L.A.’s great Chinese food is located in the San Gabriel valley, a suburban area about 20 minutes east of downtown which is home to more than 300,000 Chinese immigrants.
Ji Rong. When trolling the myriad delights of Chinese cuisine in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, it is all too easy to be seduced by the bold, spicy flavors of the popular Sichuan and Hunan restaurants—partly because we Americans are somewhat desensitized by decades of extravagantly flavored snack foods, a phenomenon I call the ‘Dorito effect’. Yet it would be a mistake for any Chinese food lover to overlook the subtler pleasures of a restaurant like Ji Rong, where Beijing-style cuisine is consistently prepared to a level of such exceptionally high quality that the place is packed every day, at both lunch and dinner. A dish that shows up on almost every table is the outstanding stir-fried eggplant with basil (J11)—lightly crisp-coated, perfectly cooked eggplant chunks in an addictive sauce spiked with Asian basil leaves.
Everyone also orders a side of at least one of the northern-style pancakes, either the house special (K1) or the onion pancakes (K10)—but the best one is the green chive turnover (K13), in which a very thin and light dough is generously stuffed with aromatic, antioxidant-rich Chinese chives and just enough glass noodle to holdthings together. I feel obliged to point out that half of one of these turnovers, warmed in the microwave the next morning, and slotted open to receive a quick-fried egg, is about the best breakfast on earth. But for me, the single happiest discovery at Ji Rong is the fact that they serve a delicious and completely authentic jing jiang rou si—shredded pork in Beijing style sauce (F2). That’s a prosaic name for a dish that is actually a marvelous interplay of flavors, textures, and temperatures, and also rarely found in its authentic form outside Beijing. Lean, tender pieces of pork are served piping hot in a piquant brown sauce, next to a mound of ice-cold, crisp, slivered green onions. On the side is a short stack of paper-thin dry tofu sheets, used to make a hand roll of the hot pork and cold scallions… so good. All this, and paleo too. Ji Rong, 8450 E. Valley Blvd. #115, Rosemead CA 91770. 626-280-8600. 11 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. daily. Arrive slightly early for lunch or dinner if you want to avoid waiting.
Chang’s Garden. For professionalism, staying power, and consistently excellent food in every place he has either owned or cooked for, few can touch Henry Chang. First the chef of San Gabriel’s esteemed Islamic restaurant Dong Lai Shun, later the chef/owner of the much lauded Juon Yuan, he now runs Chang’s Garden, which focuses on the subtle and literature-based cuisine of Hangzhou. In fact, while the English name of the place is Chang’s Garden, nobody calls it that in Chinese. In Chinese it’s Lou Wai Lou, the name of one of the most famous and venerable of Hangzhou restaurants. Great dishes: turnip and tilapia soup, Madam Sung’s fish chowder, sliced gluten, pork spare ribs in lotus leaf, fish dumplings (shui yu shui jiao), ice fish with soy bean sauce, the beef roll (five-spice beef in Chinese pancake), snow cabbage with bean sheets, fish filet in special rice wine sauce, fried fish in seaweed batter (tai tiao huang yu), and eight treasure rice pudding (ba bao fan). Chang’s Garden, 627 W Duarte Rd., Arcadia, CA 91007, 626-445-0707. English menu; little English spoken. Mealtimes are jammed. Arrive early or late for dinner or lunch – or wait.
JTYH. You gotta love a restaurant with an owner from Lanzhou, a chef from Tianjin, line cooks from Sichuan, and a name which appears to be borrowed from the grocery market next door. Noodle lovers take note: this unlikely team produces the best knife-cut, hand-swung noodles in the 626 area code (dense, rustic, and chewy).
The pinnacle of hand-swung pasta preparation in the owner’s Silk Road town of Lanzhou is a beef noodle soup, richly flavored with anise and cilantro, and JTYH does a fine version, if possibly in need of a little chile oil. But the most popular dish here is the ‘mooshu’ cat ears, the ear in question having nothing to do with mu shu and being a hand-formed orechiette-ish pasta made of the house hand-swung dough. Lamb and seafood fried noodle dishes are popular, as is the pan cake with beef (it’s a wrap), and the cumin-speckled lamb ribs, which are bony but plentiful, and are inexplicably called ‘spicy lamb steak’ on the menu. Everyone loves the cucumber-and-garlic salad on the cold table, and the beef dumplings with caraway are an interesting creation. But the really sweet deal in this place is the fact that they sell a variety of their handmade dumplings in frozen form, and at $15 for 50 dumplings, you really can’t afford not to take a few home. I have both their fish with leek and their mustard green dumplings in my freezer right now. JTYH, 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, CA 91770. 626-442-8999. Between Rosemead and Temple City Blvd. 11 A.M. – 9:30 P.M.
Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village. This ambitious Shanghainese restaurant got Chinese food lovers talking when it first opened, and the chefs have been able to back up the hype with consistently good food ever since, winning a steady clientele. Among the vegetable dishes, quick fried wild mushroom in X0 sauce and steamed eggplant with chopped chile are excellent, and the Shanghai specialty ‘Special Pickled Fresh Cucumber’ is a perfectly balanced cold veggie plate. The ‘Old Shanghai Baked Spare Ribs’ are too sugary even for my sweet-toothed Shanghainese friend, while the beef short ribs in black pepper are savory, tender, and infinitely worth ordering. But why keep score on the entree dishes? All you really need to know about Shanghai No. 1 is that they make sheng jian bao. Finally someone has brought this fragrant, gingery pork bun with the sesame-crisped bottom, staple of Shanghai’s street food vendors, to Los Angeles. Shanghai No. 1’s sheng jian bao may not be quite as celestial as those turned out by Yang’s Fry Dumpling and Bao Luo in Shanghai–but they’re quite good, they’re on almost every table, and they make this restaurant a slam-dunk stop whenever you happen to pass the Del Mar exit on the 10 Freeway. Sheng jian bao are called ‘Pan Fried Shanghai Style Bun’, and are #37 on the paper dim sum menu. Shanghai No. 1 Seafood, 250 W Valley Blvd., Suite M, San Gabriel, CA 91776. 626-282-1777. English menu, English spoken.