The Dungeness crab at Hip Hot, Tiantian Qiu's Monterey Park Sichuan seafood restaurant, is stir-fried with ungodly amounts of chiles and Sichuan peppercorn, tossed with potatoes and vegetables, and served in a gleaming heap. It has been expertly dismembered – you won't need special tools to get at the sweet meat – and the crab is fresh. You nibble on string beans fried with fermented shrimp paste – the smell is strong, but the taste is mild, perhaps a bit salty. Scallops on the half shell appear, the actual shellfish buried under a pungent slurry of garlic. There are spicy razor clams with a chunky hot-pepper sauté, and hot oysters with a bit of soy and rice wine.
You press a tap that has been plunged into the body of a watermelon, and as if by a miracle, sweet, cold juice flows into your glass.
It is easy to forget for a moment that Sichuan, a land-locked province, has no seafood tradition, unless you count river-dwelling carp, crawfish and frogs. Qiu is from Chengdu by way of Shenzhen and graduate school at USC, but her marinated crab, fragrant with rice wine and herbs, may taste more like Korean ganjang-gejang than it does like anything I've ever encountered at a Sichuan restaurant. The tongues of fresh sea urchin roe on sliced cucumber are delicious, but could have originated in practically every world cuisine.
"I love restaurants like Chengdu Taste,'' says Qiu, stopping by the table one evening, "but the food is very traditional. Chengdu the city changes so much every year. I think in a way, what I do may fit into what Chengdu is today.''
Hip Hot is one of those oddly shaped restaurants in the Atlantic Times Square complex in Monterey Park, tucked in among the shiny ramen parlors, shaved-ice parlors and Chinese dumpling parlors that line the curvy paths of the mixed-use mall.
When you peek in through the door, you see Edison bulbs, tiny pandas gripping cables at the bottom of light fixtures, and a giant mural of a crab. The tables resemble oversize Cornell boxes, with battle scenes or half-finished Go games entombed under tabletop glass. The customers include that guy who cut you off with his Porsche on your way into the parking lot. He and his girlfriend are about to order a $250 king crab. A smoking, flashing flagon of beer is on the table between them. Not a few other tables have king crabs and fog-enshrouded Kirin on them too. At first glance, Hip Hot may seem pretty much out of your league.
And I confess – I walked by at least 50 times before I realized that it was anything more than yet another baller hot-pot restaurant, yet another clubhouse for the young, wealthy Chinese expats who have come to dominate so much of the culture in the San Gabriel Valley in the last few years. I was happy to be wrong.
If you can work your way through the welter of menus at Hip Hot, the cartoony regular menu, the new menu of classic dishes, and the blackboard menu of seafood, plus whatever Qiu decides that she feels like cooking that day, you can find your way to something like the roster of dishes you'd find at Spicy City, Chuan's or Chengdu Impression.
The la zi ji, which is a little like popcorn chicken fried with a lot of dried peppers, may not be the showstopper that it tends to be at Dongpo in Arcadia, but it is very good, vibrant with numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and the string beans fried with salty crumbles of pork come nicely blistered from the wok. A spicy cold dish of green bean jelly cut into fragile, trembly noodles is among the best versions in town.
I liked Qiu's take on the cold appetizer fuqi feipian, sliced beef and tripe in chile sauce, which came across almost as a chilled stew here. The Sichuan pho must be more poetically described in Chinese, but the sour beef soup thickened with glass noodles was delicious. (Skip the pallid dan dan noodles.) The water-boiled fish were soft and well-cooked in their massive vessel of broth, bean sprouts and chiles – you drag the fillets out through the inch of red oil floating at the top of the tureen, which flavors them; you're not meant to drink the broth as soup.
Dry pot, more or less a huge mixed stir-fry, is popular in China and the San Gabriel Valley at the moment, and Qiu's tend to be wonderful, things like beef, braised chicken wings or spare ribs tossed with chiles and vegetables; hearty one-dish meals. The chicken soup enriched with fresh coconut milk is subtle and delicious, almost tropical. (Sichuan soups tend to be bland, meant as a contrast to the relentless red heat.)
But is Qiu most fascinated with seafood, with wrestling clams and lobsters toward her Sichuan palate, with stretching the sweet, marine flavor of crabmeat as far in the direction of tingly Sichuan pepper and pickled chiles as it can go? Indeed.
Seafood-focused Sichuan cuisine in Monterey Park.
500 N. Atlantic Blvd., No. 149 (in the Atlantic Times Square complex), Monterey Park, (626) 782-7711.
Appetizers $5.99-$12.99; dry pots $14.99 (considerably more with seafood); vegetables $9.99-$13.99; traditional dishes $9.99-$17.99.
Open Wed.-Mon., noon to midnight; Tue., noon to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Mall lot parking.
Green bean jelly; crab stir-fry; scallops; chicken wing dry pot; water-boiled fish.