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Sichuan, Pasadena

March 25, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

A couple of years ago, Fu-Shing was a divey restaurant in a converted San Gabriel pie shop, crowded and noisy, famous among local Chinese as the best Sichuan-style restaurant in town, famous for chile-laced stews, cold spiced duck, vegetables fried with salty crab roe. If the wind was right, you could smell the garlic from three blocks away.

Then the restaurant moved uptown, to the part of eastern Pasadena you might think of as Greater Arcadia, into palatial, drapery-hung quarters that might remind you of certain swank second-story restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The new Fu-Shing advertises widely, accepts American Express, is perhaps the closest grand Chinese restaurant to San Marino and blueblood Pasadena. Unlike any other Southland Chinese restaurant of its authenticity and scale, Fu-Shing is as used to American customers as it is to the Chinese-wedding crowd, and you will always see a few tablesful of people who look as if they've escaped from a Ralph Lauren ad: It is practically two restaurants in one. If you happen to be an Anglo customer who does not have chicken chow mein on his table, three or four waiters may even come around to compliment you on your ordering. Fu-Shing sells a lot of sweet-and-sour pork.

Fortunately, there are other options. Sichuan cuisine is cold-climate cooking, dark and musky and sometimes numbingly hot, dominated by the flavor of chiles, garlic and preserved vegetables, grounded by animal pungencies and the bite of Sichuan peppercorns.

Fu-Shing's "spicy beef shank in fire pot" might be the quintessential Sichuan dish, a chafing-dishful of tendon stewed with chiles, garlic and a handful of Chinese spice, powerfully scented, tender enough to collapse into just a rumor on your lips, astonishingly rich. A spoonful is adequate to flavor a bowl of rice; if you eat much more than that, garlic will exude from your pores for the next day or so.

"Preserved pork homestyle" is thin slices of house-cured gammon, fried with hot chile and hanks of leek greens, salty and gamy and delicious; garlic eggplant is soft and spicy-sweet; kung pao chicken is ferociously spiced, alive with the musky flavor of toasted, dried chiles, everything that the corner Chinese-restaurant versions are not. A clear turnip soup, hot with white pepper, garnished with sliced pork, has all the soft sharpness of the boiled root vegetable but twice the pleasure. If you ask the right waiter, you might even get a brothy beef dish, complex as a fugue, with a modulated heat, subtle at first but then expanding into a white-hot glow. Some like it hot.

It is pretty easy to have a disappointing meal at Fu-Shing, particularly if you come with too few people--four or more would seem about right--and order the wrong sort of stuff. The cloying honey ham is done better at half a dozen other places; the braised fish with garlic sauce is dull and one-dimensional.

But the Chinese vegetable guy choy , juicy as a ripe melon, is sauteed with crab roe, and the strong brininess brings out the subtle sweetness of the vegetable. Ruddy, intensely smoky tea-smoked duck is hard to stop eating; snow-pea leaves, briefly fried with garlic, taste like the essence of spring. And the renowned cold plate--sweet jellyfish shreds, cold chicken in sesame sauce, aromatic sliced beef, smoky chunks of salted duck, sliced octopus, spiced shrimp and fantastic, garlicky tripe tender enough to persuade the staunchest menudophobe--is good enough to warrant driving across town.

* Fu-Shing

3500 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 792-8898. Open Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 1:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Full bar. Takeout and delivery. American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$26.

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