Seated at Taste of Chong Qing Sichuan restaurant in San Gabriel are Sarah… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
If you're familiar with the Chinese food wonderment that is the San Gabriel Valley, you probably know what to expect from Sichuan food. It's searing, brain-rattling Chinese food from a different dimension, one in which there are two forms of spice — the usual chile burn and the otherworldly ma la, the pins-and-needles tingle of the Sichuan peppercorn.
At the new Taste of Chong Qing you'll get your tongue seared and razzed with the strange electricity of ma la, you'll also experience delicate fishes and the subtle complexity of fresh vegetables. And you'll get the burn and the delicacy all at once, an experience so paradoxical to the senses that you might stagger out of the restaurant a little food-drunk.
Taste of Chong Qing is big, clean and happy, with carefully arranged table settings and homey decor. It's one of the nicest-feeling places in San Gabriel. If you're really lucky, owner Xian Wen Turner will come out to wait on you with charmingly intrusive service. She'll praise you for ordering the spicy stuff, berate you for ordering too much stuff that tastes alike, force you to order some veggies, rearrange your table mid-meal and beam happily when you clean your plate. It's fantastic.
Taste of Chong Qing is at its best with the fish dishes. There are two key ones: Sichuan-style fish with peppers, and "baked" fish in pickled peppers. Sichuan-style fish with pepper is beautiful: pure white fillets of fish, floating in aromatic broth and covered with a bright, gorgeously green layer of chopped … something.
That something turns out to be a sort of culinary joke: a mixture of almost indistinguishable cooling green scallions, perky pickled peppers and searingly hot green chiles. Tip: The hot stuff is the heaviest, and if you cautiously turn a piece of fish on its side and give it a gentle tap, most of the serious burn will fall off.
The dish hits so many levels of taste experience at once: delicate, fresh fish; jaunty house-pickled peppers; wild Sichuan tingly spice. And the magic of the kitchen is in the weirdly brilliant separation of flavors: The fish flavors are comforting and low, and the spicing and greenery are brilliant and high, and you can taste it all clearly at once, like a jazz sax soaring over the bass.
For maximum flavor sensation, the baked fish in peppers is the golden ticket. Where the Sichuan-style fish is steamed to tender loveliness, the "baked" fish has been cooked (actually fried) into a firm, concentrated, meaty fury of savor, covered with chiles and soy-fermented beans.
All the usual Sichuan favorites are on the menu, and they're impeccable. Sichuan eggplant is how eggplant should be: halfway to meltingly tender. It's balanced on the brink of sweet and sour and earthy spicy, with the flavor of eggplant still coming through loud and clear. Fish and beef boiled in chile oil, twice-cooked pork belly, fried chicken cubes, nearly raw julienned potato strips in sour vinegar sauce, they're all executed carefully and lovingly.
In each dish, notice how much attention they've given to each little detail. Vegetables that in other places would be mere filler — the bell peppers, the onions — here are prepared to exacting degrees of crisp. Somebody here loves you; now finish your vegetables.