Sichuan cuisine has been on a hot streak (pun intended) in the San Gabriel Valley in the past few years. Chengdu Taste in Alhambra is the star of this trend, its mid-2013 opening and rapid rise culminating in the opening of a second location in Rosemead last summer; a Rowland Heights location is in the works. Despite this, the original location still boasts hours-long waits at peak times. Its dishes are traditional, delicious, and mind-numbingly spicy.
Less than a mile east on Valley Blvd., Szechuan Impression opened to great fanfare, with long lines like Chengdu Taste, just a few weeks before that restaurant’s second location opened in August. Serving a more contemporary take on traditional Sichuan cuisine, and with hip-hop pumping out of the speakers the day we dined there, Szechuan Impression definitely seems to be appealing to a younger crowd.
Last Saturday afternoon, Chris Hei and I accompanied fellow food bloggers The Minty, One More Bite Blog, Gourmet Pigs (and a non-food blogging friend of theirs), to check out what it was all about. Chris and 1MB had been before, but it was everyone else’s first time!
Impressive Bean Jelly: Right off the bat, red chili oil painted our plates as we passed and served some of the slick, cold, translucent mung beans noodles around the table. Simple and delicious, the dish had enough flavor and spice to prime us for the rest of the meal, while also being somewhat refreshing in its coolness. [$5.99]
Smoked Pork Ear: A non-spicy dish, the restaurant wasn’t kidding when naming this dish. The ears tasted like smoked ham. I also loved the consistency, rather firm and chewy, but not overly so. This is a top contender for my favorite pig ear dish of all time. [$8.99]
Fuqi Feipian: The name and description of this dish is a little confusing. It translates to “husband and wife sliced lung” and the menu also describes it as “Beef Lungs in Chili Sauce”, but it is not made, here or generally, with actual beef lung. Instead, thin slices of beef, tripe, and tendon are cooked in a spicy sauce. Very good, but I actually wish they did use the named offal, as I’ve only had that cow part a handful of times. [$8.99]
Stir-Fry A-Choy: At Szechuan Impression, as with many Chinese restaurants, seasonal vegetables are offered, cooked in a variety of styles. My usual choice is on-choy, or water spinach (a.k.a. morning glory), but it was not available that day. We opted for a-choy, or Taiwanese lettuce, stir-fried with garlic. Delicious, and it was good to have some vegetables on the table! [$8.99]
Boiled Fish Fillets in Chili Sauce: While I prefer the whole green peppercorn version of this iconic Sichuan dish, I still really enjoyed the delicate fish swimming in spicy red sauce. Not quite as spicy or numbing as I’ve had, but definitely not mild by any stretch of the imagination. [$9.99]
Garlic Shredded Pork: Another delicious misnomer, rather than shredded, the pork belly in the dish was actually thin-sliced, with a very high meat-to-fat ratio. [$8.99]
Tea Smoked Ribs: An impressive-looking rack of baby-back ribs, the meat was very tender and flavorful, but I didn’t get a strong sense of the tea smoke, but having tasted this after many of the hotter dishes, as well as the pig ears, perhaps my senses were a bit dulled. [Not on the printed menu–may have been on the specials board–and I did not see the receipt at the end, so I’m not sure how much it cost.] [Update: Chris says the ribs were $18.]
Grandma’s Pickled Cucumber: We definitely needed some cooling after all the spicy dishes we had, and the cucumber, just lightly pickled, was the right prescription for the fever in our mouths. Also more cowbell. [$5.99]
Lamb on Toothpicks: The most expensive dish, potentially (since I wasn’t privy to the cost of the ribs), the cumin-crusted toothpick lamb was quite tasty, if a little chewy. From a video that fellow food blogger Clarissa Wei posted, the lamb is apparently fried three times, which might be once too many in my amateur opinion, but I still had a pile of toothpicks on my plate at the end of the meal! [$15.99]
Steamed Rice Powder-Coated Lamb: The last dish of the meal, we were told that it would take at least 20 minutes to prepare. Unfortunately, in this case, last was least, as it was the only disappointing dish of the meal for me. The rice powder was less coarse than I’ve had in other renditions of this dish (usually with pork ribs), and perhaps the dish was a bit overcooked, making the coating much too gummy for my taste. The slices of lamb were also rather gristly and sinewy, which was a bit of a turn-off. [$9.99]
Overall, I found Szechuan Impression’s dishes to be more subtle compared to Chengdu Taste’s. I could taste real heat without being hit over the head with numbing spices. Despite the disappointing ending, Szechuan Impression definitely left a positive, lasting imp–okay, I won’t go there. But I will go back to Szechuan Impression! It’ll have to be for dinner, though, because I really wanted to try the Bobo Chicken, assorted chicken parts on skewers, sitting in a bowl of spicy sauce. Apparently, they don’t serve that dish at lunch!
1900 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
One of the mainstays of fine dining in Los Angeles, Michael’s in Santa Monica is a 36-year-old institution. Through the years, its kitchen has been the training ground for some of the best chefs in the city, and the country.
A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “The Six Degrees of Michael McCarty”—the online archive of which is text-only and lacks the original visual layout of the names—lists the culinary talents that had worked there during its first 18 years: Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Jonathan Waxman, Roy Yamaguchi, to name a few. In the 18 years since, other notable chefs, like Yang Soon of Father’s Office and Brooke Williamson of Playa Provisions, have worked their way through the kitchen at Michael’s before starting successful ventures of their own.
Michael’s continues to serve superb food but has revamped their menu and their ambiance to be more approachable in recent years, adding a Happy Hour menu and removing the white tablecloths. Still present is the all-weather patio space, with a retractable roof to protect against the occasional rain showers. While the transformation has been complete for a while, Michael’s reputation as a “special occasions” restuarant persists. Hoping to change that perception, owner Michael McCarty, with the help of Jeff Wagner Agency, hosted a happy hour reception followed by dinner for media a few weeks ago.
The Happy Hour/Bar Bites menu contains a list of affordable cocktails and drinks in the $5-$8 range, as well as more expensive options. The food side of the bar menu include some standard bar offerings but executed extremely well. Almost all the food is easily shared, including a Shrimp and Goat Cheese Pizza ($14), a plate of Grilled Shishito Peppers ($6 at Happy Hour, $8 otherwise), and Braised Pork Belly Tacos ($12 for four). My favorite was probably the “Chicken and Waffle” Wings ($6 at Happy Hour, $12 otherwise), but I missed getting a photo of it.
Most of the bar menu items are also available on the Dinner Menu, as appetizers and small plates. I really enjoyed the Local Halibut Crudo ($14) and the P.E.I. Mussels ($17). The Skirt Steak ($16) looked delicious as well, but I did not get to try it. My favorite was easily the Octopus Terrine ($14), which was as tender and supple as any tako I’ve had at high end sushi restaurants, while still retaining a nice chew and snap.
Most of the Large Plates that my fellow guests ordered were big enough for two people to share, including the Heritage Duroc Pork Chop, with parsnip agnolotti, cipollini onion, whole-grain mustard emulsion ($28) and the Colorado Rack of Lamb, w/ricotta gnocchi, baby turnips, braised lamb shoulder, roasted garlic emulsion ($42). The Mediterranean Loup de Mer, w/baby artichokes, fennel, piquillo peppers, fingerling potatoes ($28) may have been a little harder to share, but it was still well proportioned. I did not get to sample any of these dishes, so I can’t speak to how they tasted, but they looked amazing!
My impromptu dining companion, Lisa Ng of This Beautiful Day, was lovely enough to share her main course, the Maine Diver Scallops, w/flowering broccoli, crispy polenta, pearl onion ($29), with me. I found it quite good, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of cooked scallops. I hesitated at ordering the 28-Day Dry-Aged NY Steak, maitre d’ butter, frites ($44), as it was the most expensive dish on the menu, but others at the table said they would have a taste, so I went for it! I don’t order steak very often when I dine out, so I can’t say how it stacks up against other restaurants’, but it was probably the best strip steak I’ve ever had! And yes, I did share the wealth; about half went to my tablemates!
When I got home that night, I showed my wife the photos of the dishes I took and also the Happy Hour and Dinner menus. She was surprised at how affordable the prices were. She and some of her friends have a monthly “Girls Night Out”, and before that she would have never thought of Michael’s as a place to grab a quick bite before a movie on the Third Street Promenade. Now it’s on their list!
Personally, I can’t wait to go back and get the “Chicken and Waffle” Wings and that Octopus Terrine again!
1147 Third Street
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Disclosure: As mentioned above, this was a hosted event. All opinions are my own.
This past weekend, COCHON 555 descended on the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica for its 2015 Los Angeles competition, pitting 5 chefs with 5 whole heritage pigs against each other. The prize was the title of Prince of Porc and to move on to the Grand Cochon competition in Aspen, Colorado, where the winning chefs from 10 competing cities will vie to be crowned the King of Porc!
Los Angeles is the defending champion city, as it is home to last year’s Grand Cochon winner Ray Garcia, formerly of FIG at the Fairmont, who has just opened B.S Taqueria, a casual eatery, and will soon open Broken Spanish, a more upscale venue, both in DTLA.
The five chefs competing this year were Tony DiSalvo of CAST at the Viceroy, Steven Fretz of The Church Key, Walter Manzke of République, Kris Morningstar of Terrine, and Ricardo Zarate, formerly of Mo-Chica, Picca, and Paiche. Each chef had a different whole heritage pig to work with to and crafted up to half dozen dishes each. I was fortunate enough to sample most of them before I cast my vote! Continue Reading →
I’m not sure how I came across it, but I recently “discovered” Barlo Kitchen + Cocktails at the Hotel Irwin in Venice, just a block from the beach. Like Fork in the Road in Santa Monica, Barlo is one of those places that’s pretty much flown under the radar of most food publications–a few “now open” posts on Eater LA, some “reviews” that are little more than restaurant listings on various sites, but no write-ups on Chowhound or from independent food bloggers–while ranking decently on Yelp with a 4-star rating on 208 reviews. Continue Reading →
Check out my first piece for L.A. Taco: A Beginner’s Guide to Offal Tacos (Intro and Part One) by clicking the banner below:
Part Two and Part Three should be out this coming week!