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A Tongue-Tingling Tour Of Spicy Chinese Food In California

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Heat-seeking food lovers will find a wealth of tongue-tingling dishes in Los Angeles County's San Gabriel, a suburban city located east of downtown LA.

The city is just one of several Chinese enclaves in the San Gabriel Valley, an area that has over 600 Chinese restaurants that boast regional cuisine from chile-loving Chinese provinces like Sichuan, Wuhan and Yunnan.

Chinese food expert and writer Clarissa Wei took me on a walking restaurant tour of the San Gabriel Valley's spiciest Chinese restaurants. Check out her top picks for a mouth-numbing, eye-watering, absolutely delicious meal that will leave you stuffed, sweaty and begging for more.

Below, I've ranked the dishes from mildest to wildfire. You've been warned.

  • Dan Dan Noodles
    Anna Almendrala

    Lucky Noodle King
    534 E. Valley Blvd.
    Ste. 10
    San Gabriel, CA 91776

    Description: Every restaurant has their own variation on this dish, but Lucky Noodle King's Dan Dan Noodles are the best in the San Gabriel Valley, says Wei. Here, they're wheat noodles topped with ground pork, chili and peanuts. One bowl is usually a single serving. Dan dan noodles are a specialty of Sichuan province.

    Spice Level: Mild. Instead of an outright "spicy" feeling, your mouth will just feel pleasantly warm. Spice noobs will probably beg to differ, though.

  • Spicy Sole Filet
    Anna Almendrala

    Hunan Chilli King (Yelp)
    534 E Valley Blvd
    Unit 2 & 3
    San Gabriel, CA 91776

    Description: Pieces of sole are fried and then tossed with fresh multi-colored chilies and other vegetables.

    Spice Level: The sides of your tongue will tingle and your upper lip will bead up with sweat. Only white rice can help cool you down.

  • Mapo Tofu
    Anna Almendrala

    Hunan Chilli King (Yelp)
    534 E Valley Blvd
    Unit 2 & 3
    San Gabriel, CA 91776

    Description: Soft cubes of tofu are enveloped in a red chili sauce.

    Spice Level: Even at the "medium spicy' level, this dish will make your eyes water and your nose start to run.

  • Beef Dry Pot
    Anna Almendrala

    Tasty Dining (Yelp)
    301 W. Valley Blvd.
    Ste. 101
    San Gabriel, CA 91776

    Description: Think about this dish as a hot pot without the soup. Start off with your base protein (in our case, beef) and keep adding ingredients. We had tofu, bean curd sheets, mushrooms, fish balls and cellophane noodles in our one. It comes to your table with its own burner, to keep everything nice and toasty. This dish comes from the Wuhan province in Northern China.

    Spice Level: The dried chillies caused intense tingling on my lips and the tip of my tongue, a strange and uncomfortable sensation. Biting into pieces of tofu only made things worse; the tofu was basically a sponge that had soaked up all the spicy sauce.

  • Hot Pepper Chicken
    Anna Almendrala

    Spicy City (Yelp)
    140 W. Valley Blvd.
    Ste. 208
    San Gabriel, CA 91776

    Description: Pieces of fried chicken pieces are mixed with dried red chillies and Szechuan peppercorns. These are like fried popcorn chicken pieces for people who like to make everything burn. Wei described this restaurant as a Yunnan/Sichuan hybrid.

    Spice Level: This dish is 50 percent dried chillies, which means that even just nibbling the chicken pieces only (which is how you're supposed to eat the food), results in a pleasant, intense warmth. If you dare to bite into a chili (like I did), the back of your throat will feel like it's on fire. Your forehead will start to sweat. Your eyes will water, and your hand will be shaking as you bring tea to your lips in a futile attempt to ease the pain.

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