If you have been following the Chinese-restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley in the last few years, you probably know about Chengdu Taste, the restaurant that showed California the world of Sichuan cuisine that lay beyond mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork -- if only for the famous two-hour wait for a table on weekends.
And if you had been driving along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed another enormous crowd outside a Sichuan restaurant: the brand-new Szechuan Impression, home to yet another brand of modern Sichuan cuisine. When I dropped by this weekend, I discovered that I was waiting in line with Matthew Kang of Eater, NPR R&B critic Oliver Wang and Amy Duan of the great Chinese-language food site Chihuo, which means that Szechwan Impressions was probably the place to be.
FOR THE RECORD
Aug 12, 9:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the restaurant as Szechwan Impression; the correct spelling is Szechuan Impression. Also, the name of the owner of the Chihuo website was listed as Amy Chua; her name is Amy Duan.
The chef comes from the kitchens of a five-star hotel in Chengdu, so the flavors will be familiar to aficionados of Sichuan cooking – cold, spicy rabbit, al dente cold noodles in chile oil, spicy lamb.
But if anything the flavors tend to come from the less-spicy end of the spectrum: chewy sliced pig’s ears smoked like Sichuan bacon; fried lozenges of rice cake sprinkled with soy powder and served on a puddle of liquefied black sugar; beautifully pickled Persian cucumbers; Chinese greens flash-fried in a smoking-hot wok. Garlic shredded pork with garlic (actually thinly sliced steamed pork) is oddly delicate. If you show up early enough to land one of the 20 orders of bon bon chicken cooked each day, you can get it either pale, with Sichuan pepper, or red, with the characteristic payload of chiles. And the Leshan beef – "Legcrossingly Yum,’’ the menu describes it – is not unlike a Korean-style soup of beef and turnips, bland until you drag the meat across a little saucer piled with chiles and aromatics.
I don't know where you're going to be next weekend. I plan to be at Szechuan Impressions, inhaling cold plum juice, drunken whelks and a plate of Big Mouth Zizong Ginger Frog ... if I can wrap my mind around the line.