Sunday, June 05, 2005

Taste test: Crown Cafe - Down home in Hunan province

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.
Crown Cafe
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 286-0298
Archived comments:
Kirk said...

Pat - Looks great - can't wait to try this place on our next trip up to LA. Especially since Shiang Garden is now closed :(

Aaron said...

If you like Chinese Restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, you should try Dai Ho. The food there is unlike anything that you would find at a typical Chinese restaurant. Hot items are only served till three, but there is a cold deli selection that is available till seven. Perhaps the best dishes are the cold dry sesame nooddle and the hot dry sesame noodle.

Dai Ho Restaurannt
9148 Las Tunas Drive
Temple City
(626) 291-2295

Dan said...

You inspired me to go there today for lunch. Fantastic. The Diced Chicken with Chilies I got (#10 on the first section on the menu) didn't look like your picture, but it is now my favorite spicy chicken dish of all time. It had slivers of yellow-green chilies and green onions. The chilies on their own weren't as hot as the chicken. It had a zest to it like you get with lemon chicken, but there was no citrus flavor.
The pork was a little gamey for me, but I'm sort of a wimp if something is slightly gamey. It had a great smokey thing going on though.
Thanks for the tip.