There are those us who spend noons and nights wandering the streets and back alleys of the San Gabriel Valley, in search of the latest region of China to appear in a storefront eatery. But sometimes, after an hour or more seeking out the quirky cooking of Shanxi, Qinghai or Fujian, it’s satisfying to turn to the grand and massive shopping center known as the San Gabriel Square (aka the Great Mall of China). It’s a compendium of regional cuisines with good parking, built around a 99 Ranch Market where there’s always something that we need.

 

Spicy City restaurant located in 140 West Valley Boulevar, #208 in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)
Spicy City restaurant located in 140 West Valley Boulevar, #208 in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)

And so, it was to San Gabriel Square I went, after an evening spent wondering just how many foot massage shops can possible open along Valley Boulevard and whether there ever wasn’t a wait to get into the Boiling Crab. I was with a posse of dudes hungry for some spicy and what says spice better than a restaurant called Spicy City?

Spicy City sits on the Square’s dining mezzanine, surrounded by restaurants that specialize in hot spots, dumplings, vegetarian cooking, Korean barbecue and, in this case, the cooking of the north of China, of Szechuan and Hunan and Yunnan and Chungking and Chongqing. The hot dishes — which is to say, most of the 161 item menu — are marked not just with small pepper icons — but with single icons, double icons and triple icons. A word of warning: Please be aware of the spiciness for the spicy food.

 

Though as manly sorts, the temptation is to order a tableful of triple icon dishes, cooler heads insisted that a mixture made more sense. Cooler heads were, as ever, right. So, we began slowly, with a nicely made order of onion pancakes and a plate of crispy rice crust with mixed mushrooms (kind of Persian tahdig, but in a Chinese restaurant). Then, we got hot.

There were cold noodles Yunnan style, which means with a dark soy, black vinegar, brown sugar and Szechuan peppercorn sauce — snappy, but not palate flaming. We upped the ante with Chungking style chicken in a hot pot, a dish that was part chicken and a big part peppers. The fried chicken cubes with hot peppers went even further. The Szechuan-style spicy shrimp began to push the edge of the envelope. I told my diners that we were going to Fosselman’s for ice cream after, but they had an even stranger idea. They wanted dumplings.

 

They specifically wanted dumplings next door at Wang Xing Ji. It’s the American branch of a noodle house in the Chinese city of Wuxi, not far from Shanghai, that dates back to 1913.

Juicy Pork and Crab Bun inside Steamed Bun. Wang Xing Ji restaurant located at 140 West Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt
Juicy Pork and Crab Bun inside Steamed Bun. Wang Xing Ji restaurant located at 140 West Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)

At the top of a paper menu, it also says, “Juicy Dumpling” and juicy dumplings were what the guys were all about.

These are the fabled soup dumplings, dough pockets filled with a jellied soup that turns into a scalding hot broth when the dumplings are steamed. Pop one in your mouth, bite down and the broth floods your palate. It can be a searing experience, which is probably why the larger Juicy Pork & Crab Buns come with a straw sticking out of them. Seriously, there’s a plastic straw that makes the dish look a bit like a baked beverage.

 

Steamed Bun that contains Juicy Pork and Crab at Wang Xing Ji restaurant located at 140 West Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by
Steamed Bun that contains Juicy Pork and Crab at Wang Xing Ji restaurant located at 140 West Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)

You sip the liquid cautiously, until it’s safe enough to tear into the bun. It’s a messy bit of dining, for the bun quickly turns too soft to be lifted out of the steamer in which it arrives. So, you’ve got to scoop it out with a spoon, bit by bit, trying to figure out which bite is pork and which bite is crab.

The smaller dumplings mostly come in groups of nine — pork and crab, fish, pork and shrimp, pork alone, chicken alone, red bean paste, vegetables large and vegetables small, steamed pork with cabbage. If you’re in a bit of a feeding frenzy, the dumplings can taste a bit the same — mostly, it’s hot broth with a salty protein that’s been ground. (You can see the dumplings being made behind a glass walled kitchen on one side of the dining room.)

Spicy City restaurant located in 140 West Valley Boulevard, #208 in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)
Spicy City restaurant located in 140 West Valley Boulevard, #208 in San Gabriel Monday, August 11, 2014. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)

 

The dumplings go well with a order of cold cucumber slices with garlic (lots of raw garlic), some pretty heavy cold noodles with sesame and an order of whole baked salt and pepper shrimp served on crispy rice cakes. The rice cakes were, surprisingly, some of the best of the breed in the San Gabriel Valley.

There’s an unexpected hot & sour soup as well — perhaps a cliché, but a very tasty one. And then, we went to Fosselman’s, where the darkest of the chocolates was a balm for my tongue — burnt first with peppers and then with broth. Amateurs, beware!

 

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at mreats@aol.com.