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The best dishes to celebrate New Year’s and beyond

The sweet and sour fish from Meizhou Dongpo restaurant in Arcadia.
The sweet and sour fish from Meizhou Dongpo restaurant in Arcadia.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)
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What’s your favorite celebration meal? For me, it depends on the day. It might be an entire bag of potato chips swiped through my colleague Ben Mims’ fried-onion chile crisp dip. Or a bucket of fried chicken from Tokyo Fried Chicken with extra sides of spicy ponzu for dipping. A plate full of costilla tacos from Sonoratown is high on that list. And if it’s near the holidays, I celebrate with a series of dishes from Chinese restaurants that feel truly indulgent. However and whatever you’re celebrating, I hope you have a happy new year.

The lobster and Vietnamese fish from Henry’s Cuisine

The special lobster at Henry's Cuisine in Alhambra.
The special lobster at Henry’s Cuisine in Alhambra.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

My grandma only orders the lobster at Henry’s for special occasions, and only after she says she won’t. An uncle will request it for a birthday. I’ll ask for the lobster for the holidays. “It’s too expensive,” she says with a shake of her head. But 10 minutes later, there’s an order on the table.

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The lobster is cut into bite-sized pieces, shell on, and quickly fried in a wok. It’s a vivid red with the faintest sheen of what I imagine is butter. The pieces are reassembled on a platter with the head at one end and the tail at the other. In the middle is a heap of lobster under a garden’s worth of chopped green onion and jalapeno. The greens create a sort of sauce, riddled with bits of fried garlic as sweet as candy. You fish out the piece you want, the one that looks like its flesh will be the easiest to free, then attack with your hands, pulling and gnawing at the bits of meat hiding in the shells. Your fingers and mouth should be shiny and you should be smiling.

The Vietnamese-style fried fish at Henry's Cuisine.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Henry’s also makes an exemplary version of fried fish with basil, lacquered in a fish sauce glaze speckled with black pepper.

My grandmother is right. Depending on the weight of the lobster, it can be expensive. But Henry’s serves free egg waffles for dessert, and my grandmother takes home the leftover green onion, garlic and jalapenos from the lobster to use for another dish later in the week. And that, she says, is a good deal.

Sweet and sour fish and Peking duck at Meizhou Dongpo in Arcadia

Meizhou roast duck is carved tableside at Meizhou Dongpo in Arcadia.
Meizhou roast duck is carved tableside at Meizhou Dongpo in Arcadia.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

The roast duck service at Meizhou Dongpo, on the outskirts of the Westfield Arcadia Mall, is one of my favorite table-side presentations in the city. A whole duck emerges from the kitchen with glistening skin. A chef rolls out a cart into the dining room and carves the duck next to your table with a knife as long as his forearm. He deftly removes a slab of crispy skin that runs the length of the entire duck, then proceeds to cut away thin tiles of meat. An improbable amount of juice drips with the removal of each slice.

The pieces are arranged on two platters with porcelain duck heads, served alongside steamer baskets of gossamer pancakes and ramekins of hoisin sauce, julienned cucumber, scallion and sugar. I love watching how the filling and wrapping techniques differ around the table. But there’s one thing we all agree on: The skin is the best part!

The other dish on everyone’s table is the whole fried sweet and sour fish, also known as sōngshǔ yú or squirrel fish. Though the sweet and sour flavor profile has come to represent an entire genre of “Americanized” Chinese food, the squirrel fish is a dish with centuries-old roots in Jiangsu, an eastern coastal province north of Shanghai. The fish, in this case, tilapia, is filleted so that each side remains attached to the tail. It’s scored, covering the entire surface in small, precise cuts, then battered and fried. The flesh puffs up and out at all angles and I guess could resemble a bushy squirrel’s tale. The fish is doused in a thin red sauce that’s more piquant than sweet, with a punchy white vinegar tang, but delicate enough to not soften or overpower the crispy fish. It’s a labor-intensive dish that never ceases to feel extravagant and the preparation means you can dig right in, without any bones.

Where to eat this week

Henry’s Cuisine, 301 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 576-1288, www.henryscuisine.com
Meizhou Dongpo, 400 S. Baldwin Ave. #2045, Arcadia, (626) 538-4136 or 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 788-0120




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