Both the Missus and I have a special place in our hearts for Northern style Islamic Chinese. The Missus even worked at the well known, but now closed Tung Lai Shun which was a fixture in Focus Plaza in San Gabriel for a short while. We used to eat at VIP Restaurant a couple of blocks from where we lived in Rowland Heights, several owners ago, when it was still Halal, and before they started serving "Jung Hwa Yori" (Sino-Chinese/Korean Chinese) dishes.
On a recent roadtrip, the Missus and I planned three stops, and decided to start at the very old school China Islamic on Garvey.
I was told a few years back that this place has been around for probably 20 years or so and after entering the fairly dark restaurant, I gotta say, it's starting to look it. The tables have that unique "San Gabriel sticky" feeling to them, which I actually have some fondness for......
Since the Missus doesn't eat beef, pork, or chicken nowadays, this was almost the perfect menu for us. Historically, many of these restaurants served a dual population, those that ate following certain dietary restrictions and the Chinese. So you'd have to look through the menu and bypass the chow mein, beef broccoli, and stuff like that to get to the heart of the cuisine. I'm not sure if China Islamic serves Halal, I didn't see it noted anywhere.
Of course we needed a lamb dish. Instead of the usual lamb with scallions, I went with lamb with sa cha sauce, basically a dried seafood, chili shallot, garlic, and oil sauce, often called "sa-te" sauce, but which has nothing to do with Southeast Asian sate sauce.
In retrospect, I should have ordered the classic lamb with scallions. Though the meat was on the chewy side, we both loved the really gamey flavor. We were indeed eating lamb. The flavor of the sauce was very mild, watered-down, and almost too slimy for us. The presentation brought back memories...."what presentation" you might ask? Exactly....no presentation.....
Next up was the crispy duck.
For some reason, we've had some pretty good fried duck in Islamic Chinese joints and this was no exception. This was the best dish we had during our visit. Though everything was just dumped on a plate, the duck wasn't greasy, the skin was light and crisp. It could have used a bit more in the flavoring department, or at least have some pepper-salt or sauce. As served it was pretty plain.
I actually went ahead and made fried duck sisig with the leftovers....which tasted really good.
One of the reasons we came here was for Suan Cai Yang Rou, preserved vegetable and lamb hot pot. For some reason, this has become one of my "comfort dishes". My Chinese friends find it amusing that I really enjoy this dish, which historically used the fatty parts of the lamb and napa cabbage that had been preserved to last over the winter....in other words, it's "poor people food".
The first thing the Missus lamented was the lack of frozen tofu in the dish......tofu, when frozen then thawed becomes sponge-like and really absorbs all the flavor. But most of all, this wasn't ready for prime time. Everything had just been put together, so the broth had no flavor and the meat was really tough. We ended up taking almost all of this home. We bought some tofu at Hong Kong Market and put it into the freezer when we got home. By the next day, the sour flavors of the suancai had permeated the broth and also helped to tenderize the lamb.
Overall, we felt this was pretty pricey at over $45. We'd heard that service here was on the rude side, but I tend to think that it's more of an "all business attitude". The two guys that served us were efficient and actually quite nice. Still, I don't think we'll be back, I think the suan cai yang rou at Tianjin Bistro is much better.