In this piece, writer Alex Milsom tells of a Sichuan adventure with veteran TTH contributor Nathaniel Rich, who previously interviewed Sichuan John of New York’s own Grand Sichuan with our Ed. Stefan Marolachakis.
“Right now, at this moment, there isn’t a single other place I’d rather be in the entire world,” Nat had said to me when we arrived at the unatmospherically over-lit restaurant we’d driven 26 miles to visit.
As if he was concerned I’d interpret his statement as hyperbole, he added, “Sometimes, I’ll be in another really good restaurant eating good food, and I’ll be thinking about this place and wishing I was here instead. I compare like everything I eat to the food here.”
If Nat’s tone seems oddly romantic, then you’ve appropriately understood the feelings he has about Chung King, a restaurant inconveniently located in Monterey Park, a Chinese neighborhood in the San Gabriel Valley, all the way on the east side of Los Angeles. At times, he speaks about his girlfriend with just as much love, but less insistence, less concern that you won’t take him seriously for it.
This unexpected object of Nat’s love, Chung King, does its best to focus your attention to its food by being bad at everything else. To reduce any possible chance of appreciating their newly-painted green walls, they’ve taped them over with laminated photographs of their food. A large television is the obvious focal point of the room, the waiters don’t really speak any English, the bathroom’s in the kitchen, the soprano-sax light-jazz coming through the speakers competes with the sound of the news, and it’s one of those places where everyone else appears to get their food before you do. But the food is so good that you might start to suspect that any other restaurant’s attention to décor, service, and atmosphere might be a bad thing; a sign that they’re just not as good as Chung King.
When Nat left to go to the corner-store and buy some beer (Chung King is BYOB of course), a young Chinese woman at the table next to me turned and asked if I like spicy food. I told her, “I love it. I can take the heat pretty well for a white girl.” She and her three friends burst out laughing.
The woman who spoke to me was wearing a dress that seemed to have been pulled from the chiffarobe of a young prairie-bride. It had a squared-neckline and overpuffed short-sleeves. Her Urkel-sized glasses and army boots clarified for me that that I was in the presence of Chinese hipster-women; an imposing insider crew that apparently didn’t need to order food—it was brought out to them immediately as they arrived. During their meal, they watched the television as they ate and occasionally laughed at something on someone’s iPhone. They enjoyed the enviable familial silence of old friends who don’t need to string out constant conversation in order to get through a meal.
When Nat returned with a six-pack of Tsing-Tao, I pointed out to him that the waitress was wearing grey sweatpants.
“Yeah. That’s because she knows. It’s about the food,” he said.
We ordered semi-haphazardly and in a panic. Surrounded by so many insiders, somehow our use of the menu at all felt clumsy. There were side menus, special menus, lunch menus, and secret-code Chinese menus tucked under the glass covering the tablecloth. The laminated photos on the wall only added to my sense of panic. All the dishes at other people’s tables looked the same. What had they all ordered? Should we order it too? Faced with the stress imposed by an unfamiliar food-culture and a clusterfuck of options, I deferred to Nat and his comparatively vast Sichuan experience.
The menu included things like “boiled intestine.” Not to be deterred by what might be perceived as gringo-fear, he ordered something that was kidney-based. “It’s probably pig-kidney, not beef,” he explained, as if that would make any difference to me. Cowing to an apparently internalized-standard that dictated we should eat something green, Nat insisted that we order a vegetable other than potatoes. We settled on cabbage in vinegar, even though, as I pointed out, cabbage isn’t all that green. The whole barnyard was ultimately put to the knife for our meal: pork coated in Sichuan chilli-oil, beef cooked in Sichuan chilli-oil, and a tofu-pork combination that floated in Sichuan chilli-oil. Lastly, we ordered noodles based on a laminated photograph taped to the wall next to us. Nat pointed to the picture and said, “that.”
“I’m feeling it. The tingling,” I told Nat after I took my first bite of the noodles. But he wasn’t paying attention and I needed him to. He needed to know what I was going through. “It’s not normal,” I added.
“That’s the Sichuan pepper. It makes your tongue numb,” he explained as if I was new to the genre. He didn’t understand. The tingling wasn’t turning into numbness, like usual. It pulsed with my heartbeat; it was tenderness, the gustatory equivalent of sparkling lights, ocean waves of delight, a seizing and insistent vibration of increasing pleasure. My tongue was having an orgasm. A female orgasm: sustained, pulsing, and rare. Was this why the Chinese women had spoken to me when Nat left briefly? Do they know about this?
“I’m having a tongue-orgasm right now. Literally.” This made Nat finally look up.
“What, you mean you’re really having an orgasm right now? In your vagina?”
“No, on my tongue. I don’t know what is happening to me. But it’s the exact same feeling as an orgasm.” A female orgasm. He probably wouldn’t understand. I sat there and stared down at the plate of noodles covered with an oily reddish glaze. “What is happening to me?”
“You’re really flushed,” Nat observed with delight. “Your neck and chest are red.”
He picked up the plate of noodles, inspecting it closely as if for an answer. “Look,” he said, pointing to the edge of the plate, “see those white little crystals? Like salt? That’s MSG. Straight-up MSG.”
“I don’t care. I am having a tongue orgasm.”
I sat silently as it peaked and then abated, the numbness finally settling in. The orgasm on my tongue had lasted a full minute and I was feeling what I usually feel for the rare being—or in this case, the mouthful of noodles—that can bring me to climax like that: love.
Usually in relationships, when you attain the level of affection that I was now feeling for this cold plate of Sichuan noodles, your partner no longer has to maintain the relationship’s initial decorum to be sure of your love: he might stop cleaning his apartment before you come over, he might not avoid garlic on a date, and he might forget to lower the toilet seat. Your love is a sure thing. He might even wear his sweatpants during dinner.
“You know MSG isn’t bad for you,” Nat reassured me, bringing me out of my post-coital trance. “It’s just something that makes food taste good. A chemical.”
“I love MSG,” I replied.
Though I couldn’t replicate the initial sensation I had with my first bite of the noodles, I spent the rest of the meal in a feeding-frenzy. A bite from one bowl, then another, then another in quick succession. Nat and I had dispensed with the formality of transferring the food from the serving dishes to our plates. I realized that I was speaking really quickly about boring things like school and work and that Nat wasn’t listening.
“I feel really high,” he said.
“I have no idea what I’m talking about,” I responded.
“I wasn’t listening.”
We were lapsing into the familial ease shared by the Chinese women at the table next to us. We no longer needed words; in fact, we could no longer really talk at all due to the consuming-buzz that had fogged up our heads. Chung King had transformed us into a part of its family; the drone of the television was a welcome relief to our over-stimulated senses. Our waiter’s language-barrier-induced silence was no longer an obstacle when he came to check on us.
At the end of our meal, when we’d stopped being physically able to eat, Nat began apologizing to the bowl of kidney and the bowl of beef that we’d left unfinished. As before, his tone was very serious and insistent. “I’m sorry I can’t eat you,” he said to the food. “I really love you.” Does he speak with that sort of sincerity to his girlfriend? I hope so. His concern with being understood was so genuine. Everyone should have the experience in life of being spoken to with such tenderness and love.
The remaining food didn’t go to waste; Nat’s love for the food was not a jealous love and he happily saved the leftovers for a friend. Sichuan food is not like a girlfriend in that way: it can, and should, be shared.