Fish Heads, Fish Heads...

At the recommendation of fellow GrubClubber, Divinestyler, I dragged two of my friends to try out the Hunan Restaurant (don't know the exact name) in the shadow of the Shun Fat supermarket on Atlantic Blvd. just south of the 10 in Monterey Park. It had all the signs of a good Chinese restaurant: a nondescript location in a strip mall, a constant line of very Chinese-looking people waiting on the sidewalk outside, and... the ubiquitous feared-by-white-people-but-scoffed-at-by-Chinese-people "C" rating. I've peered in on many prior occasions, but since I'd never felt like waiting for a table, I always opted to go to Dumpling Master, just a few doors down (and one of my favorite grub spots).

But on this particular night, there was one table open, seemingly waiting for us. None of the items on the menu looked familiar to me, so we ordered by looking at what other people were eating and pointing at their food -- and threw in an order of "Hunan style fried rice" for good measure, thinking "When in Hunan... " Turns out, the fried rice was a loser dish. Oh well. The other dishes were ok: Chinese celery with shredded pork & dried chilis and the puzzlingly named "A" vegetable sauteed with loads of garlic. But the real standout item was the "house specialty:" a steamed fish head loaded down with mounds of sliced yellow chili peppers and sitting in a pool of molten yellow pepper lava. We saw this on just about every table in the place, and when we ordered it, the waiter said that this was what everyone comes there for.

However, when he brought out our fish head, I felt every single person in the restaurant turning to see who the suckers were who ordered this behemoth. The first thing I thought when he set it down on our table was that they must be trying to gouge the non-Chinese speaking food tourists by giving us this gigantic order and then charging us triple what the real Chinese people paid. So I made my semi-Chinese speaking friend ask the waiter if he made a mistake in bringing out such a big order (since there were only 3 of us), but he assured us that was what we ordered. He then must have read my mind, because he volunteered the info that they were all the same price, no matter what size. This then caused the people next to us to complain to the waiter, asking why their fish head was so small compared to ours (!!!).

As we were a little unsure about how to proceed eating the fish head, we ended up poking gingerly around it with our chopsticks and found quite a few meat nugget pockets this way, including the very tasty and tender chunk under the fish collar. My first mistake was to pour the sauce over my fish; my lips felt like they were on fire the rest of the night. After that, we were careful not to let the fish meat fall into the moat of oily pepper sauce. We also got a little grossed out by the gelatinous pockets, unsure if we were supposed to eat those, too. Apparently you are; as we left, we surveyed the other tables and wondered what those people did because they had NOTHING left on their plates! They must have eaten the bones, eyeballs, gills, and everything in between because their fish head plates were totally empty.

All in all... it was a very authentic eating experience. You could totally feel like you're actually in China, which is probably a good thing for some people. But it all just reminded of how un-Chinese I felt when I was in China. And how glad I was to be back home, where I could eat tacos and spaghetti whenever I felt like it.

Next time, I think I'll go to Dumpling Master.



Blogger DYY said...

Nice post. I like the picture of the fish head... it looks scary but, at the same time, unusually comforting.

I recently witnessed one of my friends suck on an eyeball of a fish... did you know that the white part of the eye is chalky and there's a hard ball in the center that looks like a clear pearl?

Yeah, it was gross.

1/09/2007 12:59 AM  

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