When my cellphone chirped, I was deep into the south of France, cutting into a grilled magret and dipping violet artichoke leaves in sticky, gloriously garlicky aioli. I’d just opened the second bottle of Gigondas and didn’t feel like talking, but the caller seemed so ... insistent.
I picked up. It was my intrepid friend Max, calling from a new Chinese restaurant in Alhambra so good he had to tell me about it right that minute. Usually, he taunts me with only the vaguest of addresses, but this time he supplied the exact address, even the phone number. He must be very excited about this place. It’s a discovery of his longtime Chinese friends, who are notoriously finicky about Chinese food.
Triumphal Palace looks nothing like any Chinese restaurant I’ve seen in L.A. Instead of the glaring chandeliers, the restaurant is lighted by soft, molded glass fixtures covered with a Chinese lattice. The ceiling is dimpled with dozens of can lights, so many it looks like the installation for a planetarium. Wallpaper in chinoiserie or Chinese brush characters covers the walls. Ruched Austrian curtains dress the windows; heavy linens cover the tables.
Natural light floods the far end of the room through a large picture window covered in decorative Chinese latticework. Wood-paneled walls warm up the place, and to one side is a backlit bar that looks like something from an Austin Powers movie. The fish tanks behind jaunty, white plastic portholes are crystalline clear.
Every meal I had at Triumphal Palace was a real feast. If there’s an indifferent dish on the menu, I didn’t find it.
I loved the fire-roasted pork belly, big squares of fat and lean with an ineffably subtle smoke and firm texture. It’s like bacon gone to heaven. Crispy squab deep-fried to a dark gold (heads and all) are suffused with the haunting taste of star anise. The flesh is dark and moist. We count on half a squab per person, which is perfect if you’re having a number of other dishes.
A whole Dungeness crab, deep-fried in the shell and encrusted with salt and pepper, is incredibly messy to eat, but worth it for every bit of succulent crab meat teased from the shell. Crab cooked in the shell with ginger and garlic is equally enticing. Don’t forget to turn over the carapace to find the luscious crab butter inside.
Whole, steamed live prawns are wonderful; if you’re lucky, some have a skein of coral-red eggs at their belly. If there’s a better way to have fresh prawns, I don’t know it.
The dinner menu comes in two parts. The first is a large hard-bound regular menu divided into appetizers, soups, seafood, poultry, etc., a roster of typical Cantonese dishes interspersed with fashionable sashimi and the occasional dish from another region. A separate smaller menu lists the chef’s specialties, which is where I find some of the best dishes.
A couple of meat dishes intrigue us. Baby lamb chops are swathed in a silky honey sauce tempered with a blast of black pepper. I like the poached ox tongue in a red wine sauce, too, mostly because of complexly spiced sauce. For me, the sliced tongue was a bit too soft.
The classic whole steamed fish with ginger and scallions is perfect. Rock cod pulled live from the tank and cooked this way has a wonderful delicacy; each part of the fish -- especially the best parts near the bone -- has a subtly different flavor. Just like in Hong Kong, your waiter will show off the flapping fish in a plastic bucket to get your approval before it’s cooked. This is classic Cantonese cuisine flawlessly executed.
Service, from the manager down to the runners and bus staff, is exceptional for any restaurant, and highly unusual for a Chinese restaurant. Everybody speaks good, idiomatic English, making it much easier for non-Chinese to penetrate and negotiate the mysteries of the menu.
I appreciate that they don’t try to push dishes. They’re careful to point out that a special “rock fish” is $55 per pound (nobody seems to know a name for it in English), and since on this visit the fish is just under two pounds, the dish would come to $108. If you want to pace your meal in a certain way, they’ll do it. It’s hard to find service this intelligent anywhere.
A family scene
DIM SUM at Triumphal is quite a scene. At 11 in the morning, a crowd of extended families is at the door clamoring for a table or a place on the waiting list. Outside on the sidewalk, old men sit on iron garden chairs reading Chinese newspapers. A 12-year-old fingers his Game Boy, never looking up, while two teens study their English with flashcards. They’re on the B’s: I watch Byzantine, behemoth, barbarous flash by.
Inside, managers rush around like crazy, pitching in to replace a smaller tabletop with a larger one or throw on a fresh tablecloth. The soothing decor is a welcome antidote. The place is incredibly busy, but also extremely well-organized.
Like others in the new generation of Cantonese restaurants, Triumphal dispenses with circulating carts; instead, you get a paper menu to check off dishes. And for those who don’t read Cantonese, a translation in English.
Dim sum is executed so meticulously here it sets a new standard for the area. Congee -- rice gruel with shredded pork and thousand-year-old egg -- is wonderful dosed with a little soy sauce and chile paste. I know there’s lots more to come, but I can’t stop eating spoonful after spoonful. The bland rice against the shock of rich pork and cured egg is a terrific way to start the day.
The familiar favorites are here. Tall, finely pleated siu mai dumplings hold big pieces of shrimp in a forcemeat of minced pork. Rosy shrimp in the har gow’s virtually transparent wrapper have a crisp, pristine bite. Even the egg rolls are superior, more slender than most, with a delicate Asian vegetable filling, and fried so skillfully, there’s not a speck of oil.
We gobble up a plate of crispy deep-fried chicken wings, pork riblets in a beautifully modulated black bean sauce and two kinds of tender, steamed rice noodles. We keep eating until we’re about to burst, and the bill barely skims past $15 per person, a stupendous bargain for the quality of the food. How do they do it?
Then, the final frontier: We return for the roast suckling pig on a Sunday night. It’s $188, but, the manager assures us, will serve up to 10. The restaurant needs a couple of days notice to do it; if they don’t already know you, it usually requires a deposit.
I’ve learned my lesson from previous pig fests: order too many dishes before the pig, and by the time it arrives in all its splendor, you’re too full to appreciate it.
So this time, despite nudges from assembled guests to order this or that, I stick with my plan. We start with pan-fried clams in black bean sauce. I’ve had this at any number of places, but this is an absolutely stellar version, the clams briny and tender, the sauce masterful. We keep tasting it again and again to see if we can pull its flavors apart.
Then comes a special rice hot pot, sort of a casserole of rice cooked with soy sauce, served alongside a platter of delicious, sweet, fatty lop cheong and Chinese sausages and bits of pork. We also have masses of tender stir-fried pea shoots, and another hot pot of mixed mushrooms with bean curd skin.
AND at last, the piece de resistance: the pig splayed out on a big tray with a rather scorched snout and two red cherry eyes. A waiter ceremoniously serves it tableside, passing tiny steamed pancakes topped with a dab of hoisin sauce and slivers of the crackling, golden pig skin. Heaven on a plate.
It’s everything you love about pork, distilled into one bite. The beauty is that because we’re just eight, rather than 10, there’s enough for two pieces to go around. I could have easily eaten five or six.
Step two: The pig is whisked away and carved, then it makes a grand re-entrance as a heap of succulent pork. There are the little trotters, the snout, the delicious dark bits close to the bone. Every last morsel disappears with groans of pleasure.
The wine list consists of just eight wines from BV, Mondavi and Raymond, none of which holds much interest for true wine lovers. Fortunately, Triumphal’s wine policy is enlightened: $10 corkage for the table. And some of the wine aficionados at my table went so far as to bring their own wineglasses so we could happily drink a legendary red from the Northern Rhone, La Chapelle Hermitage, with the pig.
Nobody has room for dessert, but that’s a small enough sacrifice for a pig fest like this. And despite the price of the pig, our bill came to something like $40 a person before tax and tip -- half of what you’d pay for a meal at a trendy American restaurant.
What about next Sunday, somebody inquired wistfully as we teetered out into the night.
Location:500 W. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 308-3222.
Ambience: San Gabriel Valley Chinese with a smart contemporary decor, ruched Austrian drapes at the windows and lighting that doesn’t glare. A smaller dining room can be closed off for private parties.
Service: Accommodating and intelligent.
Price: Appetizers, $7 to $39; main courses, $9 to $32; live seafood, market price; dessert, $2 to $7; roast suckling pig, $188 (by advance reservation only).
Best dishes: Salt-and-pepper crab, steamed live prawns, fire-roasted pork belly, pan-fried clams in black bean sauce, pea shoots, rice hot pot with Chinese sausage, ox tongue in red wine sauce, lamb chops in honey and pepper, steamed whole rock cod, roast suckling pig.
Wine list: Limited. Corkage, $10 for the table, no matter how many bottles.
Best table: One in front of the big picture window.
Details: Open 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Beer and wine. Street and lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.