When you order koi jello at a new Chinese restaurant, there are many things you might expect to see on your plate. Perhaps the dish will turn out to be a version of the jellied carp your Jewish grandmother used to make or something like a Russian fish zakuska under an inch of hardened aspic. It might appear as a kind of wobbly terrine, a chilled consomme or a flavored construction of agar.
But at Awu Delicious Food, koi jello couldn't be less kosher: a chilled concoction of jellied pigskin molded into the shape of a swimming fish, presented with rings of sliced pepper emerging from its mouth where a cartoonist would draw air bubbles, moistened with a salty, spicy sauce. At a French restaurant, you would spread the jelly on toast points; at Awu, you lever the slippery bits to your mouth with chopsticks — you will lose a few along the way — and slurp. Koi jello is an oddly refreshing dish on a hot afternoon.
Awu is part of a luxury restaurant chain based in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, representing the cuisine of Henan (a central province south of Beijing) in most major Chinese cities — and also, weirdly, in Tasmania. The Awu chef, Fan Shengwu, has written books on Henan cuisine, known for its snacks, seasonality and pungent flavors. (The Henan-identified restaurants in California are best known for their rustic, chewy lamb noodles, which are also served here.)
The Arcadia restaurant is a couple of miles south of the racetrack, located in a strip mall adjoining a Big Lots store. There are new-restaurant lanterns out front and a series of private dining rooms surrounding the high-ceilinged central dining room. When you sit down, you are brought a basket of what appear to be fried wonton skins and a small dish of fermented bean paste jacked up with chiles. (Whether this is a Henan custom or a nod to California's chips-and-salsa, I don't know.) You will see on nearly every table around you the koi jello, cold mung bean noodles with chile and bowls of mashed eggplant served with pestles and stunning quantities of minced garlic, a do-it-yourself project I can highly recommend.
There are several menus at Awu, which may or may not have anything to do with one another or even point to dishes that are available at all.
The big pink takeout menu reads like any menu at a northern-ish Chinese restaurant, with dishes like basil clams, kung pao chicken and flaming pig's intestine that you can find at a hundred other places in the San Gabriel Valley.
A second document displays artful photographs of some of the restaurant's specialties: Plain scalded spinach is suddenly desirable when you see photographs of the vegetable pressed into brilliant green lozenges, and an appetizer of marinated tripe, presented as a fancy vessel of spicy broth out of which protrude a forest of bare sticks, becomes more compelling than boiled ox organs generally should.
A third menu is more focused on the chef's specialties, although you will also run across pictures of dishes presumably available in Zhengzhou but not yet in Arcadia. "Farewell My Concubine" braised soft-shell turtle may well be on the menu in Arcadia, but I haven't yet had the presence of mind to figure it out.
"Scalded health food" is a salad of blanched, chilled strands of vegetables and chewy fungus that you toss with wispy croutons and a nutty dressing. Clear, cool yam noodles are tossed with an intense mix of herbs that includes mint. Braised oxtail is served in a mellow, chalk-white broth flavored with peanuts. Sliced pork belly is steamed over a bed of pickled mustard greens and served with fluffy white buns to wrap them in, as if it were Beijing duck. Even the fried rice — studded with cured meat, each grain of rice glazed with slight crunch from its trip through the wok — is exceptional.
I don't mean to imply that all the cooking at Awu is wonderful. A dish of sweet-and-sour fish with a crisp, translucent coating was just odd, and the simmered Kaifeng "bucket chicken," so called because it is often served in a bucket, was too chewy. I didn't love the creamy, over-salted Shaolin mushroom soup, although as a fan of kung-fu movies, I really wanted to. And although the swirl of prawns and shellfish on the seafood platter was gorgeous and the garlicky juices were delicious, the seafood itself was overcooked.
The Arcadia Awu may still be in its formative stages, still without the massive fish tanks, crisp egg cakes and elaborate roast meats presumably yet to come, but the presentations are already a few notches more elaborate than anything else in the San Gabriel Valley. You will see lots of tableaux constructed from odd leaves and bougainvillea flowers. And at least in these beginning months, before he is snatched away by openings in London or Macao, Fan is actually on the premises.
558 Las Tunas Drive, Arcadia, (626) 445-5588, awums.com
Small dishes, $4.95-$12.95; vegetables, $7.95-$12.95; larger dishes, $8.95-$18.95, more for seafood.
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol (for now). Takeout. Lot parking.