When you read about Chinese cooking, you will sooner or later come across a reference to the Eight Great Cuisines, the traditional regions that are supposed to define all that is best about Chinese food. And if you've spent a certain amount of time eating in the San Gabriel Valley, you will have come across almost all of them: the spicy food of Hunan and Sichuan, of course; the eastern styles of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, often lumped under the heading of "Shanghai"; lush Cantonese seafood palaces and spare Fujian seafood dens; and the dumpling-noodle-pancake cooking of Shandong.
The one of the great eight we haven't seen in Southern California is Anhui cuisine, from the landlocked, mountainous province east of Shanghai — Anhui restaurants are reportedly rare even in Shanghai and Beijing. The books talk about game and foraged greens, mushrooms and medicinal herbs, turtles and river fish, bamboo and frogs. And now, finally, there is what appears to be the SGV's first Anhui-style restaurant: China Taste, in the barely renovated quarters of what used to be the splendidly named Morals Village hot pot restaurant.
And it must be said, Anhui cooking, at least as represented by what is on the menu at China Taste, may take a little getting used to: no game or wild vegetables but austerity veined with moments of extreme pungency; flavors that are either stroking you on the cheek or punching you in the nose. One minute you are nibbling on fried tofu balls slicked with a tame sweet-sour sauce, and the next, peanuts dunked in a sour, bitter purée that contains every ingredient in an herbalist's medicine chest.
There is a plain, weighty pancake made with what appears to be deep-fried sticky rice and sprinkled with coins of sliced Chinese sausage, like a pepperoni pizza from the Yellow Mountains. Minced-chicken dumplings are wrapped in tiny, thin omelets instead of standard wrappers. You will be nudged toward a spicy, intensely herbal pot of chicken bubbling with vegetables on a tabletop burner, or toward a standard-issue braised fish.
"This one is a specialty," says the waiter, pointing toward a casserole of beef and mushrooms. "This one is not a specialty,'' pointing toward the casserole you had asked about. You go with the "assorted ingredient in casserole," which is one of the few Anhui dishes you knew about prior to your visit. It is pretty bland. The waiter smirks from a far corner of the room.
I'll get back to you about this place after another half-dozen visits.
529 E. Valley Blvd., 108A, San Gabriel, (626) 766-1788.