The most delicious thing I've eaten so far this spring, including spareribs at Phillips, Yu Jean Kang's lobster with fava beans, and soft-shell crabs at half the joints in New Orleans, was a reddish-brown blob about the size of a hubcap, floating like a jellyfish in a murky, dense sea of sauce. The blob, a specialty of the Lake Spring Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, had been red-cooked, a take on the traditional Shanghainese style.
Lake Spring, kind of a sleek, Shanghai-style bistro, is the prettiest Chinese restaurant in a neighborhood with hundreds of Chinese restaurants, all mirrors and Deco-like sconces, indirect lighting and silk-flower arrangements. And Chinese-American customers who look as if they subscribe to L.A. Style. On weekends, the line for tables spills out the door and onto the street--open about a year, the place is apparently still trendy. At lunchtime, Mercedes and BMWs are parked up and down the block. The menu, shortish for a Chinese restaurant, is all translated into English, sort of.
The blob, described on the menu as "noisette of pork pump," may or may not have been a whole, anise-scented pork hock. (When I asked a waitress what it was, she smiled mysteriously and gestured toward her shapely outstretched calf.) The pork pump had been simmered in soy sauce and rock sugar for hours, until it was so soft a probing chopstick easily penetrated the whole sweet, mass of delicious, melting fat; at the core was a fist of the tenderest imaginable pork, the sort of thing all pork might taste like if the President's Council on Fitness had never been convened.
It's sort of a platonic ideal of pig. A handful of Chinese greens had been tossed into the gravy, possibly as a garnish, and their slight bitterness cut the incredible richness of the pump. You could smell the garlic and spices from across the room--pork pumps glistened on at least half the other tables in the restaurant, too. And I kept fantasizing about Wolfgang Puck discovering the thing and importing the recipe to Chinois, roomfuls of cholesterol-conscious Westsiders chowing down on what is essentially pounds and pounds of braised hog lard: Pump up the volume!
Of course, there is more to Lake Spring than pork pump. The place is locally famous for a dish of sea cucumber braised with shrimp roe, a dish I never got around to trying.
There are unusual appetizers: "neutralize ham," which is bean curd that has been braised, smoked and pressed into a tasty facsimile of Chinese ham slices, served with a sneaky chile oil that is spicy enough to close your throat; "neutralize duck," which tastes and looks a little like chunks of Chinese roast duck; chewy slices of a cured-pork terrine, bound with a clear Chinese aspic; terrific braised celery, scented with sesame oil and served cold with a soy-wasabe dip. Ask for the smoky house condiment made with salted vegetables, fermented black beans and peanuts: it goes with almost everything.
Steamed Shanghai pork dumplings, full of fragrant juice, are served with a dip of shredded ginger and pungent black vinegar, and may be the best dumplings in the Southland, worth every second of the half-hour they take to cook. (The fried dumplings aren't nearly so good.) There are perfectly ordinary stir-fries--leeks with scallops, chicken slicked with sweet sauce, things like that. There is something delicious called "jade shrimp," tender, baby shrimp stir-fried with a pale-green spinach puree. The chef is big on tofu sheets, wrapped around fish fillets and deep-fried like good Chinese chimichangas; wrapped around pork fillets and braised in a brown sauce. The plump fried crabs, served with a subtle, ginger-spiked brown sauce, are fine.
More spectacular is the fish-head casserole, a smooth chowder in an enormous earthen casserole. The broth is thick with pureed yellow beans, whose slight, fermented tartness enriches the casserole like creme fraiche , but without the heaviness; the sweet flesh of the fish is poached until barely set.
Lake Spring, 219 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 280-3571. Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. No alcohol. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more only. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.