Southern California's never-ending Chinatown is almost impossible to get to know—in a short period of time, anyway. Or is it?
Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, just east of Downtown Los Angeles, is home to the most impressive collection of Asian restaurants that you will find in one place, anywhere in North America. Obviously, this is a very good thing, on the one hand—whatever you come here looking for, you will probably find it. It will usually be very good to excellent.
There's only one problem—where to begin? Even the people who live here can find the depth and breadth of the scene more than a little overwhelming; time, patience, a car and a willingness to stand around waiting for a table are all essentials on the hunt.
Not that there aren't a few cheats—Food & Wine Senior Editor David Landsel and Los Angeles-based contributor Andy Wang have both spent far too much time eating their way through the San Gabriel Valley; they sat down to talk about their favorite restaurants, their favorite valley hacks, and more.
David Landsel: So, yes, the San Gabriel Valley is what, two hundred miles square. It's an almost impossible place to get to know, in any reasonable amount of time. Consequently, it ends up being one of those destinations where the level of enthusiasm for the place is often far greater than the level of expertise. A lot of times, people seem to end up on the same, well-trodden path. Who can blame them, really—they're in Los Angeles for the weekend, they want to come here and eat twenty xiao long bao in a row, not spend the next twenty years driving.
Andy Wang: Honestly? Yelp helps.
DL: Is Yelp more reliable in the San Gabriel Valley than other places?
AW: Yes. In Los Angeles, Asians take Yelp seriously. Luckily, I have family out there, so we eat at so many different places.
DL: And I was fortunate enough to live in the valley quite recently. We did not cook one meal at home, for obvious reasons, so I have a long list of my own favorites that I never would have really come to appreciate, if I'd just been visiting.
AW: When I take friends who are less familiar, I always start at that mall.
DL: The Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia, of course. It's a really useful spot—right off the 210 Freeway, just a few minutes east of Pasadena. If you won't drive, you could even take the reliable Metro Gold Line train to Sierra Madre Villa or Arcadia and then Lyft Line to the mall for a couple more bucks.
AW: I'm so impressed by that mall—Westfield has these major Chinese and Taiwanese operators on lock, but also has managed to bring in cool, very good, scenester stuff like Side Chick.
DL: I'm thinking about Side Chick's chicken soup, right now. You might say that the mall is the lazy man's San Gabriel Valley.
AW: With Meizhou Dongpo, that crazy place with the guy carving up ducks on the stage at lunch time, hot pot at Hai Di Lao and the new Sichuan Kungfu Fish place, which has a family-style feast called "Ultimate Seafood Boss," I'm about to lose my mind.
DL: And I'm still stuck on Din Tai Fung, which at this point is almost the PSL-level basic bitch of what they call the Dining Deck at Santa Anita, considering the way things have exploded up there. I think Meizhou Dongpo is one of the most Vegas / Macau experiences you can have in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I had an extremely memorable (in a good way) dinner there. I also think it's important to note that there are at least three branches of this palatial spot in Southern California at this point, because that's just where Southern California is at, these days.
AW: Remember the Szechuan dim sum festival they had? I took somebody who was like, wait, this isn't really dim sum. And I'm just like, whatever, I'll have another order of dandan noodles, please. I mean, you could taste Peking Duck without having to order a whole ton of it. That whole event made me so happy.
DL: That was probably one of the best value lunches of all time, didn't they give us a voucher for a huge discount, too? I think the thing that people need to understand about Santa Anita is that while the mall is your typical Southern California shopping center in many respects, when it comes to the food, it is like jumping on a bullet train to Asia
AW: Yeah, I mean, it's not unlike the malls or subway stations in Asia. I went to the mall with Top Chef's Shirley Chung once. She's way more Chinese than I am, and she was beaming.
DL: It's really remarkable, how much good food is in there—even the old food court, way at the other end of the mall, has that good Korean lunch spot; there's a Paris Baguette next to the Cheesecake Factory, too, where you can get like six strawberry tarts for the same price as a slice of cheesecake, probably.
AW: Let's also point out that Side Chick, and sister establishments Matcha Matcha and Monkey Bar, are in their way, pure Los Angeles.
DL: Absolutely. Side Chick would work anywhere in Los Angeles—it's a chicken rice spot that's super into where they get their chicken from. In a way Santa Anita is modern Los Angeles in miniature. Something for everyone. What about beyond the mall?
AW: Well, beyond family banquets and trips to Burritos La Palma in South El Monte, which just so happens to be one of my favorite Mexican places in Los Angeles, when I'm in the San Gabriel Valley, I usually just Google or Yelp things like "best frozen dumplings" and go wherever I'm sent.
DL: A very Los Angeles thing is to have a really good burrito joint, not far from the place where you like to go for dumplings. You make a really good point here—I think the real magic of the San Gabriel Valley and the best thing about its absolutely massive size and population is that once you have a car and a smartphone, you can pretty much get whatever you want, whenever you want it. It's like a casual dating app, but for delicious food.
AW: My family go-to is 888 Seafood for banquets and Friday-night dancing. (We go there because Newport Seafood is too crowded. My toddlers really annoy strangers on that dance floor.) Mama Lu's is where I go for dumplings, and Mian is there for my noodle fix. And obviously, Chengdu Taste and Sichuan Impression and Chengdu Impression are good, but I still think Szechuan food is better in New York because it's been around longer. (Not getting deeper into this fight, though. Not now, not ever.)
DL: As with pastrami, best not to get into that one. Hey, we went to that wild gastropub in San Gabriel that I'll never forget, what was it called?
AW: Chang-An, yes. Upscale Chinese food catering to a younger crowd with its design, layout, menu, etc.
DL: Yeah, that place. Chang-An is a great example of how the SGV is so different from other "Chinatowns" - in North America. Is it a necessary restaurant? I don't know, but it's bold, it's daring and I loved it.
AW: There's also Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village for dinner—I went for dim sum once, too; it's good, a very old-school fancy setting, but it was one of those very Chinese experiences when I had to get into it with the staff because they were supposed to get a birthday cake and they didn't and they had to run and get a birthday cake while children were crying.
DL: That place is messy. So we're in clear agreement on the Santa Anita thing for first-timers; is there one town in the entire valley that you'd say is essential for a new visitor, particularly people with limited understanding of Chinese / Asian food?
AW: I would say just start driving on Valley Boulevard—you can start down in the old Los Angeles Chinatown, just for laughs; Main Street turns into Valley and takes you through some of the city's oldest suburbs. About half an hour later, you end up in the city of San Gabriel, where the fun really starts. Look for lines of people outside and depending on your mood and patience level, eat there or go somewhere less crowded. You'll be fine.
DL: I fell in love with the food in Arcadia, where I lived. Chengdu Impression, which is a branch of a restaurant in actual Chengdu, is my favorite, but for lunch—beautiful food in a beautifully designed room, I love the upstairs. It feels like a fancy museum café. Weekend mornings, right when they open, go to the original Din Tai Fung (there I go again) on Baldwin Avenue, before the crowds get out of bed. You can also go for Hong Kong-style breakfast sets at the Garden Cafe, a chaotic diner where you can get cups of milky English tea you could stand your spoon in, pineapple buns with those big chunks of butter and steak and eggs for a few bucks. I will never be Taiwanese enough to fully understand the menu at Sinbala on Duarte Road, but I've eaten their popcorn chicken (the thing that got me to stop being vegetarian, a whole bunch of years ago) and their beef noodle soup about a hundred times.
DL: Before we stop, one thing I want to point out, as a non-Chinese person, is that I have eaten in countless San Gabriel Valley restaurants since what, 2002; not once have I ever encountered any serious kind of language barrier or felt like I was getting in the way.
AW: Everyone should remember that San Gabriel Valley restaurants are used to white people. Also, they like money. They will bring you food. You are free to point at what other people are eating and ask for that, nobody's going to find that strange.
DL: I like to tell people to just remember that they're still in California. People are pretty nice here, too.