Clark Ho once told his wife he could cook her two dishes a day for the rest of her life and never repeat any.
He may not be making good on that boast these days, because he's too busy as chef-owner of G.C. River in San Gabriel. At least the rest of us can benefit from the culinary ingenuity he honed as a chef in Hong Kong.
Ho experiments with new dishes every week, so it pays to ask what the specials might be, but this is not to slight the regular menu. Even the $3.95 combination lunches can be remarkable, and it's no wonder there's a line for seats by noon. You choose from 62 entrees, ranging from the predictable kung pao chicken to spicy pig intestine with black bean sauce.
I took a middle road on my first visit, ordering a stir-fry of Chinese sausage, lotus root, snow peas and sliced garlic. The vegetables were fresh and crunchy, and the pretty colors--mauve lotus root, emerald pea pods, yellow garlic and burnished red sausage--weren't masked by some dark sauce.
Soups change daily: clear broth with soybean sprouts one time, an herbal soup that tasted like barley water another. And you don't wind up at the end of the meal with a fortune cookie. Instead, Ho might serve papaya chunks with white fungus and almonds in syrup.
My lunch was so good I returned with Chinese friends to see what Ho would do with a free rein. They asked him to do a menu of off-menu dishes that have to be ordered ahead. Ho started us off with an appetizer that would win anyone's heart--Chinese broccoli cut very fine, fried crisp, sweetened and combined with shredded dried scallops and candied walnuts. What a seductive blend of sweet and crunchy tastes and textures.
After a soothing chicken soup with wontons and bok choy, we moved on to Sichuan-style lobster in a sweet red sauce with garlic and ginger. The lobster was almost outshone by its accompaniment: delicate fried buns for sopping up the sauce.
How do you follow lobster? With plump, golden deep-fried chicken wings stuffed with sticky rice. The exposed surface of the rice becomes alluringly crunchy when fried. The dark dipping sauce is a house secret, except that Worcestershire sauce is involved. (Worcestershire is not at all an uncommon ingredient in Hong Kong, because of the English influence.)
Next came a ring of broccoli florets enclosing peppery-tasting scallops and squid stuffed with fish cake. Then Ho sent out crab meat with pea pod leaves in a slippery pale sauce. And then fried rice. And then, when we were well beyond appreciating anything more, light little puffs of red bean paste and banana coated with beaten egg whites. Ho even turns iced tea into an enchanting drink. Using red tea from Hong Kong, he adds milk powder, sugar and jumbo tapioca pearls, and gives you the fattest pink drinking straw I have ever seen, thick enough to take up the tapioca without jamming.
You can also have a very good meal if you order from the regular menu. Fluffy scrambled egg whites over broccoli looks like a dieter's low-fat dish, but the flavor is more complex. Fish meat and shredded dried scallops are blended so imperceptibly with the eggs that you don't see them. Pork wontons in spicy sauce are small, succulent bundles dunked in a blend of soy sauce, chile oil, garlic and sugar.
Ho is quite a baker. He made the sesame-sprinkled pocket breads into which we stuffed shredded beef stir-fried with cabbage and garlic. This "Chinese taco" will be made with pork or chicken if you prefer.
Well-fed as my friend and I were, we hungered for the tempting dishes that went to other tables. One was a new dish, pork served over delicate steamed eggs, that requires an advance order. Steamed chicken with a side dish of plain Chinese greens made an appealing light lunch for two women.
G.C. River opened last September in a mall at the corner of Valley and San Gabriel boulevards. It is a small place. I counted 13 tables, which explains why seats are so scarce at peak hours. The initials G.C. stand for Great River (of China) or, more romantically, Clark and Giny (his wife, Giny Lin). Ho may be confined to the kitchen these days, but Giny is by no means deprived of the creative dishes he once promised her. She's the restaurant manager, surrounded by a banquet every day.
G.C. River, 727 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 288-6182. Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m. MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Serves beer, no wine. Dinner for two, if ordering from the dinner specials, is $12.95, which includes soup, rice and two entrees from a list of 63 choices. What to Get: scrambled egg whites over broccoli, wontons in spicy sauce, Chinese sausage with snow peas and lotus root, deep-fried rice-stuffed chicken wings (advance order), Sichuan-style lobster (advance order), iced tea.