge off of the pork, though at a certain point nothing could really combat the heat.
I tied it all together with a heaping bowl of fried rice ($6.99). I’ve been so abused by fried rice at terrible Chinese restaurants. The rice here was delicate – flavorful, not too greasy or soggy with soy sauce or dried. It was a deep brown, almost charcoal color, laced with bits of egg.
The restaurant was bustling at lunchtime with groups of twenty- and thirty-somethings, but service was swift and efficient. I did laugh that I had to ask for water at a restaurant with stuffed plush chili peppers hanging from the walls.
Maybe I didn’t try the restaurant’s delicacy but I left the table impressed: tingling lips, ruddy face. I’ve heard that the sting of spicy food can release endorphins, which seems about right since I felt something akin to a runner’s high before I descended into an MSG daze. The daze and the restaurant’s “B” rating are the only facts that might have besmirched my experience. Then again, why does a “B” rating seem to be another one of those tics of the best food in the Valley?
By the time I paid for food, tax and tip, my meal came to $30. Going to a Chinese restaurant alone is foolish, but the meal I ordered would have served three easily. Next time, I plan on bringing my own twenty- and thirty-something friends in tow.
Hunan Chilli King is at 534 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel.