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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Super Hunan

July 08, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Check it out, the moiling crowds, the barking loudspeakers, the teeming parking lot, the two-hour wait for breakfast at Harbor Village, still the most popular dim sum restaurant in Monterey Park. Look at the new Hunanese restaurant across the courtyard, Charming Garden, and look at the number in your hand--"89," perhaps, with the hostess still calling "Number 4"--and consider just how hungry you might really be.

The first time I went to Charming Garden for breakfast, Harbor Village number crumpled in my fist, I felt kind of deprived, like a guy at Farfalla because Ca' Brea is too booked. Every time since, I have felt nothing but smug.

Charming Garden, in the space once occupied by the best Chiu Chow restaurant in town, is a clean, bright place, spare of ornament, with fresh tablecloths and formal service, waitresses rushing in and out of the warren of banquet rooms off to one side. It is also the most serious Hunan-style restaurant in Southern California. You can peer over your shoulder at lunchtime, furtively checking out each table for hints on what to order, but everybody's essentially eating the same meal, which can cut down on the usual Chinese-restaurant anxieties.

Here comes the waitress, slinging a tray like a cigarette girl, with an assortment of cold hors d'ouevres that cost a couple of dollars a pop: tender, young bamboo shoots cooked in a sweet chile sauce; marinated cubes of jicama; parboiled snap peas brushed with sweetened sesame oil. If you're fortunate, there will be smooth, cool slabs of chile-marinated beef tendon. Tiny, dry-fried anchovies tossed with fiery-hot chiles, chase down an icy bottle of Taiwan Beer like nothing you've ever seen.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 15, 1993 Home Edition Food Part H Page 31 Column 1 Food Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Due Credit--In last week's Counter Intelligence column, the photographer of the pictures of the restaurant Charming Garden was incorrectly identified. Con Keyes took the photos.
caption
PHOTO: Charming Garden
PHOTOGRAPHER: CON KEYES / Los Angeles Times

What you're going to want next is the house-special bean curd, the smoking casserole that ends up on every table, which sputters and spits like a volcanic hot spring and is violently flavored with chile, garlic and leeks: delicious.

Bean-curd sheets are fried crisp into simulacra of Peking duck skin, then daubed with bean sauce and wrapped in pancakes. Steamed lotus-leaf rolls look suspiciously like Greek dolmas, but you are supposed to unwrap the rolls, then scrape out the gooey filling of chicken and pork, or you will become a figure of fun--as a friend found out to his horror.

Hunan honey ham, which you tuck into cunningly sliced chunks of Wonder bread, is more insipid than the best versions of the dish, but goes nicely with the rest of the food. Wonderful and strangely spiced noodles, with "hot herb sauce," pungent with Chinese peppercorns, tossed with ground pork and an intriguing grayish powder, taste like nothing you've ever had before.

And lunch isn't even the best meal at Charming Garden.

Smoked pomfret, bronzed and gleaming, might be the most beautiful plate of food in the San Gabriel Valley, like some patinated fish-shaped artifact displayed on a handsome platter. The large fish, which the restaurant flies in from Taiwan, smells strongly of smoke, almost too strongly, but the rich, pale flesh is surprisingly delicate, almost like perfect sturgeon, and almost needs the aid of the pepper-salt with which it is served. (Unfortunately, at $17 per pound, the pomfret can be frightfully expensive.)

One soup involves raw fillets of whitefish barely poached in the mild broth a waitress pours over them from a tea kettle; another, a savory tincture of minced squab served in a bamboo cup. There are shredded bits of pork stir-fried with twice their weight in fresh red chiles; crunchy fried strips of eel tossed with candied walnuts; crisply fried chicken heavily scented with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Rosy slices of pheasant breast, looking like nothing so much as prosciutto, are dipped in a taro batter and fried to a gamy rare at a tableside cart, but never become quite as crisp as one might like.

Minced shrimp are sauteed with garlic, tossed with crunchy bits of fried bread and wrapped like tacos in iceberg leaves: The contrast between the cold lettuce and the hot shrimp, the sweet garlic and the crisp mineral tang, is superb.

And when a waitress brings the unpromising sounding "steamed stuff chicken" to the table at dinnertime, she unwraps a big foil packet, snips the knot tied in an oven-proof plastic bag, and reveals a whole red-cooked chicken, fragrant with soy and spice, enveloped in a puff of anise-scented steam. You've heard of chicken so tender it falls off the bone? This chicken is so tender that the bone itself has partially dissolved, and the calcium-enriched flesh has absorbed so much flavor that it seems like something else apart, chicken evolved to a higher astral plane.

* Charming Garden 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (818) 458-4508. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Underground parking. Beer and wine. Takeout. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $8 to $13; dinner for two, food only, $15 to $30 (higher with seafood).

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