North Garden is a sleek Cantonese seafood place, thoroughly postmodern in its pilasters and cornices, studiedly informal and inexpensive but populated by the sort of Chinese families that probably have BMWs parked in the lot downstairs. Its mirrored walls are covered top to bottom with specials crayoned in blocky Chinese script, the daily per-pound prices of what must be tilapia, crab, sea bass marked somewhere underneath like some fine-dining commodities exchange.
Everybody in the place seems to be dunking boiled shrimp into chile-flavored soy, gulping great quantities of sugary, violently yellow ice tea, dismembering fried crabs, picking at roast ducks. There are a dozen other Chinese restaurants in the great mall called San Gabriel Square, and some may be technically better, but when you’ve got a pound of sweet boiled shrimp in front of you, there’s really no reason to budge.
The North Garden space was once occupied by a Hong Kong-style coffee shop fairly well regarded for its beef chow fun, but which I mostly remember for a weird meal that included taquitos, steak in mushroom gravy and a decidedly post-colonial beverage known to the locals as “tea and coffee mixed"--possibly the only disappointing meal I’ve had out of several dozen in this mall. Now North Garden fills that gap between the massive Cantonese seafood palaces and the fragrant noodle dives in the area, as the local Cantonese equivalent of Modada or the Authentic Cafe.
Like most important Chinese restaurants, North Garden has a rudimentary formal menu, though it’s supplemented by two photocopied pages taped to the inside covers of the folders, and somebody’s always ready to translate the walls. As Cantonese restaurants go, North Garden runs somewhere between the Nixonian secrecy of Monterey Park dives and the total disclosure that is a feature of most Westside Chinese restaurants. But it is usually fairly easy to negotiate the mysterious land beyond salt-and-pepper shrimp: black mushroom sauteed with deer tendon, dried scallops with hair-like seaweed, the crunchy squash-like vegetable xing qua flash-fried with tiny mushrooms and fresh, sliced scallops. You may find that you enjoy the complexly salty marine resonances of fish-maw-and-crabmeat soup, especially with a splash of sweet red vinegar.
As at most Cantonese seafood restaurants, you basically choose your dinner from the live-fish tanks in the entrance, and the wriggling lobsters and writhing tilapias are brought out for inspection before they are dispatched in the kitchen. Live whole shrimp are perfect simply boiled; the flesh of steamed rock cod is almost fluffy, flavored subtly with ginger and soy. Big lobsters, a bargain at the height of summer, can be steamed or fried with black-bean sauce, but are almost transcendent crusted with “X.O. sauce,” a peppery brandy-based goop that was last year’s big thing in trendy Hong Kong kitchens.
But man does not live by live seafood alone. There are fresh snow-pea tendrils fried with garlic and slippery, crunchy bamboo pith simmered with baby bok choy. “Salty chicken,” is a pale, boiled bird, juicy and briny to the bone, served with a little dish of super-concentrated chicken jelly that is jolted with white pepper; fried chicken is moist, unusually crisp-skinned, served with fried shrimp chips and a little bowl of pepper mixed with salt. “Beef salad” means fragrant red-cooked beef shank, chilled, sliced thinly and draped over a mound of pickled carrots and turnips; sliced giant clam is sauteed rather too long with pork and vegetables.
And you might as well have the fried rice with pork and seafood whose complex smokiness probably comes from the cereal-box-size lotus leaf packet in which it is brought to the table--a presentation as sleek as the restaurant.
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Where to Go
North Garden Seafood Restaurant, 140 W. Valley Blvd., #211, San Gabriel, (818) 571-6288. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to midnight. No alcohol. Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. $4.25 lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40.
What to Get
Steamed live shrimp; beef salad; lobster in X.O. sauce; fried rice in lotus leaf.