Friday, January 19, 2007

Chung King: "The Worst Restaurant in the World"

I have long been of the opinion that Chinese food is an oxymoron, but I did not start this way. When I was 19, I enjoyed a memorable lunch at one of those establishments along Canal Street where chickens hung in the front window and the perfunctory English menus listed far fewer items than their Chinese counterparts. I still recall the robust, exotic flavors that were unlike any meal I had previously experienced.

In the past 14 years, no Chinese meal reached those Canal Street heights. All of the Chinese “food” that I have eaten has been fried, either in a deep fryer or a wok, and served with some repugnant syrupy sauce, inevitably leading to gastroenterological knots. I hesitate even to confer the status of “food” on what is served in Chinese restaurants because it is hardly evident that fried-fry meets even the minimal levels of nutritiousness for which Hostess strives. My one return visit to Canal Street was a disappointment, and the hanging birds in the window now struck me as fetid.

Still, I have continued to indulge the fantasy that the Chinese food I’ve eaten, regrettably and always due to situational confinement, wasn’t really Chinese at all, but an American take on it—the equivalent of a doppio.

Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Chinese of any American metropolis, would seem the ideal place to debunk my theories and reservations about Chinese cuisine. So with nothing to do last Christmas Eve and traffic clear, we went to Monterey Park not to test Mark Bittman’s hypothesis that Chung King “puts just about every other Sichuan restaurant in the United States that [he’s] familiar with to shame,” but to explore whether real Chinese food can be at all desirable.

If Tom Tancredo had written A Clockwork Orange, Chung King could well have been the Korova Milk Bar. No one in the restaurant spoke English, or at least betrayed a rudimentary knowledge of it. The English of the menu’s translation was either overly cryptic, referring to items as “delicacies” and “casseroles” or a warning, such as “pig’s intestine.” Its atmosphere was akin to an underfunded hospital. (The glass on our tabletop was broken and by the end of the meal, a loose shard lacerated my wife’s elbow, causing us to end our meal not with dessert, but with a complimentary fistful of Band-aids from the panicked waitress.)

Chung King has received lavish praise for its signature dish, salty fried chicken cubes with dried hot red peppers. Since our proficiency in English was of no use here, we ordered the chicken and put our faith in Jonathan Gold’s recommendation of the “great, multiflavored beef casseroles that are so spicy they attack the nervous system like a phaser set to ‘stun.’" This is the same Jonathan Gold whose ill-heeded advice has led to such notorious misadventures as Al-Watan and Juanito's. For his part, Bittman liked the rice-crust dishes, and the language barrier left us ordering the version with three “delicacies.”

The fried chicken cubes happened to be good. But Chung King’s accomplishment here was to serve deep fried, spicy, salty chicken nuggets—very tasty and at least enough chicken not to be fried-fry, but still nuggets of chicken. Gold’s daughter bestowed the title of Worst Restaurant in the World on Chung King for the chicken, but I disagree. The casserole and the rice-crust stir fry would be the restaurant’s undoing.

The braised beef casserole was a large, spicy broth with pieces of beef the shape and size of a human fist and the color and texture of raw liver as well as assorted, unnamable vegetation. The beef was so sodden that it could not be cut prior to eating it. It had to be swallowed whole. The severity of the beef’s sliminess could be used to rebut Plato’s argument that the Forms are unattainable and unknowable. This sliminess had the unforeseen benefit of depressing the gag reflex and forcing the swallowing process. Even now, I am convinced that beef once possessed a cardiovascular function.

The rice-crust with three delicacies and its numeration remain a mystery. The rice-crust was like a fresh version of a dieter’s rice cakes, stir fried with more vegetation and some fish in a strong, viscous sauce that was redolent of lemon. The dish was flavorful and interesting: the lemon and spice saved it from being conventionally bad. But it wasn’t enjoyable either, and I am still pondering how and why one would come up with such a peculiar dish.

To borrow my wife's delicate expression, Mark Bittman and Jonathan Gold can both suck it.

Chung King
206 S. Garfield Ave.
Monterey Park
(626) 280-7430

1 comment:

Chris said...

Come up to San Francisco and eat some good Chinese food. We've got great Hunan, Mandarin, Szechuan, and Cantonese(Dim Sum). Henry's Hunan on Sacramento St. has some of the best in town. Their shredded pork with pea shoots, wood ear and egg rocks. Even their take on Kung Pao will blow you away.