At Chengdu Taste, a Chinese restaurant in Alhambra, I joined a celebration for Laurie Ochoa's birthday the other evening. As her husband was ordering all these spicy Schezuan dishes, I called out to the waiter, (with Laurie's assistance) "I'm gonna have some of them fried skrimps. That fried shrimp with eggs. Number 96." My frequent dining companion - and love of my life - Nancy Silverton turned to me, smiled and whispered "You're an idiot."
"Why? 'Cause i want some fried shrimp? I don't want everything all super spicy."
"Fried shrimps? That's embarrassing. Plus, don't call them skrimps."
Ten minutes later, Schezuan peppercorn-dotted platters starting dropping on our 10-top like flyers announcing an upcoming bombing raid. Inundated we were. Tea cups were double-decked to make more room on the table that was transformed into a puzzle board Hey, that duck'll fit there. There was some kind a chicken tidbits with more bones than a Stockholm porno convention. A plate of cold, sliced farm animal so strange that even our table's restaurant critic wasn't sure what it was. Some other plates, all mediocre to me.
Then came the sauteed eggplant with garlic sauce. This was some good eggplant. I forgot how good eggplant could be. I'm not saying you gotta drive out to Alhambra just for this eggplant, even if you're in nearby Temple City, but, if you are at Chengdu, be sure to order it. Number 46, $7.99..
(Getting back to Temple City for a moment, If anyone knows how many temples there are in that city, let me know. Ralph Waxman, the dean of servers at Mozza, suggested that there were at least twice the number of temples as there are people in Temple City.}
About 45 seconds after the eggplant made a splash. here comes lamb toothpicks, extremely tasty cumin-coated lamb pieces about the size of a individual Rollo. I had at least 15 of them, roughly a shoulder chop worth.
Then came those fried shrimp with eggs. Before it even landed, Nancy was praising the dish, complementing the visual fluffiness of the scrambled eggs and the plumpness of the non-batter sauteed shrimp like she had ordered the dish.
The shrimp and eggs, the eggplant, those lamb toothpicks. So good I whispered to Nancy, only semi-joshing, that this was "the second best Chinese restaurant in America.."
Five seconds later, not even. Nancy announced to the table that "This place ( we didn't know the name of it at that point. Like, "Where are we?" ) is the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world." The woman is constantly stealing key lines from me, then modifying slightly as to claim her own.
A fish that looked like it had curly fries sticking out his ass made quite a splash. Jonathan Gold wrote masterly about it a few days ago here. http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-sichuan-lion-fish-chengdu-taste-20131021,0,7720564.story#axzz2iYcRj3UL
Birthday lady Laurie had a fish soup with a jar full of Schezuan peppercorns that made me mouth mini-vibrate like there was a frigate's fog horn going off near my molars.
Chenku is now my new favorite Chinese restaurant in town, not that I know much about the subject.. But, it must be a slew of others' top pick, too. When we walked out the sidewalk, the scene reminded me of a Saturday night outside Pizzeria Mozza. or even a night outside Pepe in Grani in Campania. ( http://krikorianwrites.com/blog/2013/9/2/the-worlds-second-best-pizza ) A couple dozen people, waiting easy to get in, knowing something good would soon be dropping on their table.
As we sped on to the Long Beach Freeway from Valley Boulevard, passing my Cal State L.A. alma mater, I said to Nancy "Those shrimp and eggs were good, right?"
"So you still think i'm an idiot?"
"Sometimes. But, maybe not tonight."
Chengdu Taste is 828 W. Valley Boulevard, Alhambra. Open 7 days 11:00 a.m. to Midnight. (626) 588-2284.