Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Fragrant, Numbing, Tantalizing Spices of New Chong Qing

With the surprising decline in quantity and quality of Szechuan restaurants around So Cal, I'm always on the lookout for new eateries that can deliver the delicious dishes of that region. So when I hear ipsedixit rave about a new restaurant that delivers some great Spicy Cold Noodles, I hold out hope that the rest of their menu is just as good. :)

New Chong Qing (Chinese name, "Shwei Zhu Yu Yi Hao") bills themselves as Chongqing Cuisine, but they represent the region's Szechuan dishes quite well. Buried in the far corner of a strip mall on San Gabriel Boulevard, it's easy to miss this restaurant, but it's easy enough to find once you follow the delightful smell of Szechuan Peppercorns and Chilies wafting through the parking lot. :) The interior decor is rather spartan and there seems to be an ever-present cloud of aromatic spices hanging inside the restaurant, which only helps build anticipation as you peruse the menu.

(Note: All Chinese dish names are spelled phonetically when possible to help with pronunciation. Thanks to my SGV Hounds for translational help. :)

One's first visit should probably begin with their eponymous dish (in Chinese), Ma La Shwei Zhu Yu (House Special Fish), a roiling pot of saturated red liquid that looks as frightening as it smells delicious. :)

Their House Special Fish has an interesting setup: You order a "base" and then add plates of meats or vegetables as you see fit, like the usual Hot Pot restaurants. We opted for their Lohng Li Yu Pian (listed simply as "Fish" in English, Grey Sole Filets) and a side of Tofu.

They also bring out a small dipping bowl with Fried Soybeans, Cilantro, Garlic, Pickled Mustard Greens and Sesame Oil. The server takes a little bit of the extremely red Chili liquid from the soup pot and pours a bit into the dipping bowl, creating a delicious concoction to dip the various meats and vegetables you take from the Hot Pot.

While the aroma is already tantalizing, the actual taste is even better: Slightly floral from the Szechuan Peppercorns, with an immediate burn from the Dried Red Chilies and Chili Oil, and accentuated by the numbing Peppercorns and actual temperature of the boiling Broth. Those allergic to MSG should take note that they use the flavor crystals in this Broth, but it's thankfully pretty minor (I only suffered a slight reaction compared to more notorious places). Otherwise, this is one of the better Shwei Zhu Yu (Water Boiled Fish) dishes in the San Gabriel Valley. :)

Another surprise is their Fen Zhen Wu Hua Rou (Pork with Rice Powder).

Chunks of fatty Pork Belly are coated with glutinous Rice and steamed in Bamboo. The result is a slightly fatty, but firm piece of Pork with a thin, clean Spicy kick, and coated with a sticky, moist Rice exterior. It sounds strange, but it's quite delicious. :)

Offal fans can revel in their Gahn Yao Huh Tsao (Fried Pig Kidney and Waist).

It's a surprisingly light saute of Pork Liver and Kidney, laced with the seemingly ubiquitous Szechuan Peppercorns and Bell Peppers. The Liver and Kidney are cooked just through, still moist and tender, with the Liver exhibiting the (in)famous mineral-y, iron-y flavor that you either love or hate. :)

For a non-Soup type of incendiary creation, one should consider the Chong Qing La Zi Ji (Fried Spicy Chicken).

Here, deep fried chunks of Chicken are tossed together with an imposing amount of Dried Red Chilies and Szechuan Peppercorns to create a visually stunning dish. The first thought to enter your mind might very well be, "Did the chef make a mistake and spill his entire container of Chilies into the wok??" :) There are more Chilies and Peppercorns here than actual Chicken, but it only adds to the final flavor profile of the dish: The Fried Chicken pieces are sweet and very spicy, but not very salty at all. The heavy amount of Szechuan Peppercorns imbues every bite with a powerful floral flavor (in a good way) which adds to the pleasure of eating this dish, despite the heat level kicking your butt along the way. (^_~)

We get a slight reprieve from the spices with their Hsiao Tsao Yahng Rou (Special Stir Fried Lamb).

This is a masterful celebration of Lamb and Cilantro, with fresh, herbal strands of Cilantro running throughout the dish, really complementing the semi-fatty Lamb, which features more meat than fat (unlike too many places in the SGV where it's more fat and gristle than actual meat).

We had no room to try the highly recommended Spicy Cold Noodles, so I had no option but to return for another visit. (^_~)

The smallish bowl of their Di Tan Liang Mian (Spicy Cold Noodles) may seem paltry at first, but considering its price ($3.99) it's a perfect little appetizer or side dish that you can share with your guests.

Taking a bite, there's an explosion of Garlic, nutty Sesame Seeds and Fried Soy Beans, then transitioning into the aromatic flavors of Green Onions. It's sweet and spicy and chilled to give this strange sine wave of emotion that just brings a smile to your face. :) The one downside is the quality of their Noodles. They're overcooked, resulting in a slightly mushy texture (it's been the same the ~3 times we've ordered), but the dish is still enjoyable despite that hiccup.

My guest is craving their House Special Fish, but this time we decide to order it with their Live Fish which is Tilapia.

Sadly, the Live Tilapia is downright horrible: Every piece of the Tilapia tastes like dirt and mud, which nearly ruins this Hot Pot. It's sad when the frozen Grey Sole Filets are infinitely tastier than chunks of Live Tilapia. Definitely avoid the Tilapia at all costs. :(

In an effort to save this dish, and to enjoy the Hot Pot customization options, we order a variety of sides to slow cook in this Broth, making a pleasurable meal out of a bad piece of Fish. We start with Doh Ya (Bean Sprouts) and Yahng Rou (Lamb Slices).

Both are of excellent quality, which makes the choice of serving the horrific Tilapia even more puzzling. With their spicy Szechuan Peppercorn Broth, it really transforms the plain Lamb Slices into a delicious, Chili-soaked creation, perfect with some Steamed Rice. :)

We also add a side of Napa Cabbage and Lotus Root.

The crimson liquid elevates these simple, plain ingredients, with the Napa Cabbage really absorbing the maddeningly delectable Broth. :)

One of the most hilarious titles to grace a menu might have to be the "Secret Service Rice" portion of the menu. :) And right along with the oddly named section is the humorous Wu Di Fei Nio Gai Wahn Fahn ("Fat Beef Rice"). :)

But don't let the cheesy name fool you: This might very well be one of the best Chinese Beef Bowls in Southern California. Generous amounts of slightly fatty Beef are wok-fried with Bean Sprouts, Jalapeno Chilies, Red Dried Chilies with a very mild Soy Sauce-based Sauce, resulting in a savory and sweet, balanced bowl of goodness! :) Excellent.

Probably the most disappointing dish on the menu arrives next: Hsiang La Yahng Pai (Special Lamb Chop).

At first glance, it looks impressively red and spicy, like their Spicy Fried Chicken. That's where the similarities end: This is essentially Fried Lamb *Bones*. (>_<) I'm not sure what the cultural reasoning is, but this marks the 6th restaurant in the SGV that I've run across that serves the Bones and *Scraps* of an animal, instead of the actual meat. I've seen it with a slew of Hunan restaurants with their "Chicken" dishes, which are no more than Chicken Bones, with little bits of meat leftover (they're using the bones from deboned Chickens). And now, here with the "Lamb Chops": These are basically the Lamb Bones after the Lamb meat is removed. :( I don't need a lot of meat, but having *some* Lamb in a "Lamb Chop" dish isn't too much to ask for. You end up eating the Connective Tissue and Gristle of the leftover Lamb Bone scraps and it's just not appetizing, nor tasty. What's even worse is that this is one of the most expensive items on the menu at $9.99, and they still only serve the Bones.

Things bounce back quickly with one of the most famous dishes of Szechuan: Ma Po Tofu .

This is simply excellent! :) Aromatic, hot and spicy, infused with a real savoriness from the Marinated Ground Pork, the Silken Tofu, Green Onions and controlled fire of their proprietary Chili Sauce makes this a front runner for best Chinese Ma Po Tofu in the area.

Helping to balance out the heat, are their variety of Seasonal Vegetables. We order their Da Do Miao (Large Pea Shoots) on this visit.

Perfectly wok-fried, the Large Pea Shoots are mild, fresh and have a slight amount of heat from the Red Chilies. They're a touch salty, however, but otherwise a good dish to balance out all the meat-centric items. :)

Their Yu Hsiang Qie Zi (Eggplant with Garlic Sauce) represents one of their heavier Vegetable dishes.

The Eggplant tastes sweet and garlicky, coated in Chili Oil. It only has a mild burn with each bite, granting reprieve from the usual spicy onslaught of the rest of the menu.

During my 6th visit, they introduce a new item that our waitress can't stop talking about, so we decide to order it: Pi Jio Ya (Beer-Cooked Duck).

I wasn't too sure what to expect, but thankfully this turns out to be one of the standouts on the menu. There are distinct notes of Hops from the Beer-infused Sauce, along with Bay Leaf and Szechuan Peppercorns. But it's the usage of various Fresh Chilies and Chili Oil that really adds a surprising level of heat to this dish. This dish has a solid medium-to-very spicy kick to it, which makes it that much more enticing and off-putting at the same time. :)

The usage of Ju Ruo (Konjac) is a surprise, and it's absorbed the flavors pretty well. The Duck itself is saturated with the Chili Sauce (a good thing), but it's pretty bony (not a lot of meat), unfortunately.

Over the course of my 6 visits, service has been as expected for a hole-in-the-wall in the San Gabriel Valley. You wave your hand to get the attention of any of the servers moving around the room. Prices range from $3 - $11.99 per dish, with us averaging about ~$18 per person (including tax and tip).

New Chong Qing marks the return of some solid Szechuan and Chong Qing cuisine to the area. While there are some dishes that you should avoid at all costs (the muddy, inedible Tilapia; Special Lamb Chop (essentially Bones)), there are quite a few dishes that are stellar, especially the fiery, red-hot Broth of their House Special Fish (if you aren't allergic to MSG). With the decline and/or closings of too many Szechuan places around town, it's nice to have a place where the majority of the menu is competent, if not very good when you're in the mood for some real spicy Chinese food. :)

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

New Chong Qing (Shwei Zhu Yu Yi Hao)
120 N. San Gabriel Blvd., Suite J
San Gabriel, CA 91775
Tel: (626) 309-0836

Hours: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Banana Wonder said...

Wow! Such interesting dishes you tried! I wish someday I could be your "guest" especially when trying eggplant dishes (the one had looks divine!). Thanks so much for the MSG warnings too, a lot of time, that gets overlooked, but it can really hurt.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Thank you. :) One day when I find an Eggplant specialist I'll let you know. :)

pleasurepalate said...

That House Special Fish looks amazing! This restaurant definitely looks like a future outing for my dining group. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

It is pretty tasty. :) Let me know how your dinner turns out. :)

Biffles said...

Great review! I've eaten there a bunch over the last six months and really love the Dan Dan Noodles...in addition to the Spicy Chicken, the Kung Pao Chicken is good and more authentic than in other places. So far, I haven't tried the Fish Hotpot - I so appreciate the MSG warning! I've noticed that they also grind their pork fresh (in that open section of the kitchen) - a good sign!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Biffles,

Thank you. :) I'm glad to hear you enjoy their dishes as well. :)

ipsedixit said...

Exile Kiss,

What a relief I didn't lead you astray ...


Exile Kiss said...

Hi ipsedixit,

No, no, thank you for the great rec. :)

maximumkuo said...

This place is absolutely tasty. I lived in Szechuan for 5 weeks and New Chong Qing is the closest SGV restaurant to replicate both the fire and more importantly the delicacy of complex spices and peppercorns famous to the cuisine. Surprisingly, the non-spicy hot pot is almost better than the spicy!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi maximumkuo,

Thanks for your thoughts. :) I'll definitely have to try the Non-Spicy version of their Hot Pot next time. :)

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