Spicy Sichuan Cooking at Chung King

“Chinese Food” is a gross simplification of the diverse range of cuisines of the world’s most populated country. The people of China have fine-tuned what I consider some of the best food the world has to offer, and none more so than the people in China’s Sichuan province. Everyone has had Chinese food. Not everyone, though, has had the pleasure of experiencing Sichuan food. To put it simply, Sichuan food is spicy.

Eating proper Sichuan food can be dirty, sweaty work. When I was traveling through Sichuan, I was eating hotpot when my cheeks turned red and my blood pressure rose past a healthy rate. I actually had to go outside and rest. Although not quite as spicy as in Sichuan, the wrong mindset going into Chung King restaurant can leave you feeling torturously hot and red. The right mindset can leave you feeling cleansed of all your sins. Haven’t tried authentic Sichuan food? Go to Chung King and order the fried chicken cubes cooked in blood red chili peppers. If you’re feeling particularly brave, order it to go and leave it soaking in the peppers for a night or two. I recommend having a few bottles of liquid at hand when you eat it.

If you scan the Yelp reviews of Chung King, you’ll see a few mediocre ratings. If you actually read the reviews, you’ll find out that the reason is awful service, not bad food. Those people are not kidding. In China, it’s the standard to yell at your waiter if you need something. Because Americans tend to look down upon people yelling in restaurants, I won’t fault you if you decide not to do that. This makes ordering at Chung King a little tedious. Our waitress had a particularly low attention span. Be quick, or she might leave in the middle of your order out of boredom. That’s what happened to me—three times.

The other reason that ordering at Chung King can be difficult is that everything sounds incredibly appetizing. There aren’t any dumplings on the menu, but you can get pig intestines, which I refrained from ordering. I did order the aforementioned chicken cubes, which are like chicken McNuggets, except they are edible, spicy, and wonderful. The Szechuan garlic pork, one of my staples while I was in China, was just as good here in America. The Peppery Zi Ran Lamb was also high quality. The Szechuan eggplant, a good choice for vegetarians, was smooth and filled with flavor. The slippery Ma Po Tofu is rather difficult to eat, especially if your chopstick skills need refinement, but the taste of the smooth, flavorful tofu cubes is entirely worth it. The bean curd also had a good flavor, and wasn’t particularly spicy if you want some balance. I decided on two noodle dishes: one hot and one cold. The hot noodles, labeled Szechuan Spicy Noodles, were quite good. The cold noodles were a little disappointing, considering the heavenly standards set by the rest of the food on my table, but they were a great contrast to the spiciness.

The noodle dishes have a classic Sichuan peppercorn spice called ma. Ma creates what is called a “Ma la” flavor that causes a numbing sensation throughout your mouth. When I first experienced it a few years ago, I thought I was having a terrible allergic reaction. (Yes, there’s more than one way that Sichuan food can get your blood pumping.) Naturally, I wasn’t too fond of the taste. Now, though, I definitely have grown accustomed to it. There are two stories on the etymology of the word. The first, boring version is that “ma” is Chinese for numb. The second version is that an old widow, also “ma” in Chinese, discovered the spice when she decided to cook up something awesome. She succeeded. Sichuan food is worth trying, if only as an incredible culinary experience.

Chung King Restaurant. Dishes $6-10 each. 1000 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (about 25 minutes from Claremont).

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