Downey’s comfortable Korean-Chinese eatery from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Peking Restaurant looks like it sprouted straight out of Downey’s past, an old space built right along with the rest of the city’s post-bean-field boom. And in those few modest midcentury blocks that make up downtown Downey, the restaurant is a fine fit, the kind of spot where decades can drag by before the menu sees even the slightest shift.
Peking’s insides are stuck in a similar time warp. The place is completely masked in mauve, with the primary focal points being a couple of fat fish bobbing through an otherwise empty aquarium and the framed photos of stars past and present (presumably pulled into orbit by Downey Studios). It’s a style ripe with years of culinary cliché, but under the restaurant’s cloak of heavily sauced (and authentically American) Chinese cuisine are dishes of a multicultural heritage.
Yet for those who haven’t already taken these tough times to commit Mandarin to memory (or any of the thousands of Chinese characters handed down through the centuries), Peking’s menu appears like any other: dishes of varying traditions all described in quick, sparse sentences. And like many of the most entrenched Chinese restaurants, Peking’s menu is expansive, a stack of magazine-dense pages packed with what seems like endless options. The best dishes at Peking Restaurant, however, flow from a more foreign origin, a palate picked up by Chinese immigrants cooking their way through Korea.
Nevertheless, all the expected options are at Peking. You can order moo shu this, sweet and sour that. And for the most part, these recognizable plates make for a pretty good meal. Even the egg foo young is memorable, a pizza-size pancake slathered in brown gravy and topped with mushrooms, peas, water chestnuts and carrots. But most of these filling dishes arrive heavy-handed, necessitating a whole tower of takeout boxes. What’s more, they won’t steal a smile from the staff the same way an order of one the Korean-inflected specialties will.
For that, feed your curiosity with jajangmyeon, an overflowing bowl of wheat noodles topped with a black soybean paste called chunjang. The paste initially sits on top of the noodles in a sticky pile, a blackish ball nearly as dark as tar. But after you mix the dish together, its appeal isn’t so murky-—the paste is spiked with a ton of soft, translucent onions, which, to meat-minded Californians, might recall the taste of some animal-style onions atop an In-N-Out burger. Then it becomes easy to see how jangjangmyeon is such a comforting dish, serving up simple and mild flavors that fill you up quick. Plus, like all the best Korean noodle dishes, jajangmyeon requires a customary pair of scissors—without that charming snip, there’s almost no way to pull the clumped-up strings from the bowl.
Paired best with jajangmyeon is a plate of tangsuyuk. Its name might be unfamiliar, but tangsuyuk isn’t particularly exotic, edging closer to sweet and sour pork than anything else. It is, however, a visually appealing dish, with crispy strips of fried pork that look a lot like ginger roots, bifurcated branches of meat encased in taut golden shells. And the pork isn’t as overpoweringly sweet as some other Americanized choices; it’s cut with pineapple, green onions, carrots and a few slices of cucumber to even out the flavors. Most crucial is that tangsuyuk is excellent with alternating bites of jajangmyeon, the sweet side of the pork blending right in with the earthy ease of the chunjang.
On colder days, you can even heat up with a number of noodle soups like jjamppong, a chili-scorched seafood soup that splits its history among Japan, China and Korea. But Peking Restaurant isn’t where to eat for the purest Korean meals, however—for that, there’s a tofu house right next door. Instead, the restaurant works toward being a rare kind of place that can please everyone—a neighborhood spot where excitement erupts out of the usual and a forgotten find where even the usual brings out the unexpected.
PEKING RESTAURANT 11039 DOWNEY AVE | DOWNEY 90241 | 562.869.2607 | OPEN TUES-THURS & SUN 11AM-9:30PM | FRI-SAT 11AM-10PM | FOOD FOR TWO $15-25 BEER, WINE