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[Closed] Cantonese, royally redefined

At Triumphal Palace in Alhambra, each dish is flawlessly executed. The dim sum is meticulous, the roast pig sublime.

October 12, 2005|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • INVITING: Natural light from the large windows fills the dining room of Triumphal Palace. An attentive, knowledgeable wait staff adds to the restaurant's sophistication.
INVITING: Natural light from the large windows fills the dining room of… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

When my cellphone chirped, I was deep into the south of France, cutting into a grilled magret and dipping violet artichoke leaves in sticky, gloriously garlicky aioli. I'd just opened the second bottle of Gigondas and didn't feel like talking, but the caller seemed so ... insistent.

I picked up. It was my intrepid friend Max, calling from a new Chinese restaurant in Alhambra so good he had to tell me about it right that minute. Usually, he taunts me with only the vaguest of addresses, but this time he supplied the exact address, even the phone number. He must be very excited about this place. It's a discovery of his longtime Chinese friends, who are notoriously finicky about Chinese food.

Triumphal Palace looks nothing like any Chinese restaurant I've seen in L.A. Instead of the glaring chandeliers, the restaurant is lighted by soft, molded glass fixtures covered with a Chinese lattice. The ceiling is dimpled with dozens of can lights, so many it looks like the installation for a planetarium. Wallpaper in chinoiserie or Chinese brush characters covers the walls. Ruched Austrian curtains dress the windows; heavy linens cover the tables.

Natural light floods the far end of the room through a large picture window covered in decorative Chinese latticework. Wood-paneled walls warm up the place, and to one side is a backlit bar that looks like something from an Austin Powers movie. The fish tanks behind jaunty, white plastic portholes are crystalline clear.

Every meal I had at Triumphal Palace was a real feast. If there's an indifferent dish on the menu, I didn't find it.

I loved the fire-roasted pork belly, big squares of fat and lean with an ineffably subtle smoke and firm texture. It's like bacon gone to heaven. Crispy squab deep-fried to a dark gold (heads and all) are suffused with the haunting taste of star anise. The flesh is dark and moist. We count on half a squab per person, which is perfect if you're having a number of other dishes.

A whole Dungeness crab, deep-fried in the shell and encrusted with salt and pepper, is incredibly messy to eat, but worth it for every bit of succulent crab meat teased from the shell. Crab cooked in the shell with ginger and garlic is equally enticing. Don't forget to turn over the carapace to find the luscious crab butter inside.

Whole, steamed live prawns are wonderful; if you're lucky, some have a skein of coral-red eggs at their belly. If there's a better way to have fresh prawns, I don't know it.

The dinner menu comes in two parts. The first is a large hard-bound regular menu divided into appetizers, soups, seafood, poultry, etc., a roster of typical Cantonese dishes interspersed with fashionable sashimi and the occasional dish from another region. A separate smaller menu lists the chef's specialties, which is where I find some of the best dishes.

A couple of meat dishes intrigue us. Baby lamb chops are swathed in a silky honey sauce tempered with a blast of black pepper. I like the poached ox tongue in a red wine sauce, too, mostly because of complexly spiced sauce. For me, the sliced tongue was a bit too soft.

The classic whole steamed fish with ginger and scallions is perfect. Rock cod pulled live from the tank and cooked this way has a wonderful delicacy; each part of the fish -- especially the best parts near the bone -- has a subtly different flavor. Just like in Hong Kong, your waiter will show off the flapping fish in a plastic bucket to get your approval before it's cooked. This is classic Cantonese cuisine flawlessly executed.

Service, from the manager down to the runners and bus staff, is exceptional for any restaurant, and highly unusual for a Chinese restaurant. Everybody speaks good, idiomatic English, making it much easier for non-Chinese to penetrate and negotiate the mysteries of the menu.

I appreciate that they don't try to push dishes. They're careful to point out that a special "rock fish" is $55 per pound (nobody seems to know a name for it in English), and since on this visit the fish is just under two pounds, the dish would come to $108. If you want to pace your meal in a certain way, they'll do it. It's hard to find service this intelligent anywhere.

A family scene

DIM SUM at Triumphal is quite a scene. At 11 in the morning, a crowd of extended families is at the door clamoring for a table or a place on the waiting list. Outside on the sidewalk, old men sit on iron garden chairs reading Chinese newspapers. A 12-year-old fingers his Game Boy, never looking up, while two teens study their English with flashcards. They're on the B's: I watch Byzantine, behemoth, barbarous flash by.

Inside, managers rush around like crazy, pitching in to replace a smaller tabletop with a larger one or throw on a fresh tablecloth. The soothing decor is a welcome antidote. The place is incredibly busy, but also extremely well-organized.

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