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Chile 'N' Spice

November 17, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

As days grow shorter and there's a noticeable nip to the air, i find myself longing for Hunanese cooking--the clear heat of red chiles, rustic ham in honey sauce and meats braised with aromatic spices and herbs. I satisfied my craving recently at Charming Garden in Monterey Park, a cheerful, welcoming restaurant with white-clothed tables and intricately folded pink napkins at each place setting. Chairs are black lacquer with red silk damask seats carefully covered in clear protective plastic. Red and gold wall hangings and a glittery textile frieze decorated with silk tassels brighten the walls. And in the long upstairs dining room, matchstick bamboo blinds frame a view of hills and sky.

As soon as everyone at my table sits down, a waiter in a snappy black suit and bow tie appears with eight of Hunan's famous "little dishes." We could pick two or three but decide to sample them all--they're only $1.80 apiece. Silvery inch-long dried fish, with slivered red and green chiles, are deliciously salty and--if you eat the chiles--blazingly hot; sweet snap peas, still tender enough to eat in their pods, are grass-green and crisp; slender bamboo shoots, coated in a reddish chile paste, pack some firepower of their own; and pickled cucumbers are good and crunchy. Shredded beef tendon, translucent and chewy, is wonderful, too, while dried bean curd cut as fine as angel's hair pasta comes in a brown sauce redolent of pepper, star anise and musty herbs. We twirl the table's Lazy Susan, plucking a bite here, another there--hot, cool, hot, cool--and wash everything down with cold Chinese beer.

Now that we've taken the edge off our hunger, it's time to order appetizers. One is the surprisingly delicious house specialty described as minced shrimp in a lettuce cup: very fresh, barely cooked shrimp, roughly chopped and piled into crisp iceberg lettuce leaves. Though not exactly traditional, it offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the richer--and spicier--dishes on Charming Garden's large menu.

Like Yunnan, the province of Hunan in southeastern China is renowned for its cured ham, often prepared with a honey sauce. The restaurant has a few versions of this dish, but I like an appetizer called "dual crispy delight" best. Our waiter assembles it at the table, deftly inserting brittle fried bean curd sheet and slices of ruddy, delicious ham in honey sauce into steamed white buns that have been slit to open like a book. He spoons in more of the honey sauce, which has the consistency of maple syrup, and then closes the bun to make a thin sandwich. It's irresistible--and filling. The ham isn't the usual Smithfield, which would be too salty, the waiter says, but one the chefs cure themselves from fresh pork leg.

Soups are less successful starters. Minced "squab" soup, served boiling in a bamboo cup, has a weak broth and, unfortunately, substitutes pork for the squab. Rubbery abalone and pithy bamboo marrow in chicken broth is faint of flavor, too. If you must have soup, order the delicate minced green and bamboo marrow soup laced with emerald spinach and chunks of bamboo marrow (the latter has the texture of stewed luffa).

Service is attentive and helpful. When asked, every waiter we get patiently translates the seasonal specials, written in Chinese characters. One night, we take a chance on the chef's special "pig's foot cold," a beautiful mosaic of meat and savory gelatinous bits, sliced very thinly and fanned out on the plate next to a pile of blanched celery sticks. It arrives with a heady, hot mustard for the celery and rice vinegar studded with ginger and garlic to dip the pig's foot in. It's a terrific dish.

We also try the fried fresh mushrooms with garlic and are treated to a big platter of flat, meaty caps, lightly cloaked in a marvelous dark brown sauce scattered with finely minced carrots, chiles and green onions. My friend Andy was so taken with this spectacular dish that he requested another order to go.

I've rarely had a bad dish (other than the soups) and only once had a dish that was too hot to handle. And over the past few months, Charming Garden has become one of my favorite restaurants. Every meal convinces me of the kitchen's remarkable skill. Among the best dishes is a casserole of huge, creamy chunks of tofu and pork in a rich brown sauce flecked with chiles and black beans. Beggar's chicken, described here as steamed and stuffed whole chicken, comes still folded in what looks like a plastic shower cap. When unwrapped, it releases an incredibly fragrant steam, and the chicken is so tender that it's served with a spoon. Suffused with star anise, filled with minced pork and dusky mushrooms, this a great red wine dish. Another particularly good choice is the mutton casserole, a dark red-brown broth containing slices of flavorful stewed lamb, chunks of tofu and spinach.

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