Stomach-scorching Hunanese for CityBeat:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
There’s some fiery foreshadowing in Xiang Wei Lou’s dining room – garlands of chiles dangling from the walls and one diner wearily padding the sweat from his forehead. The restaurant has what might seem to be all the makings of a sadistic meal – a place apparently fond of the most unearthly kind of heat. But Xiang Wei Lou doesn’t indiscriminately do spice for the sake of spice. Every dish here is measured and attuned to a careful proportion of capsaicin.
The still-shiny San Gabriel restaurant – a clean but not uncomfortably sterile space in the shadow of the marbled Hilton San Gabriel – specializes in Hunanese cuisine, the chile-charged cooking of China’s southeastern Hunan province. It’s food famous for its adrenaline-chasing burn, one that’s often compared to that of the nearby Sichuan province. But Hunanese dishes pursue a different, drier heat.
Xiang Wei Lou isn’t quite as boastful about its chile-heavy menu as some of its neighbors – Hunan Chili King, for example – but the restaurant’s specialties are still plenty obvious. The requisite dish here (and the one that seems to land on most every table) is Xiang Wei Lou’s steamed whole fish. Elsewhere, you might only find fish heads – huge things plated in shallow, peppery pools. But here you get the entire fish, tail and all, completely broken down by a steady rush of steam. By the time it hits the table, the fish’s flesh can practically be massaged off its tiny, splintery bones, yielding buttery bites of meat flavored with equal parts chile and garlic. And because the fish is served whole, you won’t miss the head’s most pleasurable piece – the cheeks.
The rest of the menu includes all the necessary stomach-scalding highlights, but the best are corralled into a corner and given the chef’s recommendation. Within this section are a number of essentials, like frog legs and crispy shards of pork skin, the latter of which arrives like some translated version of chicharrones. But for a break from Xiang Wei Lou’s pure heat, order the restaurant’s smoked ham.
Although it’s a staple at spots like Xiang Wei Lou, the smoked ham might seem something of an anomaly, considering that it’s basically bacon. Still, given its preparation – tossed into quick-cooking stir-fries that balance its black rinds with vegetables and chiles – the ham fits right in with the rest of the menu, offered with accompanying helpings of string beans, kernel-like pieces of dried radish or wobbly blocks of tofu.
Not every dish is designed to make you sweat, but if you need a quick cool-down, flip the menu over to find a much milder selection of vegetables. There are, of course, plenty of ways to keep the heat on, namely the potatoes tossed with (yes) chiles. But most of the vegetable dishes keep it clean with mushrooms and cabbage. Sautéed ong choy – a straw-like green that’s something like a hybrid of spinach and watercress – is great for its simplicity: it’s a garlicky bowl of vegetables that goes a long way toward wiping away any lingering heat.
Xiang Wei Lou’s kitchen can dial down the spice if necessary – medium seems to be the limit for more soft-stomached mortals – but you don’t want to erase the taste of the chiles completely. Because the restaurant cooks with care, that heat is crucial – an amplifying element that can turn dishes like cumin-dusted lamb into stratospheric successes.
Xiang Wei Lou, 227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 289-2276. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Food for two: $20-$30. Cash only.