Restaurant: Hunan Chili King
Location: 534 E Valley Blvd. San Gabriel, CA 91776
Date: December 23, 2012 & August 9, 2015 & September 1, 2017 & August 19, 2018 & June 13, 2021 & February 26, 2023
Cuisine: Hunan Chinese
Rating: Great, spicy, cheap
Way back in the day, Hunan Chili King was only the SECOND time I went to the SGV for Chinese food with the Hedonists! And twice in one week, I was invited to head back east into the San Gabriel Valley for some more Chinese (my earlier adventure can be found here).
Hunan style cold cucumber salad with marinated cucumber, Wood Ear/Black Fungus, shredded Broccoli stems, Cilantro, and chilies (everything has chilies). This was really tasty, and one of the least spicy dishes. The marinate lent it a slight cool quality.
Preserved Eggs, Eggplant, Pepper. This is mashed up before being eaten. Quite nice with excellent garlicky flavor eggplant. I would have liked a little more preserved egg to add even more of that umami flavor.
This particular dinner was sort of 25% hedonist in that it had some members of my hedonist wine club. There were a lot less bottles than at a full fledged event, and because of the spicy food we went mostly with sweet whites like:
From my cellar: Incorporating fruit principally from Wehlener Nonnenberg, Graacher Himmelreich, and Bernkasteler Johannisbrunnchen, the generic Prum 2011 Riesling Kabinett displays an archetypal Mosel Riesling nose of fresh apple, lemon, and clover allied to faintly cheesy, leesy youthful “stink”; and comes to the palate bright and zippy, with hints of wet stone, and prominent cyanic piquancy of apple pit invigoratingly extending its mouthwateringly juicy, if tart and relatively simple finish.
Fried lobster with chilies. A superb lobster preparation, like a spicy version of Lobster Causeway Style.
From my cellar: A fine combination of textural creaminess with refreshment and lift characterizes the Weins-Prum 2009 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese, which combines lusciously ripe, fresh pear and apple with vanilla and marzipan and finishes with both soothing and stimulating length. This impeccably-balanced, textbook example of its site and style ought to retain its allure for at least two decades.
Fish Filet with Hot Sauce. Easier (and maybe tastier) to eat than the head. Note that this 6/13/21 version was served in that annoying post pandemic era when many restaurants seem to be using take out containers instead of actual plates.
Braised Whole Fish. I wanted the classic fish head but was convinced to go for a whole fish instead. I’m not sure what kind of fish they used. It was very tender with a sort of earthy tone and maybe a flavor that just hinted of “old bay.” Quite unusual and delicious.
Sauteed Spicy Shrimp. Wonderful juicy whole shrimp with chilis, crunchy green beans, and a lovely “softer” flavored Hunan sauce. Despite having that same Hunan “Christmas” (green and red) look, it did taste different than the other dishes.
To go with the meat we step up the intensity a bit.
Parker 91-93, “The extraordinary 2007 Cotes du Rhone-Villages Rasteau offers up aromas of chocolate, black cherries, dusty, loamy soil, scorched earth, garrigue, and spice. This full-bodied, powerfully concentrated, meaty, expansive, substantial wine should age well for a decade.”
Chiliking Crispy Egg. Many people had never had this dish. I’ve actually made it. These eggs, sometimes called “dragon eggs” are deep fried (without a breading) and then wokked. It was very spicy with the classic hunan garlic, ginger, and pickled chili combo. Absolutely delicious.
Sauteed Chicken Feet with Peppers. Yarom wanted this of course, subbing out a more “regular” chicken dish. It had the totally typical HCK flavor profile but given that chicken feet are sort of a useless “protein” was kinda neither here nor there.
House Special Stew Duck. Braised duck really, long cooked in a complex broth that whose spices included star anise and black cardamon. Very moist and soft with a nice complex flavor. I really enjoyed because of the “brown spice” vibe.
Steamed Pork with Taro (2023 version). This is the super fatty pork belly and it’s usually served this way (with thinly sliced chunks of taro) or with salty preserved vegetables. This was a nice version, very soft and the taro added a bit of firmness and of course some starchy counter to the fat.
Sauteed Pig Kidney with Pepper. I don’t normally order kidney but newcommer Erin wanted this dish. It turned out to be one of the best kidney’s I’ve had — not that I have it that often. They did a fabulous job removing the “offtaste pissy” that is the kidney halmark and instead it was a nicely chewy and deeply flavored meat with a slight variation on the HCK classic blend. Delicious actually.
Preserved Pork with Radish (2023). This turned out to be one of my favorites. The pork is incredidibly smoky (and fatty) and leant a smoky pork fat taste to the entire dish. But the crunchy “radish” (was it really a radish) was some kind of preserved vegetable and I absolutely loved it. I ate all of it out of the dish. It felt very fiberous and satisfying. Loved both the texture and the smoke flavor.
Snails with preserved vegetables (8/19/18). This dish was amazing! Sure it’s an “advanced” dish, and incredibly spicy. Hottest dish we had that night by far. Super deep potent heap. The combo of the chewy snails and the unusual pickled green beans (with their crunch) was stunning.
Sauteed Snails with Preserved Vegetable (2023 edition). I’ve long loved this dish at HCK and some previous incarnations have been painfully hot. This was hotter than most of the dishes but not crazy hot. Besides the usual pickled chilies, garlic, and ginger, it had nice crunchy radish and a lot of these preserved green beans. The snail itself was just snail meat and has a clam-like chew. Very different texture and flavor than most people are used to and very enjoyable.
Sautéed cauliflower. Had a very nice crunch. Note that this 6/13/21 version was served in that annoying post pandemic era when many restaurants seem to be using take out containers instead of actual plates.
But wait, you thought we were done? Let’s start all over with an entirely different array of pepper dishes 2.5 years later (August 2015):
Pickled turnip or potato and peanuts.
One of the few repeats: Hunan style cold cucumber salad with marinated cucumber, Wood Ear/Black Fungus, shredded Broccoli stems, Cilantro, and chilies (everything has chilies). A welcome relief to the heat.
Skewered frog legs with chilis (15 and 9/1/17). Delicious. Really delicious, but lots of little bones. The “sauce” is crunchy chili garlic.
Hunan chicken. The “classic” combo of red, green, and orange with boney bits of chicken. Flavor was fabulous though.
Hunan bacon. Slices of cured pork belly — delicious smoky bacon — with peppers!
Chili-King Crispy Pork Fat. Like little mini chicharrónes. Great texture. Note that this 6/13/21 version was served in that annoying post pandemic era when many restaurants seem to be using take out containers instead of actual plates.
Giant Hunan fish head. Again.
Hunan frog. More frog, which brings up one of the better quotes of the night, “How many frogs had to die for this dinner?”
Glass noodles with garlic and gizzards. Sounds scary, but this was a delicious dish with a good bit of Szechuan peppercorn heat.
Hunan hotwings. Not much meat, but a lot of taste.
House Special Duck. Came a bit cold so we had to send it back for some more heating. Tasty, but a touch off-putting. Note that this 6/13/21 version was served in that annoying post pandemic era when many restaurants seem to be using take out containers instead of actual plates.
House special lamb (12? 15, and 9/1/17). A repeat, but a good one. This is one of the better cumin lambs I’ve had. I like how the cilantro is used as a green, almost like a salad.
Sautéed Beef with Celery (2023 real plate version). The beef itself wasn’t the star of this very nice dish but the amazing crunchy celery. I just kept eating all the celery out of here after everyone else was done.
Braised eggplant with garlic (15 and 9/1/17 and 8/19/18). A delicious eggplant with the texture I like, soft but not slimly. Great flavor to the sauce with lots of garlic. Very nice version of this spicy dish. The Hunan version of eggplant. A bit less chili oil than the Szechuan version (which I guess is usually fish flavored eggplant). There was a version with 1000 year-old eggs that would have been even better.
Pork belly and tofu. Thick fatty pork belly and bag like tofu. Not everyone liked the soft mushy type of bean curd — but I loved it.
Mapo Tofu. A bit of numbing, no obvious meat. Note that this 6/13/21 version was served in that annoying post pandemic era when many restaurants seem to be using take out containers instead of actual plates.
Crab. A little hard to get into, but the body meat on the end could be eaten like a lolipop and had a delightful flavor.
Egg fried rice. Straightforward but cut the heat.
Shredded potato. Nice crunch. I loved this covered in the eggplant sauce.
Lobster. More peppers! Actually we didn’t have this dish, but I saw it and had to photo it.
Beef in chili sauce. Sort of a Szechuan dish, but the Hunan variant.
Noodle soup with fish balls, mushrooms, and meats of an indeterminate nature.
Spicy pickled eggs (8/19/18). Interesting. Event eggs can get the Hunan treatment! Quite good actually.
Scrambled eggs with peppers (8/19/18). Usually in China this dish is with tomatoes. Hunan people can’t resist the pepper.
Vegetable buns. Interesting source green flavor, but nice.
Sweet egg drop soup. A sweet soup with goji berries and balls of tapioca. Not bad, for a weird sweet soup.
Sweet bean buns. Chinese desserts. Know them. Don’t love them.
A variant on a house favorite: Triple Milk Chocolate Cloud (8/19/18) – the base made with Valrhona 40% Jivara Chocolate (usually I use 63%) and then layered with Dark Chocolate Creamcheese Ganache and Belgian Chocolate Thins (3 flavors, for triple on triple action) — made by me for @sweetmilkgelato.
And some house made butterscotch in case the above wasn’t rich enough.
Together it’s amazing.
Grapefruit Aperol Tarragon Sorbetto (6/13/21) — Cold pressed Fresh Grapefruit juice from my garden, Aperol and fresh Tarragon! — made by me for @sweetmilkgelato — Unique and bracing — #SweetMilkGelato #gelato #dessert #icecream #FrozenDessert #nomnom #dessertlovers #dessertporn #icecreamlovers #gelatoitaliano #foodporn #gelatolover #food #foodgasm #foodblogger #dessertgasm #desserttime #foodphotography #gelatoartigianale #gelatomania #dessertlover #icecream #icecreamlovers #sorbetto #grapefruit #aperol #tarragon
My son’s bday favorite — Quad Chocolate Cloud Gelato – The base is made with Valrhona 62% Satilla Chocolate and then layered with Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Ganache, chopped Oreos, and Nestle’s Buncha Crunch! — made by me for @sweetmilkgelato — #SweetMilkGelato #gelato #dessert #icecream #FrozenDessert #nomnom #dessertlovers #dessertporn #icecreamlovers #gelatoitaliano #foodporn #gelatolover #food #foodgasm #foodblogger #dessertgasm #desserttime #foodphotography #gelatoartigianale #gelatomania #dessertlover #icecream #icecreamlovers #Valrhona #chocolate #oreos #ganache #icing #Nestle #crunch
Citron au Courant Sorbetto – Fresh squeezed Lemons blended with French Currants (Cassis) — made by me for @sweetmilkgelato — #SweetMilkGelato #gelato #dessert #icecream #FrozenDessert #nomnom #dessertlovers #dessertporn #icecreamlovers #gelatoitaliano #foodporn #gelatolover #food #foodgasm #foodblogger #dessertgasm #desserttime #foodphotography #gelatoartigianale #gelatomania #dessertlover #icecream #icecreamlovers #sorbetto #lemon #cassis #currents #lemonade #citron
This was an awesome pair of meals and very different than your typical Cantonese American. Traffic isn’t bad on Sunday night, but during the week it took me almost two hours to get to this area. Hunan Chili King isn’t where I’d take Chinese food novices. EVERYTHING is spicy. In fact, a few people obviously didn’t read the warnings on the meetup because they couldn’t handle the heat. Someone said of the heat, “I feel like I’m going into menopause.”
The flavors and proteins are a bit weird by American standards. But this is my favorite SGV Hunan so far, and I really like it for the variety compared to some other regional cuisines. At the restaurant itself you have to take some care to end up with different flavors, as there are a lot of dishes with the “usual” tri-color pepper melange (tasty as it is). But great stuff.
And as usual, we even went next door afterward and got a Chinese massage for $15 an hour! Just the perfect thing to work out the hedonistic over-indulgence!
Adding in a note based on 6/13/21, Hunan Chili King was (as of then) still operating in a half “take out” mode with very few people in the restaurant, and using only takeout containers and styrofoam plates with plastic silverware. The kitchen seemed about 90% back up to snuff, but the disposable plating really reduces the enjoyment (and appeal).
Speaking in 2023: The owners can be seen here behind the counter. We’ve been coming to HCK for over a decade, in fact it was the SECOND SGV Chinese place I ever went with Yarom back in December of 2012. They suffered a bit during the pandemic with a period of serving only on plastic take out containers with styrofoam and plastic wares — something that always ruins the food, but they’ve come back to be as good as ever. I don’t know of any other currently operating full Hunan Restaurants as I think both Hunan Mao and Hunan Restaurant are out of business. So HCK is both unique and delicious. You gotta love it spicy though as everything has those pickled chilis.