Restaurant: Cui Hua Lou [1, 2, 3]
Location: 920 E Garvey Ave. Monterey Park, CA 91755. 626-288-2218
Date: January 26, 2014
Cuisine: Szechuan Chinese
Chinese food is incredible regional, and we are blessed in SoCal with a lot of very specific restaurants (mostly in the San Gabriel Valley). My Hedonist group has returned to this little known spicy Szechuan in the corner of an undiscovered Monterey Park strip mall. We love Szechuan for its spicy/smoky flavors. This is a cuisine that packs a real punch and is one of my favorites in China.
From my cellar: 2001 Ulrich Langguth Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese. 90 points. Quite ripe – more Auslese in style – with a typical Mosel flavor profile. Enjoyable, and a good value for an ’01 Spatlese.
This warrants opening what I might call the “great foodie wine pairing debate” as I find people at my dinners fall into two camps: the “a good wine is a good wine” camp and the “food and wine complement” crew (of which I’m the later). Chinese in general, and Szechuan in particular, is a tricky match as it’s full of vinegar, soy and fermented flavors, and bracing heat. I happen to think Riesling generally pairs well with Chinese, but spicy foot demands a certain sweetness — the more spice the more sugar. However, those in the first group often “don’t like sweet wines.” Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my camp tends to line up with the Burgundy drinkers and the first group with the fans of massive (over) extracted wines.
2003 Zilliken (Forstmeister Geltz) Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spätlese. 89-94 points. Beautiful, lush Mosel Riesling. Light straw-brilliant in the glass. Nose of an integrated bouquet of stone, ripe pineapple, mandarin orange, young leather (fleshiness), and light metallic petrol (light). The attack is not tart: it has enough acid to be propped up, but not an awful lot more. A little fatness to the palate even. Yet, it seems a balanced, delicious wine that is in a good spot. Yum, yum. Nice length too. Thumbs up!
Beef Tendon in Xiang Ziang style. Lots of cumin. The idea of tendon is a little disturbing, and this has an unusual (for westerners) texture, like a root vegetable (almost), but more chewy. Still, it’s pretty good considering.
2009 Bodegas Vinicola Real Rioja Vina Los Valles Crianza. 86 points. Nothing really wrong with this value Rioja (at the price point), except it’s a total fail as far as pairing with Szechuan cuisine. It would be nice at a Madrid Tapas joint.
2003 Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri Sassicaia Sassicaia. IWC 93. 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% cabernet franc) Dark ruby-red. Appealing smoky, minerally aromas of red cherry, blackcurrant and plum, with a hint of truffle. Quite suave on entry, then smooth and fine-grained, with good mineral lift to the decidedly sweet red fruit flavors. This broad, rich and supple wine boasts tremendous length and silky-sweet tannins. A great Sassicaia that falls roughly between the ’88 and the ’85 in style at the similar stage of development, although I’m not sure the new vintage will attain the heights reached by those earlier wines.
This was a gorgeous wine… between courses… because as soon as that Szechuan heat kicked in, particularly the numbing effect of the peppercorn, all the fruit was stripped out left only tannins on the palette. Now the pacing of the meal allowed me to enjoy it, just not exactly with the food.
1997 Sean Thackrey Orion Rossi Vineyard. Rhone Report 96. Immediately identifiable as syrah, the nose was bursting with blueberries, blackberries, and a hint of eucalyptus. The blue and black berries continue on the palate, adding a little bit of leather/tobacco on the mildly tannic, medium to long finish.
The bigger is better camp loved this wine. It’s not really my cup of tea though, and certainly not with Chinese. With some lamb chops, sure. And we had lots of lamb, but it was covered in cumin and Szechuan pepper!
Szechuan style bean curd. This is known as Mapo Doufu. It is a combination of tofu (bean curd) set in a spicy chili- and bean-based sauce, typically a thin, oily, and bright red suspension, and often cooked with fermented black beans and minced meat, usually pork or beef. Ma stands for “mazi” (Pinyin: mázi Traditional Chinese 麻子) which means a person disfigured by pockmarks or leprosy, the latter is also called 痲 má or 麻風 máfēng. Po (Chinese 婆) translates as “old woman, grandmother, crone”. Hence, Ma Po is an old woman whose face was pockmarked. It is thus sometimes translated as “Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu”.
It’s one of my favorite dishes and features a wonderful texture, bright taste, and a searing numbing heat.
2002 Sean Thackrey Orion Rossi Vineyard. IWC 92. Red berries, Grand Marnier, Thai basil, geranium, eucalyptus, bitter lime, quinine and resiny oak on the nose. Then thick and dense but penetrating in the mouth, with primary raspberry and strawberry flavors complicated by an exotic apricot note and framed by lively acids. A fascinating, firmly built wine that showed a compelling sweetness as it opened in the glass. Finishes with very sweet tannins and impressive persistence. My score is intended for the initiated: you know who you are.
Same big wine, but younger, and from a somewhat inferior year.
Fried corn. Slightly sweet and could have almost passed for a dessert (certainly in Chinese terms). It blended great on the plate with other items like the above tofu, adding a bit of crunch, salt, and sweetness.
You mix it up. One of the biggest challenge is getting only part of the noodles and an even distribution of the chopped meat at the bottom. Clearly, when Marco Polo brought noodles back to Italy this became the seed for Bolognese sauce, as aside from this being quite spicy, there is a definite similarity. This particular version wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, and doesn’t have the nutty sesame quality the dish sometimes does, but it was certainly enjoyable.
2009 Domaine des Sabines. 90 points. Ruby color with just a slight tinge of blue remaining, surprisingly almost opaque. Nose has peat moss, dirt, wild mushrooms, roasted coffee beans. A hint of licorice with savory notes, plus some dried tobacco. Something sweet here too on the nose – perhaps a touch of bret? On the palate – black cherry, blackberry, roasted or grilled plums. Truly though, this wine is all about the earthy notes and the wood – roasted espresso, caramel, hazelnut, dried leaves and a bit of burnt toast. A minerally, gravel note pops up on the finish too. Chewy mid-palate texture. Tannins are moderate for Bordeaux, and nicely ripe. I know it is 2009, but for LdP, the density is impressive. Medium body. Give it an hour of air and the tight tannins round out and shows off a lovely soft supple quality. Heat shows up a bit on the finish, weight of fruit almost carries it off. I can see this wine with slow roasted braised beef short ribs and caramelized onions. Or a wild mushroom risotto – thinking chantrelles.
About 10 years too young.
Boiled beef and fish. Along with the Mapo tofu, this was my favorite dish of the night. The “broth” is very similar to the lamb casserole and features a tremendous heat born of both red chilies and Szechwan peppercorn. The meat and the fish were both tender and full of flavor. Really quite wonderful (if intense).
Boiled peanuts. These are cold and a bit slimey. I have read that eating lots of boiled peanuts (instead of roasted) avoids peanut allergies for some reason. The roasted ones taste better, but there is nothing really wrong with these.
In conclusion, Cui Hua Lou, while apparently totally undiscovered, offers up some fabulous traditional Szechuan fare. For this second visit we went crazy overboard and ordered up about 50% more food than we needed, still this feast, including tax and tip, only set us back $31 a person! If you like spicy, you should try this place. Just don’t tell too many people!