Friday, August 5th | Hi Family | 944 W. Foothill Blvd, Claremont
Everything we know about Sichuan food we learned from two people—you know who they are, we don’t need to name them here. The traits that were shared by these two people are traits we consider aspirational, complex, and deeply human: critical yet patient; firmly in the corner of the underdog—especially the underdog doing much with little; not only highlighting the too-often overlooked but actively seeking it out so that it might be seen by more; being especially exacting and firm with anything corporate or institutional; humor, lightness, self-deprecation. Curiosity. Liveliness. Specificity to detail. A touch, or much more, of flair. Filled with delight and wonder and awe. And behind all that, maybe a little weariness. Even, sorrow.
Because—this is the world we live in, after all.
The first time we ate at an LA Sichuan restaurant was nearly ten years ago, in a car-teeming mall-complex in the San Gabriel Valley, just north of I-10. We don’t remember the name, but we do remember that the recommendation came from this food writer we were only just discovering; we’d recently heard him on NPR singing the praises of a donut shop on Route 66. We drove and we drove and when we finally found the restaurant – one of many in the complex, which again, was our first at such a venue – we ordered off his recommendations: some sort of little bites of lamb dusted in cumin, pork dumplings in hot oil, some other things we don’t recall. Going into that meal, we were like a lot of people: our Chinese culinary knowledge was simple, familiar with many chickens – kung pao, orange, General Tsao – and chow mein, with fried rice and hot and sour soup, with oolong tea and fortune cookies (factoid alert: fortune cookies were invented in Los Angeles, the fortunes originally used as advertising for the company).
The point is: being not at all prepared for that first meal, we were quickly overwhelmed. Astounded by the heat, the intense flavors, the everything: the piles and piles of dried red chilis, the odd numb sensation that came from who knew what, the hidden floral qualities in the sauces, that deep dirt earthiness of the lamb, and the slippery spice of those dumplings. We were overwhelmed by it all: not just the food but by the drive, by the parking, certainly the Saturday traffic on the way home (which allowed us, creeping slowly for an hour, to relive the meal’s strange wonders).
When we saw TV episodes with the other guy wandering China, slurping noodles and sweating profusely, slurping more, sweating more, we felt that we could, simply by eating at similar restaurants in the landscape of Los Angeles, be in communion somehow not only with the critic and with the chef/personality but also with their characteristics, with the way they were. So more meals, expanding out and returning to Sichuan cuisine. Malan in Hacienda Heights; our first hand-tossed noodles. The hockey puck-sized pies of Beijing Pie House (just: read his review); the burritos at Hui Tou Xiang; the dan dan noodles at Zui Zhang Yuan; the shredded pork noodles at Tasty Noodle House; and on and on. It was years until we first read about (and finally ate at, one Valentine’s Day) Chengdu Taste; driving home after a meal of green pepper fish, toothpick lamb, mapo tofu, and glug after glug after glug of salty plum juice, with our mouths and minds numb-tingling with peppercorns we didn’t realized we’d ever eaten before, we wondered if we were inebriated, if the food itself had made us too drunk to drive.
And that was always there, too: the drive. The traffic. The drivers in the area, often indifferent to general rules (an indifference true to most drivers – as us – in their own neighborhood). The traffic to and fro these great restaurants was a good thing, even though we (I) muttered about it. There’s something to built expectation (and even the maddening frustration) of delay en route to a new restaurant. And of course there’s something just as important to the quiet after, the drive home: if you eat down the street, you’re home five minutes after you’ve paid the bill, quickly falling into the day-to-day, the familiar too quickly subsuming the unfamiliar. But when a meal is in the far or middle distance: you have that quiet evening drive home, the sun fading, the sky darkening, and all the food on your mind to replay again and again.
Last Friday, we finally ate at Hi Family in Claremont, on Foothill between Towne and Mountain. We hadn’t been since its opening for a few reasons, the greatest being a deep suspicion that authentically great Sichuan food can’t exist in Claremont; it’s far too unlikely for the city of trees, PhDs, and Union on Yale.
As we too often do, we (I) come to you hat in hand. We were wrong.
We are half-sad to say goodbye, at least from time to time, to that wonderful phenomenon of pre- and post-meal traffic. Au revoir to you, long drives. We’ll probably have to change things up – perhaps take a long walk after our next meal at Hi Family, which will be quite soon (for this write-up we’ve decided to share nothing of the food we ate: go forth and order something daring: it will be good). Next time we’re at Hi Family, we’ll eat and we’ll eat, and then we’ll sit in silence, somewhere nearby, possibly beneath some big trees, letting the now familiar Sichuan flavors linger on our palates. Maybe we’ll feel a tiny bit less adventurous than we used to feel … but still, we’ll be in close communion with those most human traits we’re always seeking to find.