Pan-fried pumpkin pancakes. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
Let's say that a correspondent has asked if you have been to the new Wuhan restaurant in San Gabriel, and let's say that you answer him, to save face, with the Internet equivalent of a smile and a nod. It is easy enough to find this restaurant — a quick Google search turns up a Facebook page, a post on a friend's blog and a Chowhound post by your correspondent, the San Gabriel Valley spicy-food maven Jim Thurman, whom I suspect has been the first customer at more than one Rosemead dan dan mian establishment. It is easy enough to find the restaurant, Tasty Dining, which is in a strip mall you have been frequenting since the 1990s, in a space you remember as a boba parlor.
It is even easy to order. The menu, though indifferently translated, is clear enough, and there are plenty of photographs on the walls. The specialty of the place seems to be something called griddles, which look to be something like hot pots, cooked at the table over Sterno burners billowing with flame. So you order one of those, choosing chicken wings instead of bullfrog, lobster, shrimp or pig's colon. The chicken-wing griddle is delicious, a dozen braised wings sizzling in scarlet oil with cauliflower, celery and mountains of potato, with more chiles, herbs and aromatics than it is possible to count.
When the waitress asked you if you wanted the griddle spicy, you told her "very," so her colleagues pass by frequently with glasses of sweet iced herb tea, partially to be helpful and partially, you suspect, because they are afraid that you might injure yourself. (I have never seen anybody eat this griddle, also known as a "dry pot," without breaking into a sweat.) You are happy and you are full, but this particular dry pot may have struck you as the Chinese equivalent of carne asada fries. You are not sure that this is all there is to Wuhan cuisine.
The cooks in the restaurant gather around a flat screen in the corner, watching Rachael Ray on the Food Network. The world feels very small.
China is a country where cities you are barely aware of can have populations approaching 5 million. It turns out that Wuhan, on the Yangtze River almost exactly halfway between Shanghai and Chongqing, is one of them. A glance through some cookbooks and an hour or two on the Internet reveal that Wuhan cooking is considered one of the 10 essential cuisines of China and that the most famous dish is probably re gan mian, hot, dry noodles in sesame sauce, which is considered one of China's five great noodle dishes. Wuhan is also well-known for braised fish; crisp, stuffed bean curd sheets; herbal clay pot soups, including one made with turtle and pork spine; and a kind of chewy pumpkin pancake that Mao Tse-tung used to like.
It is time to return to Tasty Dining. This time you get the bullfrog dry pot, supplemented with chewy rice noodles and lozenges of freeze-dried tofu that are brilliant at soaking up the spicy oil. The bouncy nuggets of bone-in frog taste more or less like the chicken. Crisp bean sheets are on the menu, although apparently nobody has ever bothered to make them.
"Next week," you are told.
But there are pumpkin pancakes, about the size of flattened bagels, which have thin, crisp exteriors and pleasantly chewy insides — not worth obsessing over, perhaps, but nice.
And there is re gan mian: noodles boiled, dried, slicked with sesame oil and boiled again, then served with a smear of sesame paste, diced pickles and a handful of fried, minced pork. They are not the sesame noodles that come free with takeout orders at suburban Sichuan restaurants, and they are not the saucy sesame noodles that New Yorkers pine for but an austere, rather dry bowl of pasta — the Chinese equivalent of a Roman cacio e pepe with sesame paste and scallions instead of cheese and pepper. This is everyone's daily breakfast in Wuhan, you are told. You can find street vendors selling it on almost every block.
On another visit, you have a dry pot with gelatinous braised catfish and try the delicately seasoned chicken soup, which you can barely taste through the veil of numbness the Sichuan peppers have laid down on your tongue. You return for the braised sparerib dry pot and discover the Wuhan shiu mai, thin-walled dumplings shaped a little like nuclear cooling towers and stuffed with sticky rice flavored with minced mushrooms. If the kitchen has ever bothered to prepare the crisp tofu skins, you have no idea.
Wuhan? Who knew? Fiery "dry pots," noodles in sesame sauce, shiu mai with sticky rice. But where are the crisp tofu skins?
301 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 101, San Gabriel, (626) 570-1234
Dry pots, $9.99 (lunch only), $19.99 (for 2-3), and $29.99 (4-5); side dishes, $4.99-$6.99.
Open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.