From the get-go, the bilingual neon signage ("SIT DOWEN [sic] AND ENJOY YOURSELF") and the giant hollow-mouthed Pikachu at the front door will tell you everything you need to know about Tang Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant whose late hours make it an outlier in a part of town where most places close up shop by nine. Open until 1am, the third-floor Hunanese specialist in San Gabriel assaults the senses in a multi-sensory overload so complete, it reminds me of walking through one of Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms. Given that people around the world enjoy looking at the millions of dots inspired by the artist’s childhood hallucination, this type of overstimulation isn’t exactly terrible, but the excessive spices, salt and oil used in the fare annihilate any chance of leaving Tang Dynasty satisified without a heavy dose of alcohol or a pre-existing appreciation for Hunan cuisine.
Among regional Chinese cooking traditions, Hunan cuisine is known for its heavy-handed use of chilies and other aromatics, as well as harder-to-love regional dishes like pearly meatballs ("sticky rice w meatballs" on the menu) and Changha-style stinky tofu, both of which you’ll find at Tang Dynasty, though the restaurant generally touts the lavish seafood platters and excellent Xinjiang-style skewers. Unlike Sichuan cuisine, which uses Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies to induce mala—a spicy, numbing flavor combination—Hunan cuisine integrates fresh chilies, resulting in an explosive amount of capsaicin that’s difficult—for some people, anyway—to withstand. Over the two times I dined at Tang Dynasty, attempting to hack away at its large menu spanning both Hunan and non-Hunan Chinese dishes, I found myself guzzling water in between each bite, and not just because of the spice. Though a few dishes like the stir-fried frog legs and the steamed fish with preserved chili managed to break through the overwhelming haze of heat, the fact that even milder dishes were still extremely salty offered little reprieve for my singed taste buds.
This heavy emphasis on salt and spice makes perfect sense in light of Tang Dynasty’s other major draw: colorful, fruity soju-based drinks ordered in sets of 24 mini-shots, plus beer, soju and sake. For a group outing where the food is only half the equation, the restaurant offers a captivating, only-in-L.A. dining and drinking experience in an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of a nightclub in Asia, minus some of the sweat and all the shared body heat. Even so, the various skewers—especially the so-called “secret” pork, beef and lamb—make for better drinking food than the more eye-catching platters of shrimp, crawfish, scallops and crab. The deep-frying process on the signature Dungeness crab, for example, caused the meat to stick to the shell and rendered the tender flesh harder to remove than normal. The crawfish, served in an enormous bucket, came out fairly tough, and the scallops delicately served in their shells with rice vermicelli ran on the saltier side.
Though I'm not averse to cracking open shellfish with gloved hands, the inconsistent quality of Tang Dynasty’s seafood dishes, especially once you factor in price, hardly justify the messy effort involved. Even the delicious stir-fried frog legs are a pain to consume, and require swishing each tiny piece in your mouth, then spitting out the bones. Between all the intricate maneuvering inherent to certain dishes and the abundance of salt and spice, I walked away from Tang Dynasty each time bombarded by flavor and yet oddly dissatisfied. Among the hundreds of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, this Hunanese restaurant isn’t worth going out of the way for, unless you're in search of a quirky late-night drinking spot—in which case, by all means: Sit down and enjoy yourself.
The vibe: An EDM nightclub fever dream restaurant situated on the third floor of a suburban shopping plaza. Need we say more?
The food: A mix of Hunan and non-Hunan Chinese dishes, including seafood, skewers and excellent stir-fried frog legs and steamed fish with preserved chili. If you like spice, this is the place for you.
The drink: The colorful assortment of fruity soju mini-shots are half the appeal here, though you’ll also find non-alcoholic drinks and regular beer, sake and soju.
Time Out tip: Order the steamed fish with preserved chili—it’s one of the best dishes on the menu.