We have visited Seafood Palace before, more or less, on the occasion of a visit from a group of Michelin-starred chefs from Hong Kong to the San Gabriel Valley. The chefs had no interest in the Sichuan-, Shanghai- or Shandong-style restaurants that have come to define Chinese cooking in the area, although they allowed that the grand dim sum parlor they visited might do pretty well as a neighborhood restaurant in their hometown. They didn't think much of the local Chinese barbecue. They did order more sweet and sour pork than you may have seen since your fifth-grade field trip to Chinatown.
But they did love Seafood Village, a Chiu Chow seafood specialist down in Monterey Park. They loved the hollowed-out jalapeño peppers stir-fried with salty crumbles of pork, and they loved the flat omelet stuffed with shreds of preserved turnip. They liked the Chiu Chow-style duck, braised in a thick, brown gravy with sheets of dried tofu. They liked the oysters with ginger and scallions.
And they especially liked the house-special crab, dipped in a gauzy batter, deep-fried and showered with sliced chiles, chopped scallions and crunchy handfuls of golden fried garlic. (In Hong Kong, this dish is sometimes called "typhoon shelter'' crab for its ubiquity as street food sold under bridges and such.) They liked it so much that they arranged to return to Seafood Village the next evening, and they tried to go again the night after that. I can attest: It was remarkable crab.
Earlier this year, for some reason known only to its accountants and its real-estate brokers, Seafood Village changed its name to Seafood Palace, at least in English. This meant, perhaps, that fewer of its non-Chinese customers would confuse it with Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village. It also meant that people would inevitably confuse it with unrelated Seafood Palaces in Orange County and Rowland Heights, among other places. English names of Chinese restaurants tend to come in waves; there are nearly 50 Chinese restaurants with the word "tasty" in their names scattered around the San Gabriel Valley, and it is always hard to remember whether the restaurant I'm telling somebody about is Tasty Garden, Tasty Dining, Tasty Happy or Tasty Duck. It may be best not to think too hard about it.
But nothing else about the Monterey Park restaurant or its Temple City sister restaurant seemed to change: chefs, waiters or cuisine. They are still brightly lighted, and the chief decoration is still bright, clearly subtitled photographs of menu items mounted high on the walls. (Seafood Palace is not one of those places where you have to worry about not knowing what a particular dish might be.) Fried crabs, strong tea and soft, delicious poached chickens with scallion sauce seemed to make it onto almost every table; metal pots bearing chewy vermicelli with beef; platters of deep-fried squab; tureens of oxtail stewed with pleasantly acrid lily bulbs.
Chiu Chow cuisine, also known as Chaozhou or Teochew, comes from the area around Shantou in eastern Guangdong and is as well-known for the delicacy of its deep-frying as it is for its seafood and the hot chiles and fermented flavors it borrows from Southeast Asia, where many Chiu Chow people live. (A lot of the Los Angeles restaurants you may think of as Thai, Vietnamese or Cambodian are run by Chiu Chow chefs.)
So what else do you get here? Frog stewed with mint and green beans, fluffy salt-fish fried rice or Chinese broccoli braised with bacon-rich strips of pork neck.
There is Chiu Chow-style lettuce, cut into manageable hunks and stir-fried with dried seafood in a super-heated pan — all smoky char, juice and sea-pungency, a vivid example of what Chinese sometimes call the breath of the wok. (Eat it quickly, before the "wok hay" fades to mere succulence.) A dish of scallops stir-fried with asparagus looks slightly gray, but the ingredients are fresh and the sauce is tinged with a haunting bitter-licorice note that gives the flavor of the shellfish an almost 3-D presence. The shrimp balls, leavened with chopped water chestnuts and wrapped in tofu sheets before they are plunged into hot oil, are miniature essays in crunch.
Not everything has been perfect, of course. The saucy diced beef French style, basically the Vietnamese saute usually translated as "shaking beef,'' has been sweet and lackluster; and the clams, whether you get them with black bean sauce or sauteed with peppers, tend to be less than perfectly cleansed of their sand.
But fried fillets of snow fish — black cod — are crisp, rich, separating into flakes like properly cooked halibut, and powerfully infused with garlic. The lettuce wrap may be an old party trick — chicken or shrimp minced with vegetables, seasoned with sweet bean sauce and served tucked into crisp lettuce leaves, which you eat like Chinese tacos — but the version here has almost nothing to do with what you may have tried at P.F. Chang's. And you're probably going to want the Chinese watercress pan-fried with tangy dried tofu.
If for some reason you decide not to order the house-special crab at Seafood Palace, you need to try the super-crisp yet tender "baked" squid, which comes to the table nearly invisible under its thick, crunchy mantle of browned garlic and herbs. Or get it in addition to the crab. I promise not to tell.
A Chiu Chow seafood specialist gets a new name, but it's still got that house-special crab.
684 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 289-0088. Also at 9669 Las Tunas Ave., Temple City, (626) 286-2299.
Dishes mostly $8.99-$18.99, more for exotica and live seafood.
Monterey Park: Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Monday; 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday-Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Temple City: Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear.
House-special fried crab, sauteed scallops with asparagus, Chinese lettuce Chiu Chow style, fried snow fish with garlic sauce, house-special steamed chicken, salted-fish-and-chicken fried rice.
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