When the world’s great food cities are being discussed, Paris and Tokyo and Taipei and Rome, it would not be unreasonable to include among them . . . San Gabriel, Calif., population 30,072, which up until a few years ago was noted chiefly for the patty melts at Sandi’s Coffee Shop. Consider this: the city of San Gabriel has at least 50 restaurants worth recommending, far more than Beverly Hills or Cincinnati, and scarcely fewer than Los Angeles’ entire Westside.
In San Gabriel, you can find the cooking of almost any Chinese province in its purest and best form, as well as a scattering of great Mexican places, restaurants from half a dozen other East Asian cuisines, Asian markets and noodle shops of every size and distinction. What Monterey Park was to the ‘80s, San Gabriel is to the ‘90s, the white-hot center of Chinese food in America, but this time mostly fueled by Taiwanese energy rather than capital from Hong Kong. In Taipei, San Gabriel is almost as famous as Hollywood or Disneyland.
And the pulsing heart of Chinese San Gabriel is San Gabriel Square, a gleaming, sweet-smelling Oz of a shopping mall with a Chinese department store, a tremendous Chinese supermarket, boutiques and bakeries, Chinese restaurants of every description, acres of carefully landscaped parking. On a warm night, the red and green restaurant signs seem to glow like the lights of ships in the harbor, and wide walkways fill with contented Chinese windowshoppers who have just eaten well.
Where does one eat well in San Gabriel Square? Everywhere .
It’s loud inside the 99 Ranch supermarket, cash registers beep, meat saws whine, the aisles ring with spoken Chinese. Near the live fish, a man in a Chinese coat works his way through the crowd and barks at the guy behind the tanks. The counterman dips a net into a tank and starts to scoop out a large carp. The man shakes his head; there is a plumper one just to the right. Down the way, a young mother, one hand on a stroller, points at a black-skinned chicken in the poultry case. When simmered with a sachet of dried barks and wolfberries from the herb shop a couple doors down, it will make a smoky, tonic soup--the soup will be good for her husband, the poultryman implies with a wink. She blushes.
Around the corner, shopping carts careening around spiky mounds of frozen durians, the produce section is large as a basketball court, sharp with the odors of unfamiliar Chinese greens. Grandmotherly women pick through cardboard boxes of corkscrew-shaped pea tendrils, stuffing their favorites into long plastic bags. (The tendrils are delicious stir-fried with garlic.) A man thumps warty bitter melons as long as prize zucchinis; another searches for a particularly fragrant bunch of Thai holy basil. Earlier this summer, when lychees first came in season, sharp-eyed shoppers hefted gift packs of the expensive, fragrant fruit and frowned with dismay. (They also giggled softly at a tourist a couple of aisles away who was carrying a box.) The lychees were not yet ripe. At 99 Ranch, grocery shopping can be a competitive sport.
Up on the mall’s second level, in the sparsely furnished office of Golden Pacific Realty, the company that manages San Gabriel Square, Jack Chu, a Golden Pacific supervisor, and Felix Chen, the office owner, sit around a desk--talking food. Chu spent time in Chicago when he first came to the U.S. from Beijing and found the Chinese food there bland and inauthentic. Chen, from Taiwan, mentions the time in Southern California, not so long ago, when you had to drive 45 minutes to get a decent Taiwanese breakfast. Both chat excitedly about what has happened to the area in the past five years, comparing notes on their favorite noodle shops, marveling at the quality--and low price--of roast duck.
They both agree: The best part of the job might be lunch. As managers here, it makes sense for Chen and Chu to spread their business among the square’s restaurants; as leaseholders, it makes sense for the restaurateurs to feed them well.
But hey . . . Does Roger Chen, the publicity-shy general partner of the company that owns the mall, love food as much as they do? Could this mall have been the singular creation of a good eater? Chu and Chen look at one another and laugh. Chu says: “ Every Chinese person is obsessed about food.”
99 Ranch Market. Where 99 Ranch goes, restaurants follow: Many small Chinese businesses, those without marketing research budgets, have taken to setting up shop wherever the mammoth pan-Asian supermarkets pop up. This San Gabriel branch is the latest of eight stores; Irvine is next. What you find here is a huge marketplace of East Asian goods--alien-looking durian fruit from Thailand, Vietnamese fish sauce, coconut milk and pineapple for sweet Malay curries, golfball-sized eggplants for dipping in pungent Cambodian anchovy dips, live crab swimming in tanks--as well as a good selection of American brand-name products. One long wall of the market is devoted to rice--more than a dozen types. The fish, poultry and meat sections are extensive, and you can pick up Chinese pots, pans, cooking utensils and good everyday Chinese dinnerware. If you’re stuck in a Pepsi/Coke rut, 99 Ranch has a huge assortment of exotic canned beverages--grass-jelly drink, wax gourd (cucumber) soda, sweetened asparagus juice, iced coffee and a fizzy drink called Friend.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (818) 307-8899.
108 Ice Cream & Cafe. The local equivalent of Pop’s Chocklit Shop, the teen hangout Ice Cream & Cafe packs ‘em in for Taiwanese slush: bowlfuls of sweetened shaved ice spiked with little cubes of taro or boiled peanuts or oatmeal or sweet red beans, even tree yams or something translucent and bouncy called “fairy jelly.” Taiwanese slush, which is thematically similar to a baroque Japanese sno-cone, is light, pretty refreshing after a jumbo Chinese meal. But pass on the frozen, numbingly sweet fruit drink Fluffy Frost (think Slurpee): It’ll give you an ice-cream headache faster than the chilliest margarita.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 108, San Gabriel, (818) 288-7088.
Champion Gourmet Products. What could be more American than sitting in front of the TV, gnawing on a stick of beef jerky? And what could be more Chinese? American football widows will be glad to know that for many in Taiwan and China, armchair soccer is a Sunday afternoon passion that requires plenty of jerky and beer. At Champion Gourmet Products, beef and pork jerkies are made on the premises, some spicy hot, some sweetly aromatic, with a satisfying pull to the bite. Last week, the shop made a special batch of smoky squid jerky, and on the counter near the register was a towel-covered bowl of warm, freshly roasted chestnuts that melted like candy on the tongue. “It’s nature’s sweet,” explained the woman behind the counter. You’ll also find shredded dried squid, pricey duck tongue and clear plastic tubs of shredded pork “fluff"--you put the stuff in soup.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 113, San Gabriel, (818) 571-8188.
Chu’s Mandarin Cuisine. There is a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the window of Chu’s Mandarin Cuisine. Arnold has one arm around Frank Chu’s shoulders, one beefy hand upon a pillow of dough. He has presumably just watched Mr. Chu transform a similar pillow of dough into a thick coil of hand-pulled noodles, and he is smiling. If you were about to eat a bowlful of Mr. Chu’s hand-pulled noodles, you would smile too. Mr. Chu’s hand-pulled noodles are long, spaghetti-shaped strands, bouncy, springy things with a full wheat-y flavor and an extraordinary bite. The noodles are perfect vehicles for Mr. Chu’s spicy, oily black-bean sauce. They are delicious cold, piled with bits of squid and jellyfish, tossed with sesame and hot mustard. They are good served in a strong pork broth underneath a floating fried pork chop. And although Mr. Chu is skilled at preparing the noodles and dumplings and soups and cold dishes of Chinese “deli” cuisine, his restaurant’s Taiwanese-style stir-fries are exemplary too.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 206, San Gabriel, (818) 572-6574.
Evergreen Bookstore. In addition to Chinese-language books and lifestyle magazines--including one with the motto: “We Reach for the Career Woman Which Has the Most Consuming Capability"--Evergreen has a small but strong selection of bilingual Chinese cookbooks. Many of the books are highly specialized: “Snacks of Chinese Festivals,” “Chinese Rice Food,” “Spicy Nutritious Recipes,” “How to Make Cocktails” and “Recipes With Frozen Meat.” But there is also the series of cookbooks from Fu Pei Mei, the Taiwanese Julia Child. The most interesting food book we found is “Culinary Treasures of China: Taiwan’s Gourmet Delights,” including chapters titled “The Competitive Bread Bonanza,” “The Fruit Tart Journeys to the Orient,” “The Pot That Cheers.”
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 125, San Gabriel, (818) 572-4540.
Fragrant Spring. A distant relative of the excellent Lake Spring Restaurant in nearby Monterey Park, Fragrant Spring serves a refined, similarly modernized version of Shanghainese cuisine. You’ll find the famous hunk of pig butt called the “pork pump” prepared two different ways--one version has the pump smoked to a ruddy hue--and various sweet and pungent fried chicken dishes, crisp whole ducks, cold meat and mock meat (gluten) platters, fish stews, chickens stuffed with soft-shell turtle. Desserts, especially the calla lily-shaped pastry, are dramatic.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 213, San Gabriel, (818) 288-0886.
Great Food Cafe. Famous for an unusually extensive menu that ranges all the way from crispy taquitos to simmered pig’s ear, what this place serves is basically American food cooked for the Chinese palate as it would be in a Western-style restaurant in Hong Kong: Chinese call this the “Other Taste.” What you’ll see on most of the tables is probably the pan-grilled steak, blanketed with thick black-pepper gravy and served sizzling on a iron platter; Great Food serves lots of chicken a la king and BLTs. Most people not suffering from Hong Kong nostalgia might prefer the tasty chow fun noodles with fried bread, rich beef-brisket curry, fine roasted chicken, cold sliced pork hock with jellyfish and the wide variety of oddball Chinese fountain drinks. But they’ve cut down the menu some: If you’re in the mood for a mix ‘n’ match meal of quesadillas and cabbage Sichuan-style, these days you’re out of luck.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 211, San Gabriel, (818) 288-3300.
Lawrence’s Palace. Every night is karaoke night at Lawrence’s Palace, where you can warble like Amy Grant, wheeze like Bob Dylan or bust a blood vessel trying to emote like Michael Bolton, and when you’re done, sit down to a meal of the Other Taste: Chinese-inflected steaks and chops and French fries. Wash it all down with a hot cup of tea and coffee mixed, or Tsingtao if you must, and try your hand at “Mystery Train” . . . hey, Elvis never had it so good!
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 222, San Gabriel, (818) 280-7887.
Life Style China & Art. It’s easy to pick out china from the usual department store lineup--and end up with the same pattern as all your friends. This store sells beautifully patterned china, most of which doesn’t show up in American housewares shops. The delicate tea sets are so pretty you might even give up coffee just to have an excuse to use them.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 124, San Gabriel, (818) 573-8816.
Natori. Sushi bars aimed at Koreans tend to feature massive portions and strong flavors; those aimed at American twentysomethings feature salmon-cream cheese Philadelphia rolls and loud reggae. Oddly enough, this crowded sushi bar--about 80% of Natori’s customers are Chinese--serves absolutely classic Tokyo-style sushi and sashimi, uninflected by what you might imagine to be Chinese taste, and some of the customers seem to be as grumpily demanding as any venerable Japanese businessman. (There has always been substantial traffic between Taiwan and Japan.) Sashimi platters, beautifully arranged, include ultra-fresh bits of herring roe and albacore; monkfish liver is rich as foie gras; the spectacular salmon-skin hand-rolls are bundled up in sheets of especially crisp, smoky toasted nori .
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 118A, San Gabriel, (818) 307-8802.
Nice Time Deli. If this noodleshop served nothing but Chiu Chow-style goosemeat soup noodles, it would still be worth a drive from downtown--firm round pasta in a smoky goose broth, tender white slices of goose. It may be the single tastiest bowl of noodles in the mall--no small beer. But there is also the Taiwanese fishcake-porkball soup called check-a noodle, and oysters fried with egg, and squid sauteed with thin strands of Chinese celery, squid potage. A dish involving spicy shreds of pork tossed with black beans and pieces of succulent, profoundly bitter Chinese melon is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before; strange, but oddly compelling, not unlike a straight shot of some unfamiliar Italian liqueur.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd . , No. 209, San Gabriel, (818) 288-0149 .
Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant. You can scan the length and breadth of this place, which somehow looks a dozen years older than any other restaurant in the mall, and you’ll see everybody digging their chopsticks into the same thing: pho dac biet , the intricately spiced beef-noodle soup that is the Vietnamese hot dog, fried chicken and hamburger all rolled into one. Pho Hoa is one of the largest American pho chains. The pho is good here, richer yet a little more monochromatic than most of its best competitors, generously topped with brisket and shredded tripe and slices of rare steak that poach in the heat of the soup. You add bean sprouts and fresh sprigs of basil and fresh sliced chiles to taste.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 208, San Gabriel, (818) 572-9242.
Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant. A crowded branch of the archetypal Cantonese fast-food chain, Sam Woo serves excellent roast duck or soy-sauce chicken over rice, sizzles a zillion varieties of chow mein, steams pig parts and dishes out giant bowls of noodle soup, and gets them on your table in less time than it takes to drive through Del Taco. In certain Southland households, parties do not happen without a roast duck or two from Sam Woo’s takeout counter.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 107, San Gabriel, (818) 572-8418.
Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant. Sam Woo built his empire on the backs of barbecued ducks and fresh-roasted chickens. This is his bid for the big time, a cavernous, marble-rimmed Cantonese seafood palace the equal of the monster restaurants of Chinatown and Monterey Park, set high above the Focus department store. Here are the live shrimp, the briefly steamed scallops in garlic sauce, the tanks full of gape-mouthed catfish and rock cod that swim like mad; here too are such unusual new-wave Cantonese dishes as steamed duck with prunes and forcemeat-stuffed cucumbers. There are inexpensive set dinners--a seven-course Peking duck set menu for eight, including bamboo pith-seafood soup and wok-baked lobster costs just $88--and fine, if basic dim sum in the mornings. Still, betraying Mr. Woo’s barbecue heritage, the best thing in the restaurant may be the deep-fried crispy chicken, bursting with juice, its deeply burnished skin brittle as spun sugar.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 4D, San Gabriel, (818) 571-8686.
Seafood Strip. The concept of the Hong Kong-style seafood palace is well known in the Southland, but despite the massive influx of Taiwanese into the San Gabriel Valley, nice places serving Taiwanese seafood--sort of an amalgam of Northern Chinese, Japanese and native Formosan dishes--have been harder to find. At Seafood Strip, which is as swank as any Chinese restaurant in town, there is all the Taiwanese seafood you could dream of, an unexplored world beyond pepper-salt shrimp: perfect crisps of fried cuttlefish; sweet, grilled fish smeared with a deeply flavored fermented-soybean paste; melting slices of broiled eel mounded on a terrific heap of brown sticky-rice; bubbling squid-conch chafing pots whose broth has the peaty smokiness of an old single-malt Scotch. You can even get sashimi platters and miso soup.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 212, San Gabriel, (818) 288-9899.
Shinsen Ginseng & Herb Co. Even if you’d have no idea what to do with a bag of dried seahorses, you still may find this shop useful. Most of the customers come here for health-enchancing herbs and oddities--especially ginseng for strength. But with the friendly addition of a chicken or so, you can make wonderful, intense-tasting soups with the shop’s assorted tree barks, dried flowers and leaves, dried mushrooms from Korea, Japan and China, red and black dates, abalone, sea cucumber or dried shrimp. Usually there’s someone in the shop who speaks English and can help you work out sensible combinations. A few doors down, there’s a shop, currently closed for remodeling, called Young Enterprises, which will soon sell prepared tonics.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 126, San Gabriel, (818) 288-0818.
Sunny Dragon. This may be the closest thing in San Gabriel to an elegant, high-style Shanghainese restaurant, a nice place, with sweet, rich, oily sauces pungent with ginger and mellow roasted garlic, giant, fluffy ground-pork lion’s head meatballs. Where Cantonese restaurants steam whole fish, here they’re typically braised in fragrant, brown sauce; where Taiwanese restaurants broil eels with a sticky soy marinade, here elvers are quickly fried with yellow chives, served crackling with hot oil and perfumed with star anise. Yellowfish is filleted, wrapped in bean curd sheets with herbs and fried into crunchy, gossamer-light cigars: spectacular. There are candied roasted pine nuts that you wish every movie theater in the world sold instead of P-Nuttles; there are perfect fried anchovies. Pork ribs come half a dozen ways, including “Shanghai-style": gingery, gravied, succulent, falling off the bone.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 210, San Gabriel, (818) 307-9008.
Tung Lai Shun. The English-language neon says “Islamic Cuisine” and the neon Arabic lettering translates as “Chinese Restaurant,” but the first thing you notice about Tung Lai Shun is the enormous rounds of freshly baked sesame bread that seem to be on every table. The flaky, fragrant, multilayered things, the size of a stack of Frisbees, stuffed with green onions or not, are generally eaten here instead of rice. You drag wedges of the bread through the remains of fish in bean curd sauce, or stuff them with terrific chopstickfuls of lamb fried with green onions, or wrap pieces of it around the best dry-fried string beans in San Gabriel. While you’re waiting for the bread to come (it can take 20 minutes), you nibble on cool, slippery slices of garlicked ox-tendon terrine, something you could as well imagine at a fine French restaurant, or chunks of cold braised lamb in an unctuous garlic jelly. There are steamed vegetable dumplings filled with a pungent, crunchy dice that is the color you’ve always imagined a rain forest to be. Tea duck is ruddy to the bone, as smoky as Texas barbecue.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 118C, San Gabriel, (818) 288-6588.
Van’s Bakery. In the window is the biggest wedding cake you’ve ever seen, a white-frosted riot of brides and grooms and bridges and bows so intense that it spills over into satellite cakes. There are the moist, vivid-green slabs of young-coconut cake you might expect in a Vietnamese bakery, all kinds of multihued gelatins and sticky-rice-stuffed banana leaves, venison jerky and steam-tables of chewy Vietnamese hot puddings--this is, after all, a branch of the most popular Vietnamese bakery in Westminster. Still, what you’re likely to buy a zillion of are the baked yellow-bean cakes in the shape of piglets, so intricately detailed that from a distance they look like some mutant race of miniature dwarf hogs. The yellow bean cakes don’t taste like much, but they’ll decorate a mantel for months.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 120, San Gabriel, (818) 280-8075.
Vegetarian Delight. If you’re in the mood for a bunch of vegetables, this place might not be your bag. Classic Chinese vegetarian cooking is less about sauteed stringbeans and such than trompe l’oeil simulations of ham and shrimp and kung pao chicken that just happen to be made out of tofu and gluten--and sometimes, even taste like the real thing. At Vegetarian Delight, which is as meat-free as its name implies, you can ignore the Buddha’s feast: Instead, try spicy braised “pork sausage” in sort of a hot-sweet Sichuan sauce; sweetish fried taro cakes; or an incredible, crackly skinned simulation of whole roast fish that tastes almost better than the real thing.
* 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 203, San Gabriel, (818) 288-2698.
To get to the San Gabriel Square, take the San Bernardino Freeway to the Del Mar Avenue exit. Head north on Del Mar Avenue about a half mile and turn left on Valley Boulevard. Mall entrance is a half block down on the left.