Szechuan food in Los Angeles is often about degree of difficulty. Why is this meat on toothpicks? Why are there so many bones? Why is the offal listed on the picture-based menu a different kind of offal than what’s on the plate? Why am I standing in line at 10:30 a.m.?
For those who like spicy food, though, it’s worth putting up with such annoyances for the jaw-tingling, mouth-numbing ma la of Szechuan peppercorns and chili oil. It’s worth it when you get an otherworldly bowl of boiled fish in a red broth that you would be insane to drink. It’s worth it when you get your own serving of perfect springy dandan noodles or a huge tray of cumin-dusted lamb for a family-style feast.
There’s a reason that new-school San Gabriel Valley Szechuan spots like Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impression, and Fang’s are among the city’s hottest restaurants, highly acclaimed destinations where you’ll see people who’ve driven an hour to get there waiting outside for an hour more. This is food you crave again and again.
Beyond those overheated restaurants, we have another new Szechuan suggestion for a burn-your-face Chinese New Year’s feast. Huolala is about three blocks south of Fang’s on Garfield Avenue in Monterey Park. This space used to be Chung King, a Szechuan restaurant that was ahead of the current trend. The location has changed ownership a few times in the last couple years, but now it’s a no-frills Szechuan restaurant with its own voice.
There’s something called Luhe Fish, which is Huolala’s version of the popular Szechuan boiled fish with pickled vegetables and chiles dish. It’s acid and heat and delicate fish with a broth you can actually sip if you’re used to eating Szechuan food. There’s a dish called Beer Duck, assorted pieces of meat braised until the duck flavor is in the broth as much as the meat. And then there’s the main reason you should go to Huolala: Sauteed Lamb with Pepper.
Order this and you’ll get toothpick-free, bone-free meat alongside crispy rice cakes, scallions, onions, and red chiles, all contributing to a gorgeous oil that you’ll find on the aluminum foil covering your tray. The “small” $15.99 portion of this dish is enough for three people. The bigger $21.99 portion might be enough for a high school basketball team. We ate this dish with an L.A. chef who mentioned at least five times that the food-cost equation here makes no sense.
But ma la itself feels like a miracle. Eating Szechuan peppercorns, many have noted, makes you feel like your mouth is on LSD. It’s jolting and calming at the same time. There’s no reason to ask questions or wonder how it all works. Just keep eating, until you can’t feel anything but somehow simultaneously feel everything. Just let it burn, burn, burn, burn.