Go Back
Print this page

2000s Archive

(East) L.A. Story

Originally Published May 2009
When a different kind of valley girl returns to Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley in search of the best Chinese food in America, she finds that there are great new restaurants—and that her old favorites have endured.

Soup dumplings pleated so they expand in the steamer.

Even before I’ve stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, my mom has texted me: “Where do you want to eat?” She’s been asking me this for months, ever since I booked my ticket home to Monterey Park, the “first suburban Chinatown” in America and the gateway to the string of suburban Chinatowns that stretches along the San Gabriel Valley.

Although a mere ten miles east of downtown Los Angeles, Monterey Park was a world apart when I was a kid. Tumbleweeds rolled down our street from the scrub-covered hills above our house; Marie Callendar’s was the best restaurant in town. I remember the city council meetings where my dad argued for his American dream—developing a strip mall complete with dim sum palace, Chinese bakery, and shaved-ice shop—and how the city’s old guard fought it hard. (The restaurant was lovely; it closed soon after it opened. “We were way ahead of our time,” my dad sighs.) But eventually the floodgates opened and hungry immigrants poured in. Now there are an astounding number of Chinese restaurants from Monterey Park to Rowland Heights, another 30 miles east and south past the Orange County border. New restaurants open every day, competing furiously to deliver the most authentic and delicious dishes at the lowest possible price, and the best chefs move from kitchen to kitchen like free-agent athletes. In other words, I don’t know, Mom—I can’t know—where I want to eat until I start eating. Any place will be pretty good, but why settle for that? Here, I can have what is easily the best Chinese food in America.

My first stop is for breakfast at Yi Mei Pastries, a Taiwanese hole-in-the-wall virtually unchanged since it opened 30 years ago. I get steamed pork and cabbage buns; a braised-beef sandwich with pickled greens; flaky scallion pastries; and savory crullers two ways: one for dipping into hot, sweet soy milk; one wrapped like sushi in sweet rice. Everyone I know loves this place, but it’s managed to stay under the radar. Maybe it’s because they didn’t print a menu in English until last year.

Or maybe it’s because most people think dim sum when they think Chinese breakfast. Among the seemingly numberless dim sum options in the San Gabriel Valley, Elite Restaurant is a cut above. It offers all the familiar dishes—barbecued pork buns, sticky rice in lotus leaves, steamed spareribs with black beans and chile—but chef Peter Lai adds novel twists or simply does the standard versions better. Take the fried tofu—the silken center holds just until it hits your tongue before melting and releasing a flood of delicate flavors. Like so many dishes at Elite, those flavors originate in the traditional stocks and sauces that are the very soul of Cantonese haute cuisine. When I ask my parents why they don’t come here all the time, they respond, “It’s so much more expensive than the other places.” The bill for our table of five? Thirty-five dollars.

True, that doesn’t beat the $4.95 lunch special at Monterey Palace, a Cantonese standby renowned for its crisp-skinned suckling pig and soy-sauce chicken. (The restaurant opened as an extension of the owners’ live poultry store, and the soy-sauce chicken is made from birds raised specifically for this dish.) This is also the place to go if you’ve ever wondered what exactly wok hay (the “breath of the wok”) is. That nuanced seared-steamed quality shines through in all the stir-fries, particularly in the clams with black beans and the shrimp with eggplant.

As with almost every other restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, you shouldn’t judge Duck House by its gimmicky name or by the tacky Christmas lights in the windows. I love their nontraditional Peking duck, served with warm crÍpes for wrapping the crackling skin, tender meat, and tangle of julienned cucumbers and scallions. Some undoubtedly junior cook scrapes the excess fat from each amber shard of skin, leaving a thin, level layer that bursts with juiciness without even the slightest hint of grease. The duck’s roasted bones are simmered into an exquisite milky broth. Duck House, indeed.

Our parents and grandparents have come so far from the lean years of World War II and the Cultural Revolution that followed, and they now enjoy meaty feasts on the other side of the world. But even the meatless meals are amply rewarding. Outside Happy Family, a vegetarian restaurant, a sign warns, “Please don’t bring any food containing meat into this establishment.” I then proceed to order smoked bean curd “fish” and soy-braised wheat gluten “goose.” These bear a striking resemblance to the real thing and taste vastly better than they sound. Still, it’s the unabashed vegetable dishes like the stir-fried spinach and the mung-bean noodles with mustard greens and edamame that make me consider converting.

But these places are old favorites, and I want to taste what’s new. So I follow our longtime neighbors to their favorite restaurant, Chuen Hing, a hard-to-find, bare-bones Chiu Chow place. We start with crisp boiled green beans coated in a fried ginger sauce that’s mellow and creamy yet bright, a mystery of heat and spice. I beg the chef for the recipe. Slouched in a tattered flannel shirt, he could easily be mistaken for the dishwasher, but there’s no mistaking the offense he takes at my impudence. “I can’t give you the recipe! It’s my secret!” So I don’t bother to ask about the lacquered pork belly in steamed kabocha squash or the braised-beef-brisket soup noodles or the bitter-melon omelet. I simply savor every bite.

My visit to Chuen Hing reminds me that the enormous and diverse Chinese population here can support restaurants that feature the sometimes obscure regional cuisines of mainland China. One of these is Tianjin Bistro, which specializes in hearty northern dishes: cold noodles dressed with hot yellow mustard, griddled corn cakes, aromatic leek turnovers, cumin-spiced lamb kebabs, and delicious pork dumplings wrapped in airy buns that soak up the filling’s sweet juices.

One of my favorite regional restaurants is Yun Chuan Garden. This unassuming, fluorescent-lit spot features subtle Yunnanese dishes, including slippery rice noodles in a white-pepper broth, a restorative chicken and date soup, and leeks stir-fried with Chinese bacon. But it’s their fiery Hunan and Sichuan items that keep me coming back. Normally, I’m suspicious of a single restaurant serving three geographically distant cuisines, but in the end you just can’t argue with the taste. Any doubts I was entertaining were swiftly dismissed by a busload of tourists from China who descended on the dining room one day while I was there. They ate noisily, happily, fast. A bright-eyed grandmother told me, “Oh, the food here is so good. Maybe even better than in China.”

In the center of the room, a crowd orders from the cold-appetizer cart like happy-hour revelers clamoring for drinks at a bar. The selection is an offal lover’s dream: crunchy pigs’ ears, soy-sauce braised beef tongue, chile-oil tripe, cilantro-flecked chicken gizzards. From the menu, a Hunanese lamb stir-fry combines to great effect tender slices of meat with fresh green and red finger chiles, dried red chiles, and loads of cilantro. And both the Sichuan-style cold noodles and an incendiary stew of pearly white fish fillets, bean sprouts, and pickled Napa cabbage are so deeply satisfying, so brutally honest in flavor, that just thinking about them makes me proud to be Chinese. These dishes retain a nuanced blend of savory, sweet, and sour despite (or maybe because of) their searing, garlicky, gingery heat. Even an ultra-simple egg and tomato stir-fry, the dish every Chinese mom makes, conveys the skill of the kitchen. The dining room, filled with recent arrivals and American-borns like me, pulses with the punch-drunk joy of cravings satisfied.

For authentic Shanghainese, I’d always gone to Lake Spring (with a pit stop at the renowned Din Tai Fung for soup dumplings). This time around, though, I approach Lake Spring with some trepidation. Last year, the restaurant’s new owner—an overbearing Caucasian named Al—had harassed me throughout dinner, overjoyed to have bought the place and eager to share his plans to “modernize it, you know, make it more Asian-fusion.” The longtime waitress glowered at him and assured me that the chef was still the same. This year, Al is gone and the same waitress greets me with a wide smile. And I know the chef is still there because the Shanghai-style spareribs are as crisp and juicy as ever, the eel soup noodles just as rich, the diced fish with pine nuts just as refreshing.

Apparently, I was not the only person to have been annoyed by Al. The regulars had stopped going and he was forced to sell. The chef and waitress had cobbled together enough of their savings to buy—and rescue—the restaurant. What Al didn’t understand was that San Gabriel Valley restaurants thrive not by following the culinary mainstream but by pursuing the art of authentic Chinese cuisine. That said, things do change. Lake Spring has a fresh coat of paint, an inventive shrimp dish with a delicate pea-shoot sauce, and happy new owners who have finally claimed their stake in America.

And the next generation is doing the same, “modernizing” along the way. My sister brings me to Half and Half Tea House, a late-night hot spot that looks like it was decorated by Hello Kitty after an Ikea shopping spree. People come for the boba—juice and tea drinks filled with tapioca pearls. Here, the tapioca is cooked in honey, giving it a deep earthiness that I think pairs particularly well with the green milk tea.

But the loveliest tea shop in the area is The Freshwater Pavilion at the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, in the stately Huntington Gardens and Library. Modeled after the gardens of traditional Chinese scholars, this improbably tranquil corner of L.A. features a Chinese tea shop set on a lake dotted with lotus blossoms. As I meander around, I can’t help being moved by the engraved plaques honoring the donors who had made possible the hand-carved limestone bridges, wooden pavilions, and covered walkways. I recognize these names—Chinese-American philanthropists, some of them probably descended from the poor souls who built the railroads that had made Henry Huntington rich. Standing there among the towering rocks brought over from China’s Lake Tai and the native California oaks, I realize that this garden perfectly captures my America. Here in the San Gabriel Valley, generations of hardworking families have built an unmistakably American community of suburban homes and strip malls while preserving a culinary culture that’s authentically Chinese.

Since arriving in L.A., this is the most I’ve walked, and I’ve worked up an appetite. Now it’s my turn to text my mom. “Where do you want to eat?”

Address Book

Chuen Hing 8450 Garvey Ave., Rosemead (626-288-2206)
Din Tai Fung 1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia (626-574-7068; dintaifungusa.com)
Duck House 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel (626-288-0588; pearlcatering.com)
Elite Restaurant 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park (626-282-9998; elitechineserestaurant.com)
Garden of Flowing Fragrance Tea Shop 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino (626-405-2100; huntington.org)
Half and Half Tea House 120 N. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel (626-309-9387)
Happy Family Restaurant 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park (626-282-8986)
Lake Spring Restaurant 219 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park (626-280-3571)
Monterey Palace 1001 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park (626-571-0888)
Tianjin Bistro 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel (626-288-9966)
Yi Mei Pastries 736 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park (626-284-9306)
Yun Chuan Garden 301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park (626-571-8387)