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?”
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)