Friday, January 9, 2015

It Makes A Szechuan Impression

So it's been a little less than a year since we last posted. Oops. But! We have exciting news! Julie and Nat got married! And we've been trying new Szechuan restaurants!

We've been hyping Chung King Restaurant in San Gabriel to anyone who would listen since we first tried Szechuan food there four years ago, soon after we arrived in Los Angeles. We were crazy about the complex flavors, our mala-numbed mucus membranes, and the euphoria-inducing spice. Seriously, if you're feeling sluggish, eating good Szechuan noodles will perk you right up. Several weeks ago we were on our way to Chung King with our friend Blake (the witness at our wedding!) in the backseat, having promised him that his virgin taste buds would be blown away. Julia happened to check their Yelp page and saw that the restaurant had changed hands and the chef moved to San Diego. Calamity and misfortune! We were so disappointed. We never got to blog about our favorite restaurant! But we couldn't leave Blake's taste buds hanging; we Yelped where the former patrons of Chung King are hitting up for their fix now. There were a couple excellent options in the diaspora (they'll all be on here eventually), one caught our eye for tonight: Szechuan Impression.

Szechuan Impression as a modern take on traditional Szechuan cuisine, which sounded promising. Committed to exploring what exactly that meant, we arrived fairly early for dinner on a Friday and got a table immediately. What caught our attention first were the friendly, attentive servers, the beautiful art on the walls (modern tiles with traditional Chinese figures and designs), and the cozy space. We cracked the menus and decided that as only two people, it didn't make sense to order some of the most interesting items (Bobo chicken on skewers in some sort of delicious pot). We went with some classics to see what the Impressionist twists would be:

Dry-Fried Farm Chicken

The dry-fried (apparently there's a skillet with oil instead of a deep fryer, not air-frying voodoo chicken) farm chicken was hyped by Jonathan Gold (praise be to his name) as the best Szechuan popcorn chicken in Los Angeles. In some respects we can see what he means. These guys use fancy organic chicken and it shows. The meat was perfect and really flavorful with savory chicken goodness, not overpowered by the spice and seasoning. Unfortunately that's exactly the opposite of how we like this dish. Good chicken is better than bad chicken, but the beauty of this classic is the face-kicking power of peppercorn-meets-chili harmony and this dish just didn't go to eleven. That said, the flavors were delicious and the bone-in chicken morsels were juicy and great. That part with the bones can be a bit tedious, but that comes with the territory (sucking out the sumptuous marrow isn't frowned upon in Chinese culture). A good showing overall, but not the best SGV has to offer, and at $18.99 a plate, one of the more expensive.

Honest Authentic Dumplings

Ooooo, these were so fucking good. And the name is pretty great. These wonderfully silky dumplings were a little hard to fish out of the pool of fragrant orange oil they were served in, but we didn't mind once we got a taste. The dumpling wrappers were surprisingly thick and a little chewy on the inside, while the minced pork innards were delicate and light. The sauce was really the star, though. We're not sure what was in it besides chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns, maybe some orange peel? The oil was definitely a little citrus-y an a touch sweet, which went beautifully with the intense mala. We could have just ordered two or three servings of these. Doing so would also have been cost effective, one order comes with eight dumplings for $6.99.

Cinderella's Pumpkin Rides

What were we going to do? Not order something called Cinderella's Pumpkin Rides? We'd be fools! These dessert dumplings had a fried dough exterior and were filled with a thick pumpkin custard and a small core of red bean paste. The pumpkin filling was remarkably dense and smooth almost like soft cheese, with a really mild flavor, just a little bit sweet and surprisingly refreshing. The red bean was a welcome bit of more intense sweet flavor that livened up the dish. The whole thing (that is, four of these dessert carriages for $5.99!) was perfect for two people and an excellent way to wrap up the meal (or, Julie says you could just get them as a meal). These things are not to be missed.

Flavor: 4/5
While they could have brought the intensity up a bit on the chicken, the dumplings and the pumpkin rides (that will never get old) were just top notch. The flavors here are intricate and balanced. It's not as potent as some Szechuan places, but it's punchy and satisfying nonetheless.

Service: 5/5
The service was above reproach. The servers were attentive and very friendly. The food arrived at a perfect pace and the water glasses never got half-empty. They kindly wrapped up our little pile of dried chilies, slices of ginger and garlic, and a couple tablespoons of delicious oil leftover from the chicken without side-eye.

Atmosphere: 4/5
This place is very cute, with lovely art on the walls, nice tables, and very clean presentation. It's fairly unremarkable aesthetically, but that doesn't detract from the experience in the slightest.

Approachability: 5/5
Everything was in English and Chinese and was very easy to understand. Some of the English menu item descriptions were a little tongue-in-cheek, but if you thought the "dry-fried farm chicken" was really their version of "chicken nuggets" you should consider sticking with the real thing.

Vegetarian/etc. friendly: 3/5
As with most authentic Chinese restaurants, it can be difficult to tell what has meat in it. The Impressive Bean Jelly, for example, sounds like it might be safe, but if you ask a server (unusually, the servers will probably tell you the truth) you will discover that it has a little minced pork and broth in there. They do have several really awesome looking non-porkified vegetable dishes that we are excited to try, like the fresh bamboo shoots in chili oil and Grandma's pickled Persian cucumbers. But, really, the three-out-of-five rating comes from the completely meat free desserts. Is there any reason why you can't have Cinderella's Pumpkin Rides followed by some fried rice cakes and black sugar?

Szechuan Impression 
1900 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91803
Mon-Sun 10:30am-11pm

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