The San Gabriel Valley can seem like a vast foreign land, not often explored because of its east of the 110 Freeway status. And with hundreds of restaurants located on just a couple city blocks, the choices can seem overwhelming.
As someone who grew up on the restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley, I've had the privilege of trying many of them at family gatherings over the years. So when Stephen Kalt, chef at Caulfield's in Beverly Hills, asked me and my Forkin' Amazing co-host Dominic Riley where to get "real Asian food," we knew exactly what to tell him. The SGV, of course.
We compiled an eating tour of SGV highlights, and made a date to hit them all up in a single evening. We had to narrow it down somehow, so we decided dim sum and other breakfast specialties would have to be left to another day entirely.
Coming up with a Top 5 was a hard enough task in itself. Between all the dumpling houses, Hong Kong-style cafes, seafood restaurants and whole-in-the-wall spots that specialize in one dish or another, it was nearly impossible. But Dominic and I decided on five essentials -- the places where you should eat if you want a real taste of the SGV and you've got only one day to do it. At the end of the evening we were sweating and a little heavier than when we started. A definite success.
Hui Tou Xiang
There are literally dozens of places to choose from for dumplings in the SGV. Din Tai Fung in Arcadia is always a favorite for xiao long bao (juicy pork dumplings, also known as soup dumplings) and Mama's Lu Dumpling House, both locations in Monterey Park, also have great dumplings. But for juicy dumplings and a little something different, we went to Hui Tou Xiang. It's a little spot with only a handful of tables in a shopping center off Las Tunas. In addition to the xiao long bao, which of course we ordered and devoured with the traditional shaved ginger and black vinegar, we also ordered the house special dumplings, the hui tou. It's a pork- or beef-filled rectangular dumpling that's been pan-fried on both sides. They're crisp and when you bite into the filling, the pork inside is moist. If you're not careful, and bite too quickly, you may squirt yourself or a friend.
704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 281-9888
Da Qing Hua
This restaurant used to be Michelle's Pancake House, known for its pancake dumplings and green onion pancakes. It recently changed to Da Qing Hua, with an almost identical menu. It's located in the same shopping center as Hui Tou Xiang.
We ordered the green onion and beef pancake dumpling and the beef roll. The dumpling dough is thick and pan-fried and the interior is juicy, similar to a xiao long bao filling. The beef roll is pan-fried pancake dough wrapped around layers of beef, scallions and sweet hoisin sauce. Think an Asian burrito.
The real star of the restaurant, which thankfully remained after it changed owners, is the table sauce. Each table is adorned with a small white container full of soy sauce and garlic. The garlic sits in the soy for hours or sometimes days and ferments and gets sticky. It's pungent, salty, and hard not to eat spoonfuls of with your dumplings. This place also has a great classic, scallion pancake.
For Vietnamese food outside of Orange County's "Little Saigon," Golden Deli is a staple. We had to wait 30 minutes for a table, which was expected as we came about 7 p.m., in the middle of the dinner rush. Once seated, we ordered the banh mi with grilled pork, the chicken curry with bread instead of rice or noodles, and a bowl of vermicelli (bun).
We attacked the sandwich. And when I say attacked, I mean there were crumbs flying everywhere and we fought to dip it into the one small container of fish sauce the waiter brought over. The bread was crisp on the outside but soft and chewy in the middle and it was stuffed with cilantro, jalapenos, pickled carrots and of course pork.
We took the extra baguette they brought with the chicken curry and dunked it into the yellow sauce before sprinkling each bite with a bit of spicy salt. The curry is lighter than a coconut-milk based Thai curry, but what it lacks in thickness it makes up for in rich flavor. We finished by pouring some of the fish sauce onto the bun and mixing together all of the grilled shrimp paste, egg rolls, meat and vegetables.
815 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel (626) 308-0803, goldendelirestaurant.com
We had been eating for four hours, but we knew we couldn't stop without a grand finale, so we drove south to New Lucky. I've been coming to this restaurant since it was called Lucky City a few years back. It's my grandmother's pick for every birthday, New Year's or special occasion with the family.
We knew we had to introduce Stephen to at least three items on the menu: The fried crab, house special lobster, and the salty fish fried rice. Stephen, being the adventurous eater he is, ordered the duck neck with Maggi sauce, but with some difficulty. The waiter attempted to point us in another direction, warning us that "only Chinese people like that." But we pushed until he brought us a plate of the fried duck necks. They were deep fried with mostly cartilage on the bones. You had to work to get to any meat but the Maggi flavor shined and seeped into the slaw of lettuce and sauteed onions, made slick by a generous portion of the rich brown sauce. By the end of the evening, we had discarded the neck bones and were fighting over the salty slaw.
The fried crab and lobster are house specialties. The crab is crisp and buttery, covered in bits of garlic, green onion and chile. The garlic is fried until it tastes like little pieces of sweet candy. The lobster is cooked with green onion and large chunks of ginger.
To top it all off, we ordered the salty fish fried rice. It comes with white rice, shaves of iceberg lettuce for a little crunch and pieces of chicken and salty fish.
415 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 307-7338
JTYH (honorable mention)
The first stop on our tour was supposed to be JTYH, a small restaurant in Rosemead that specializes in Shanxi knife-shaved noodles. But we had the misfortune of showing up on a Tuesday, when they are closed. We wanted to show Stephen the wonders of the thick, chewy noodles in a stick-to-your-gums broth. We also needed the restaurant's lamb ribs. They are piled on a plate, fried, crispy and covered in chile paste and dried red chiles. Sadly we were left merely dreaming about licking the grease from the ribs off of our fingers.
9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 442-8999.
If we had an extra stomach, we could have made our way to a boba tea house, but that will just have to wait for the next outing. Have an essential SGV spot? Share it with us in the comments below.