I did a little research, and discovered that the magical Szechuan peppers (huajiao), are the dried berries of the Prickly Ash. They were banned because of a bacteria that could endanger California's citrus crops, not because of any narcotic properties (the ban has since been lifted). Which is actually kind of disappointing. It is exciting to think that you are sampling something secret and forbidden. So if anyone hears about any opium-laced dumplings, give me a call.
There are a handful of restaurants along Garfield Avenue that cook with the huajiao pepper, and each one seems to have its devotees. Last night Jason took us to Heath and Gina's fave, Chung King. With only 8 tables and minimal decor, the little restaurant looks deceptively like a greasy spoon. Chung King resembles one of the $1 Chinese Food places that populate America's strip malls. But do not be fooled - this is not your local strip mall. just a few miles from home, you are deep within another culture. The menu has English translations, and although no one speaks English, everyone communicates with smiles and gestures. Still, there is an otherworldliness that made me glad to have Jason to rely upon. After quizzing us on our preferences, he ordered in long-winded Mandarin while we smiled stupidly.
Fried Chicken Cubes with Hot Pepper
Boiled in Hot sauce...Fish and Beef
Delicious Smelled Beef
Fried Chinese Bacon with Garlic Sprouts
Hmmm...Chicken, fish, beef and pork. All the same old stuff. The menu I read was filled with adventure...frog, eel, intestine, kidney, and tripe. I said, "You don't have to order a wimpy menu for us. I'm willing to eat eel or intestine." Jason said, "Oh, that's NOT a wimpy menu. If you want to get weird, you do that at the cold buffet." After placing your order, you head to the back of the restaurant to a glass deli counter full of exotic delights. I eyed the tripe, but nobody else seemed interested. I find I sometimes want to eat something daring just to test myself, and I actually have no interest in it at all. Each cold plate comes with three selections. Bob did not seem very decisive, so I ordered the pig ear, dried beef, and pickled long beans. Jason chose the peanuts with fish, seaweed and cucumbers.
Pig's ear, Dried beef and Pickled long bean
The kitchen surprised us by having our hot order ready by the time we returned to our table, so we had plates crowding every inch of the table. Except for the bacon, the serving platters were heaped with a frightening amount of hot chiles. I now understood what Jason meant by "not wimpy." I tried to start with the least spicy and numbing dishes so I wouldn't overwhelm my palate. The bacon was the most disappointing dish. It was a sort of boiled English bacon mixed with leeks. The blandness might have been a welcome relief from the heat of the other dishes, but its chewiness made it more trouble than it was worth. Jason later complained to the owner that it wasn't smoky enough, and she countered that he should have ordered the bacon with cabbage.
Next I looked over the cold plates. The boiled peanuts had little tiny dried fish mixed in with giant gaping mouths that disturbingly made it look like they were screaming. The peanuts were surprisingly not at all fishy. So next I went for the seaweed, commenting, "This is going to be really fishy." Bob caught my eye and I asked, "Is it strange that I eagerly reach for food while saying, 'Ooh, I'm going to HATE this!'?" He said, "I understand your curiosity." But again, the seaweed was not fishy at all. Not at all like the Japanese seaweed I have tried.
Next I selected a slice of pig's ear. It was very different than the pig's ear I had eaten in France, which was a big, chewy mass of cartilege. This was thinly sliced, steaked with ribbons of fat, and lightly pickled in a combination of spices, including most recognizably star anise and hot chile. The fat melted deliciously on my tongue like gelatin, but then my mouth caught on fire. It was like napalm. The fat coated your mouth, trapping the hot chili with it, so it was impossible to douse the flames.
The dried beef was like thick strips of beef jerky, extremely salty, but one of the least spicy items on the menu. I should have noticed the crushed Szechuan peppers coating the sides. My lips started tingling, parasthenia was setting in. This combination of elements is known as Ma La, literally "numb heat". My mouth had the strangest sensation of numbness, and then I felt my throat swell. I feared my throat would close up and I would be unable to breathe, so I pushed aside the cold platter.
Delicious Smelled Beef
The Delicious Smelled Beef was delicious, the meat so tender it seemed like it didn't even have any "grain" to it at all. I really liked the grub-looking slices of bamboo shoot. But it was painfully hot, even with my mouth already numb.
The hot pot beef and fish was homey and comforting. The fish, which we guessed was some type of cod, was tender and perfectly cooked. But again, super-hot-spicy! The best dish on the menu was the chicken, fried to perfection without a trace of greasiness. But this was the dish famous for those peppers, and after one paranoid suffocating episode, I didn't want to overdo it.
Fried Chicken Cubes with Hot Pepper
Everyone was really friendly, smiling and laughing. Jason said, "They are amused by you. They think it's funny that you are taking pictures of your food." So that seems to be a universal sentiment. At one point, when Jason had gone outside to answer a cell phone call, the owner, Grace, came over to proudly display a picture of herself with Huell Howser. So California's Gold beat us here. We communicated in gestures, that she was the sole proprietress of the place. Later, Jason told me that most of the restaurants in Monterey Park are owned by women.
Our proprietress, Grace, with Heull Howser
He asked her to bring some of the peppers out for me to look at, and she returned with a scant few in a white bowl. To see how strong they were, I pretended like I was going to down them like a shot of whiskey. I could tell by the way everyone freaked out and grabbed for the bowl, then laughed, relieved, that they really were not fooling around. She waited for me to photograph them, then stood there until I handed them back, and whisked them back to the kitchen. So they are either very expensive and dear, or very dangerous. The waitress came up to expound on the wonder of the peppers. She and jason talked for awhile, then strangely, he started rubbing her forearm. He interpreted, "She said that Szechuan is cold and humid, so they have to eat this pepper to clean out all of the toxins. She said that is why girls from Szechuan province have the softest skin in the world, which is why I had to see for myself."
There was much discussion between us as to whether or not the huajiao pepper was making us high. I definitely felt lightheaded and strange. That reaction could be attributed to the insane amount of hot chiles we had consumed, or even the culture shock of being in such a new environment. There was definitely an anaesthetic effect. It was compared to cocaine, and to narcotics, and psychedelics.
We stopped at the Boba shop to get slushies to cool off (red bean, green tea, and almond milk). They had a gumball machine selling little trinkets. Winnie the Pooh and friends were dressed up in a variety of costumes, including eachother. Tigger in a Pooh costume...Pooh in an Eeyore costume. It was a trip. I've always been strangely fascinated by animals dressed up as other animals. Then I saw this:
My mind was blown. I was obsessed with it. I could not rest or stop digging for quarters until I made it mine. Bob just stared at me, trying to figure out what was so amusing. It just seemed so obvious to me. I asked him intently, "Why would a BEAR dress up like a FISH?" The look he gave me made me admit that, OK, maybe the pepper did make me totally high. Chung King 206 South Garfield Avenue Monterey Park 91754 11am-10pm Cash Only.