It's not easy being green in the frenetic, food-obsessed San Gabriel neighborhood where Green Zone put down roots almost four years ago. At first, the modest restaurant's organic offerings generated little enthusiasm from those who preferred to prowl the area's malls and boulevards lusting after obscure regional Chinese dumpling varieties or caustically spiced Hunan stir-fries.
"People would stand outside and argue about whether to come in and try us," remembers co-owner and Green Zone creator Jilian Cam.
Today things are very different for the restaurant. You're lucky if you can snag a seat without a lengthy wait at peak mealtime hours. There are plans to open an organic produce shop, possibly next door, to replace the tiny table from which organic farmers' market fruits and vegetables are sold on Thursdays. And Cam is excited about introducing a little-known, mineral-rich noodle variety made from molokhia (also: moloukiya) leaves instead of pure flour. She's sure the noodles, which are custom-made for Green Zone, will win more advocates for her cooking.
In its early days, Green Zone subsisted on word of mouth from Cam's like-minded friends, who trumpeted it's palate-mesmerizing offerings, such as the wild salmon on greens tossed with dried berries and a shimmery gloss of whisper-thin balsamic dressing.
Word also spread about the juices fresh from the press that dazzle with their intensity. Served sans added sugar, they taste like ripe fruit in a glass.
Talk surfaced that Green Zone's take on the ultra-popular, Hainan-style chicken-and-rice dish rivaled the reigning specialists. The velvety meat came on risotto-like lemon grass-flecked rice whose tender grains, saturated with double-rich broth, seem almost as plump as peanuts (it's still one of the most popular items in the house).
Green Zone's menu may confound traditionalists with its culturally meandering collection of homey Vietnamese-Chinese favorites borrowed from Cam's dual heritage, plus the Italianate and Japanese-style dishes she grew to love living in California. The list is as personal as Cam's vision for Green Zone, unlike the focus group-tested organic franchise menus popping up in select neighborhoods.
Cam's organic journey, spurred by the birth of a disabled child, inspired her insistence on serving foods she deemed to be as pure as possible. But the leap from home cooking to turning out restaurant-quality food that matched her ambitions involved a steep learning curve for the single mother and former marketing director.
She tried working with skilled Chinese-trained chefs who often insisted on their own set ways. Eventually her partner and co-owner, Tony Tong, was able to take over the kitchen along with sous chef Lupe Medina, a local culinary school graduate. Now they're pleased to be in control of everything coming through the kitchen doors.
Green Zone's perfectionist bent is evident as soon as you taste the prawn tofu wraps. Cam wouldn't dream of using a commercially made shrimp-paste filling. Instead, the kitchen chops and seasons large, fresh shrimp, so when you crunch through the brittle fried tofu sheet exterior you get a burst of briny shrimp flavor. The tart-fruity tamarind dipping sauce adds sparkly grace notes.
Refined housemade dipping sauces — rather than the usual drippy bottles of vinegar and soy — are each tailored to a specific dish. Case in point: fresh yuzu juice-laced ponzu sauce to moisten pan-fried chive gyoza or crisp-edged grilled tofu with a dip of ponzu-miso dressing.
Meat isn't forgotten. Beef and organic veggie sukiyaki is pleasant enough. But most votes go to the cauldron of satay beef served with wild rice and diminutive nappa cabbage hearts. Sliced bulgogi-thin, its sauce, an intricate mesh of spices, glows with a subtle backbeat of chile.
Green Zone's noodle broths soothe with complex layered tastes. The earthiness of buckwheat soba noodles marries with a dark vegetable broth that seems a distillation of pure mushroom essence. Like Green Zone itself, it adds another dimension to San Gabriel Valley eating.
GREEN ZONE RESTAURANT
LOCATION: 534 E. Valley Blvd., No. 5, San Gabriel (in Valley Plaza); (626) 288-9300. http://www.greenzonerestaurant.com.
PRICES: Appetizers, $5.95 to $6.50; noodles and entrees, $6.50 to $11.95; dim sum, 75 cents to $6; drinks, $2.50 to $5.
DETAILS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday. Closed Tuesdays. No alcohol. Credit cards accepted. Lot and street parking.