Review: The restaurant is called Legendary. But is it? Jonathan Gold sits down for showstopping Sichuan
Smoked lamb chops are served with a bowl of spice mix.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Yao Yao Tian presents smoked lamb chops served the Legendary way.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
At a restaurant called Legendary, what’s the point in moderation? Behold the plentiful platter of peppery chicken.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The dipping sauce with the garlic shredded pork and cucumber strips is served in a Chinese inkstone.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Diners have a pot boiled beef in chili sauce and a bowl of “trick” eggplant for lunch.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Are you going to order the garlic shredded pork the first time you visit the Legendary Restaurant? You are probably going to order the garlic shredded pork. You may be expecting a stir-fry, but what is brought to the table looks like a tie rack you might find in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog tucked into a first-class seat back, thick slices of cured pork belly draped across the dowel at the top like so many silk cravats.
A transparent curl of cucumber arcs over each slice of pork. At the rack’s base is a Chinese inkstone holding a shallow puddle of dark, spicy sauce. And if you are more graceful than I am with chopsticks, you will be able to pluck the meat and cucumber from the rack, form it into a tight coil and plunge it into the chile in a quick, easy motion. I am here to say that the garlic shredded pork tastes just as good as an unwieldy wad, although you may have to endure a bit of snickering from the people at the next table.
We have arrived at the mannerist stage of San Gabriel Valley Sichuan cooking, a time where the ideal of well-executed classical cuisine has begun to be supplemented by dishes of exaggerated heat, size and form.
This phase may have begun with the toothpick lamb at Chengdu Taste, an innovation that may have done nothing for the cuminy taste of the meat although it turned it into a diverting finger food, and then continued with the bobo chicken at Szechuan Impression — skewered gizzard and sliced lotus root that you plucked from a broth-filled hat. The Sichuan noodles at Mian may have been pretty traditional but were served in jet-black bowls that made them look irresistible on Instagram.
Now there is the Legendary Restaurant, the newest of the local Sichuan restaurants, on a stretch of Valley Boulevard convenient to nothing but the 710 Freeway stub. The Legendary has Midcentury Modern bones, all flagstone and big glass. Half a warehouseful of lanterns and carved screens establish its Chinese bona fides. The heavy menus bristle with bright photos. There’s no alcohol — red bean shaved ice served in tiki mugs seems to be the drink of choice, followed closely by smoky plum juice sprinkled with tiny osmanthus blossoms.
And though it is possible to order a meal made up solely of Sichuan standards, soupy dan dan mian, mapo tofu, chunks of dried sausage, boiled fish walloped with great, numbing handfuls of green chile and Sichuan peppercorns, or a salty, delicious version of string beans flash-fried with fermented beans and pork, you are probably at the Legendary Restaurant for its showstoppers, traditional dishes inflected in either flavor or form. If you yearn for delicate Sichuan dumplings or pan-fried buns, you are probably better off down the street.
Is there a mostly Taiwanese craze for stinky tofu at the moment? Very well — there is mapo stinky tofu here, a vinegary, chile-rich braise that announces its presence from across the room. Does Meizhou Dongpo serve its la zi ji — peppery chicken — on a big platter? The Legendary Restaurant serves it on a bigger platter, nearly a foot and a half across, with the chunks of crisp fried chicken all but hidden under a vast sea of fried dry peppers, so that for the next 10 minutes you are engaged in a treasure hunt, skittering your chopsticks through the scarlet debris.
Do you fancy a pyramid of raw salmon served in a lantern? Probably not — the fish is supermarket quality, and it is seasoned with what literally tastes like bottled Chinese chile sauce. (I still haven’t been able to bring myself to order what is pictured on the menu as a layered green salad in a jar.)
Still, there are peppery strips of pork belly crimped into stepped Maya pyramids fitted over heaps of preserved vegetables. You break off a piece of the meat, top it with a bit of the salty greens, and tuck it into a fluffy bun. Smoked, slow-cooked lamb layered on a platter is delicious, if you occasionally appreciate a dish that is more soft fat and salty bark than meat. I loved the dry pot of cauliflower sizzled with onion, chiles and other aromatics. Garlicky slabs of “trick” eggplant, served in a ridged clay mortar of the sort I have always associated with grinding sesame seeds, are topped with black, glistening wedges of thousand-year egg — you are supposed to grind it all into a paste with a wooden pestle, and you will sorely wish for a beer.
Even if you are usually disinclined to order dessert at Chinese restaurants, you really should try the fried rice cakes with black sugar. The marshmallow-size cubes of sticky rice are satisfyingly crisp and chewy, although that’s not why you’re getting the dish. The bland, mouth-coating sensation of the powdered beans with which they are dusted is pleasant, but not compelling. The bittersweet black sugar sauce is nice, but not extraordinary. You are getting the rice cakes because they are impaled on the antlers of a bronze deer. At the Legendary Restaurant, there is no need to settle for anything less.
The Legendary Restaurant
A mannerist Sichuan restaurant opens in Alhambra.
2718 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 427-2236.
Cold appetizers $6.95-$11.95; snacks $5.95-$10.95; vegetables $7.95-$10.95; larger plates $9.95-$29.95.
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Parking in Ambassador Inn lot next door.
Garlic shredded pork; peppery chicken; smoked lamb chops; pork with salted vegetables; griddle-cooked cauliflower; fried rice cakes with black sugar.
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