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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Ethnic Foods of the San Gabriel Valley: The 800 Pound Gorilla


Cuisines covered in previous posts: Mexican, Cajun, NepaleseLebanese, Thai, BasqueArgentinian, Cuban, VietnameseEnglish, Belgian, Spanish, JewishGreek, Greek Diner, Hawaiian, SalvadoranIranian, Armenian, AfghaniIndonesian, Korean, Cambodian, American, California Cuisine, Soul FoodJapanese, Filipino, BarbecueFrench, Italian, Polish, HungarianPizzaMongolian Barcbecue, Pakistani, Indian, Peruvian, Malaysian, Burmese

We've covered 40 different ethnic cuisines, depending on how you slice it. The San Gabriel Valley has proven itself an food diversity powerhouse will all these different cuisines...

...yet we've been holding off on one til the very end.



While most visitors rarely venture east of downtown, and only to Pasadena on New Year's Day...if that...the valley is world renown for one type of cuisine. Yes, it's finally time to talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

You would be hard-pressed to find a larger population of Chinese people anywhere in the world outside of the San Gabriel Valley unless you're talking about China or Taiwan. It stands to reason that the biggest slice of the ethnic food pie in the SGV is covered by the various varieties of Chinese Food.

While most of America has Chinese restaurants in their towns, it's mostly of the Americanized "with six you get eggroll" kind of food. We have a few of those here, notably Wang's Palace in Monrovia which is a very nice representation of that old-school type of restaurant, but it's quickly being supplanted by something more original, authentic, daring, and...most of all...very tasty.

Not to knock the sweet 'n sour pork and chop suey of the older establishments but they just don't compare with what we can get now.


The variety is staggering. You have your Hong Kong style coffee shops; Taiwanese dumpling houses; the steamy Szechuan dinner houses...even Islamic Halal Chinese food and vegetarian places. Starting in Monterey Park through Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead...reaching up into Arcadia with tendrils running along the Puente Hills to Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar, there are hundreds of places to get great (and not so great) Chinese food.

As much as we've tried, we still have a long, long way to go before we get to it all.

A good place to start is the famous Taiwan dumpling chain, Din Tai Fung. The location on Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia is America's first outpost of this Taipei-based chain.  With an extensive menu that is mostly ignored for the star of the show. You come here to get Xao Long Bao...steamed pork soup dumplings.


Very delicate, hot, juicy and tasty. Just how they get all that pork and broth goodness into those soft balls of thin dough is a mystery. Eating them is not.  I like to mix a little rice vinegar in a bowl with a good dose of chili oil...both of which sit on each table.  Poke a hole in the shell of the dumpling, put it into my mixture, roll it around for a few minutes so that the surface and the interior are throughouly mixed with the vinegar and oil.

Pop it into my mouth, whole, for an explosion of juicy, spicy, and incredible flavor.  A serving of 10 dumplings...just enough for me...is around eight dollars.  Come early to avoid the crowd.

Arcadia is also the home of Andy Cherng, who opened a small chain called Panda Inn starting in Pasadena.  You might know of the take out version of the Panda Inn he also started that now has nation-wide outlets bringing their signature orange chicken to the masses, Panda Express.

For a more traditional feast, we'll head to the Golden Dragon...also in Arcadia...to get their incredible, crunchy Mandarin orange beef. It's flash cooked in a wok full of hot chilis and orange peels.  It is similar to orange chicken but much crunchier and with a deeper, savory taste.


One of our best Chinese delights is hot and sour soup.  This tasty broth with both a sour vinegar component mixed with hot chili is what we crave when we have a cold or sore throat. Nothing gets our sinuses clearer or soothes our throats faster. While many passable to very good renditions exist in the valley, it's the fiery broth of Happy Noodle in El Monte that fits the bill for us.

Some of the best Chinese cuisine exists with ingredients your mom told you to avoid. Intestines, feet, rotten eggs, stinky tofu...all can be great in the hands of a good cook.

These are the kinds of foods we make the trek over to Rowland Heights to eat at Remy's Noodle Palace, next to the Home Depot just south of the 60 freeway.


While I've tried a lot of those offal offerings, the best is the gelatinous bits of cow tendon floating in hot broth with soft noodles. Similar to the taste of ossu buco marrow, you will not think there's enough in the giant bowl they serve you.

My wife and I also like to get the half-foot long pot stickers they serve here on the side. Like most really good versions you have had only much, much bigger.

So there you have it. A celebration of diversity with over forty different ethnic cuisines in one, small valley. Next time you're in Southern California, you owe it to yourself to jump just a bit east of downtown L.A. (take the Gold Line if you don't want to drive) and try one of these deliciously different foods.

Chow!



Darryl
Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
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