Thursday, November 1, 2012

Seafood Village: Chiu Chow, SGV Style

Everything I know about Chiu Chow cuisine, I learned from eating at restaurants representing that regional fare, growing up in Hong Kong. So, what I know may just be the 'Hong Kong version' of chiu chow, but what I do know, I dearly miss when I am in LA: sugar vinegar double fried egg noodle pancakes, oyster omelettes, soy sauce duck parts, stir fried cow spinal cord...

So, I was excited when I read about David Chan, man who has feasted on and documented an incredible volume of meals at Chinese restaurants all over the country.  Surely, he would know where I can get a decent chiu chow meal in LA.  The answer was not what I wanted - there isn't any restaurant, even in the great SGV, that serves such specific and authentic regional Chinese dishes -  but he did have a place that is one of his favorite restaurants in the city, and it just happens to be chiu chow.  I won't be able to get the niche dishes I've been craving, but I will be able to get an excellent meal nonetheless. So it was that I embarked on a journey to Seafood Village in Monterey Park a few weeks back - and was so impressed with my experience that I plan to be back again, and again.

Located in a non-descript strip mall, in a no frills place with specials listed in Chinese only (albeit with photos) along the walls, Seafood Village struck me as very authentic (Chinese) right away.  You're definitely not going to visit for the ambience.  A glance at the menu confirmed, as David said, that the items I wanted were not going to be served there.  But they had some amazing sounding dishes with ingredients that are not seen everywhere even in the SGV.  One of these was the Sauteed Clams with 9-Level Pagoda Basil ($11.99)  - yes, this is the same kind of basil (九層塔) used in the signature lobster at Newport Tan Cang restaurant.  A little sweet, with the slightest hit of spice, often described as 'clove-like'.  Legend has it (because you should believe everything you read on the internet) that the basil got its name when a Chinese emperor was stranded by flooding in a 9-Level Pagoda, and stumbled upon the herb growing on its roof.  Basically our people seem to have to have a story for does make things more interesting that way.  Whatever the origin of its name, I love this unique tasting herb with shellfish - cuts through the briny flavors and more...robust textured creatures nicely.  The clams are perfectly steamed at Seafood Village in a clear broth with garlic and the foodgasm inducing basil.
For the token vegetable dish, and only because my server said the magic words "XO Sauce" and it sounded interesting with a mix of surf and turf in it, I sprang for the Stir-fried Chives with XO Sauce, Dried Shrimp and Ham ($13.99). I never really thought of chives as something you would eat as the main component of a dish - usually it's as flavoring or garnish.  But who knew, the tips of chives look like blushing baby flower buds, and the 'stalks' give off a fresh, delicious crunch when stir fried.  And were perfectly punctuated by pops of dried shrimp, ham and I think bits of squid - along with my beloved savory/spicy/sweet magic XO sauce (a Hong Kong invention usually made of dried shrimp, dried fish, dried scallop, chili peppers and garlic).  And yes, you guessed it - there's a story behind the name XO sauce too: basically Cognac XO was a popular liquor in Hong Kong that had an established brand as the ultimate in luxury, representing refined tastes and wealth - a status good that all self-respecting-consumers-with-fine-palates should aspire to experience. So when this sauce was invented, with all the expensive seafood needed to create just a small amount of sauce - it was decided that naming it XO would be a reflection of its luxurious ingredients, and give it instant appeal to status conscious Hong Kong uber-consumers.  I do love the name of this sauce, but it's really its amazing layers of flavor, that unfurl like the culinary equivalent of a fine aged brandy, just a little different every time, that get me every time.

Then came the House Special Crab ($26.15 for 3lbs, varies with market price) although that works out to less than $10 a pound when I went, it's a minimum of 3lbs per order so best if you go with other people.  I managed to inhale about a quarter of the platter and had to take the rest to go.  This crab is simply amazing - if you go to Seafood Village, don't leave without tasting this.  Chopped garlic, fried to a crisp, spring onion, peppers and salt give it instantly addictive flavor - you can scrape off the stuff and use it as topping for rice and make a delicious meal of that alone - while the meat inside is tender and softly sweet.  The crab is deep fried so you get that tasty crispy coating on the shell that had me frantically trying to scrape off with my teeth.  I'd never had this dish in chiu chow restaurants in Hong Kong - but I'm in love with it now and will definitely be coming back for more.
As typical to old school Chinese restaurants, the meal is finished off with complimentary dessert.  Seafood Village provides Red Bean Soup - this wasn't mind-blowing, but very nicely done and especially lovely because it was free.

Also wanted to take a moment to note the attentive service - the waiters are not here to chat with you, so if you're looking at it from a western perspective, you're not going to think it's great because you don't get the banter here - but with all the seafood they are very quick with replacing dirty plates with clean ones and offering napkins / towels.

All in all, a great meal and one that has turned me from skeptic to fan of SGV-style (or at least, Seafood Village style) chiu chow!  Thanks David Chan for the rec!!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Seafood Village

684 W Garvey Ave, Monterey Park,CA 91754
Ph: 626.289.0088

Parking:  Free in attached open air lot


Seafood Village on Urbanspoon

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