A tip from Carter on Chowhound led us to Crown Cafe in San Gabriel, a modest little spot with a kickass Hunan menu. UPDATE: Crown Cafe's owners have moved and changed the name to Hunan Style Restaurant, 903 W. Valley Bl., in Alhambra. The former Crown location is now Chung King, the excellent Szechwan restaurant.
Since the more upscale Shiang Garden, where we had a great meal last year, has now closed, I was glad to hear about another good Hunan place. Hunan food is somewhat similar to Szechwan, with plenty of chiles, but the dishes usually aren't quite as spicy. The Hunanese are also very fond of smoked pork preparations such as the little ham buns we had at Shiang Garden and various dishes with smoked pork, which is just like bacon.
Crown is a small spot with English-speaking waiters and the typical bare-bones aesthetic, although they do serve beer and accept credit cards. Signs filled with Chinese characters papered the walls, frustrating me since I didn't really think I could get the somewhat harried host to translate each and every one. Everything on the other diners' tables looked delicious, so we just pointed to what looked best and ended up with a delicious meal.
Smoked pork with garlic shoots and red bell peppers, above, was smoky and very slightly spicy. The bright green garlic shoots were the perfect fresh contrast to the salty bacon.
Everyone seemed to be eating diced chicken with chiles, above. This dish was similar to the incendiary chicken with chiles offered at Szechwan restaurants, which I love but none of my friends can handle. The Hunan version uses about half as many chiles (which is still a lot!) and adds a large dose of crispy fried garlic. This dish also had red bell peppers, but these were nicely charred on the outside. The charred peppers, smoky chiles and toasted garlic combined for an extremely tasty sauce, especially when combined with some rice. We decided to pass up the "strangely odored tofu" -- just as well after I read the description of how it's made in Carl Chu's book -- and ordered tofu with hot and sour sauce off the menu. The silky tofu combined with a pungent, salty ground pork sauce which packed a ton of flavor, but no heat. With only two of us, we managed to order a good selection of flavors -- slightly spicy, very spicy, and not spicy. However, all the dishes were quite salty and oily, so if we go back, we'll have to nose around the menu for some less-oily accompaniments.
The verdict: This place rocks, if you like big flavors. Three dishes, rice and tea were $27 with plenty of leftovers.
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.