Sichuan cuisine often lends itself to a general perception that all of its dishes are spicy and numbing, that the food itself takes a back seat to screaming heat. Crimson dishes flooded with the grassy, almost citrusy flavor of Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, and mala sauce only encourage this notion. Xiang La Hui, a new Sichuan restaurant opened by Will Wang in Alhambra in mid-October, is here to change that.
To uncover just what Xiang La Hui is, start with the three characters in its name. The first, xiang, written 香, stands for “fragrance.” La, written 辣, is the same “la” in mala, and denotes spiciness. The final character is hui, 汇 meaning the exchange or meeting of two things. There’s an idea of balance and reliance on one’s sense of smell at Xiang La Hui that hardened fans of screaming hot mala spice might not find exciting.
That is, until they try the food.
Fragrance takes center stage in one of Xiang La Hui’s featured dishes, the Kung Fu fish/beef dishes. The sizzling pot of beef, peppers, and vegetables is hit with oil tableside. Billowing steam is fragrant not with the smell of smoking oil, but of the peppercorns, chiles, and various spices that waft into the air outward toward neighboring (and likely envious) diners.
“Timing is important,” Wang says in his native Mandarin. “In order to obtain optimal taste and aroma for the dish, it’s best to add the oil as close to the time of consumption as possible,” The dish itself is plenty fun to eat, though the flavors of the surrounding peppercorn, chile, and spice aren’t very intense.
For something more intense from the Sichuan canon, there are dishes like the mapo doufu — a savory crimson gravy of minced pork and silken tofu that doesn’t pull any punches with the mala spice. A whisper of du zhong, or eucommia bark (an herb used in Chinese medicine) adds an element of herbal fragrance, and the fresh silken tofu sings with clean, soy milk like notes. There’s a neatness and balance to the dish that makes it a standout on a menu crowded with fantastic options.
At its heart, Sichuan cuisine features some of East Asia’s best drinking food — particularly for pairing with beer. Wang says Xiang La Hui plans to have a beer and wine license in the next month. There’s a lot to look forward to once the beer arrives, including an excellent rendition of toothpick lamb and what might be the city’s best Chongqing fried chicken. “There are 40 different herbs and spices that go into the Chong Qing fried chicken,” Wang says. “The peppercorns are carried over by hand from China.”
Of the 40, a couple of the ingredients aren’t so secret: Sichuan peppercorn, cumin, fennel, chopped chiles are all there. What’s remarkable, though, is the crunchiness of the chicken’s skin. The airy, schmaltzy, bite-sized chunks of crispy fried chicken marry the spicy, salty, peppery, slightly citrusy seasoning so well, it’s hard to compare it to any other version in the San Gabriel Valley.
“The timing of the frying is extremely important,” Wang says. “If you’re off by even a little bit, it might look the same but it will taste different.”
Toothpick lamb with cumin is another well-worn Sichuan classic, and Xiang La Hui isn’t shy about loading up on fennel, peppers, cumin, and spicy peppers. Fatty little chunks of lamb melt into sinfully rich, gamey morsels, incorporating its fragrant seasoning and accompanying spices. It packs a bigger punch salt-wise than comparable dishes at Szechuan Impression or Chengdu Taste, which only means the beer can’t come soon enough.
The intuition it takes to work this level of Sichuan nuance reveals that Xiang La Hui is not Wang’s first rodeo. He spent ten years running a restaurant in his native Chongqing, China, then came to the States and opened Szechwan Kitchen in Covina, California. After four years, he sold Szechwan Kitchen (which continues to operate to this day) and opened Xiang La Hui in the fall.
The space is a departure from the typical banquet halls and spartan designs of San Gabriel Valley restaurants. Dark, modern and furnished with polished ebony-stained wood tables and red dimpled leather booths, it feels built to please the eyes. But with all of the flairs in presentation between the sizzling pots of kung fu beef and bamboo bridges of toothpick lamb, they all fall short of how amazing the food smells.
Xiang La Hui. 621 W Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801. Open 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, then 5 to 10 p.m. Open without a break in service on weekends.
Thank you to Ping Chen for helping to coordinate and translate for this story.