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Hot Stuff

February 25, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Consider the hundred-layer pancake, a lacy, golden disk of Chinese bread the size and shape of an upside-down skullcap. It pulls apart into strands as easily as a length of frayed rope; it's also the specialty of the Hunanese restaurant Wei Fun.

When the pancakes first come to the table in their woven baskets, they are smoking hot, capable of doing serious damage to your fingertips, but ultimately too delicious to resist. Each freshly baked skein of pancake is supple yet crisp-edged, fragrant of toasted and heated oil, just right for swabbing a bit of pungent black bean sauce from the bottom of an emptied service plate. As you might at Tung Lai Shun or Campanile, at Wei Fun you are perfectly capable of feeling that one can indeed live by bread alone.

Wei Fun is a cool, dark place near the eastern edge of San Gabriel, one more good mini-mall restaurant on a stretch of Las Tunas Drive that is home to perhaps more good mini-mall restaurants than any other in Los Angeles County. (San Gabriel residents protested the proposed city razing of an enchilada joint last week because it would "deprive the city of one of its few good restaurants." I universally prefer Mexican restaurants to parking lots, but those guys must not get out much.) The small dining room is pretty bare, decorated mostly with those hanging red banners that describe seasonal menu specials most of us will never know about, because most of us don't speak Chinese.

Forget steamed Cantonese steelhead trout; forget Taiwanese fishballs; forget Shanghainese eel with yellow chives. What the world is really looking for is a good Hunan-style restaurant, a chef that really understands spicy bean curd, a place to indulge the hot-pepper fixations a lot of us picked up in the '70s. (From all Cal-graduate reports, the original Hunan restaurant in San Francisco, however "inauthentic," must be one of the most beloved restaurants in the world.)

We know that most Westside "Sichuan" places feature Cantonese cooks indiscriminately dosing the food with sugar and chile; we know that the percentage of local chefs with actual western Chinese training is about that of NFL quarterbacks form the Ivy League. Wei Fun may be a Taiwan-style Hunan restaurant, but Wei Fun also has the goods.

Here are the spicy eggplant, the sweet-and-pungent "house-special" fried chicken, the garlicky flash-fried beef with scallions that are common in neighborhood restaurants but rarely prepared with the country-style intensity you find at Wei Fun. Here too is sliced lamb in Hunan sauce, a spicy, garlicky, half-sweet stir-fry with a taste that unfolds layer after layer of complexity as you eat--almost definitive of what you may think of as Hunan food. At most Chinese restaurants, stir-fries are among the dullest items on the menu; at Wei Fun, they shine: garlic sprouts with sweet cured belly pork, chicken with dried chile, shredded pork with pickled vegetables. The unfortunately named "sauted glue rice cake" is a delicious, spicy mass of fried rice-noodle nuggets, tossed with a tangle of vegetables.

Of course, stir-fries aren't all. The unusual duck with taro involves tender strips of the bird arranged neatly over a dome of what tastes essentially like the best refried beans in the world. A small steamed sea bass in hot bean sauce, served sizzling on a Sterno-fired platter and topped with a salty fermented-bean crumble, is superb.

If you look imploringly enough at the posted specials, a waitress might translate a couple of them for you. Or she might suggest something like succulent sauteed Chinese squash as juicy as ripe melon, cuttlefish fried with shredded vegetables and spicy Hunan sauce, braised bean curd skin stuffed with powerfully flavored Chinese mushrooms--or terrific Hunan honey ham, profoundly smoky, steamed until it is the crumbly texture of great pastrami, served on a bed of water chestnuts and with the inevitable accompaniment of steamed Wonder bread.

Wei Fun is well known in the area for its inexpensive lunch specials. These include, in addition to the pancake and a steaming bowl of a sweetish bean-and-rice porridge that is closer to a Salvadoran atole than it is to the classic Cantonese jook , things such as pork fried with dried tofu and fragrant yellow chives or great heaps of tiny, sauteed frogs' legs with green pepper and a sweet, intensely spicy sauce. One can scarcely do better for $3.75.

Wei Fun Restaurant

708 E. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (818) 286-6152. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$22.

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