GLISTENING black nuts that boil up to taste like chestnuts. Bright yellow melons, halfway between a casaba and a cucumber. Cakes split open to show chartreuse crumb. Peach tea. Coconut bread. Vegetarian kidneys.
Yes, vegetarian kidneys, and you don't have to be a vegetarian -- or like kidneys, for that matter -- to enjoy them.
That's Valley Boulevard for you.
In the last decade, as immigration has made the Chinese California's largest Asian group, the action has moved north from Monterey Park, the country's first Chinese suburb. There are about 60 Chinese restaurants in Monterey Park, but Valley Boulevard now has more than 100, 75 of them just on a 1 1/2-mile stretch in San Gabriel plus a couple of blocks of Alhambra.
As a symbol of its status, people haven't given this neighborhood a nickname along the lines of Chinatown or Little Taipei. "Everybody just calls it Valley Boulevard," says former San Gabriel mayor and current City Councilman Harry Baldwin. The name stands on its own, like Melrose Avenue or Rodeo Drive.
There are half a dozen multistoried shopping centers -- always called plazas -- on the San Gabriel stretch, and another one is being built now, complete with a Hilton hotel. The boulevard has Chinese restaurants and markets, Vietnamese coffeehouses and Franco-Asian bakeries, traditional herbalists and youth-oriented shops selling brightly packaged snacks from cookies and candies to dried fish products. There are restaurants here named Noodle City, Noodle World and Noodle Planet.
Fusion genres have emerged, such as U2 Cafe (clams in black bean sauce and taro ice cream, but also chicken a la king and baked Alaska) and Monet Cafe & Pub, which boasts karaoke, sports TV and free Internet connection. Savoy Kitchen has a pizza and pasta menu in Chinese and English, though most diners seem to be ordering curries.
To explore this dense growth of food businesses, I enlisted Baldwin, a native son with many contacts in the community; his wife, Sally, the vice president of the Asian Youth Center; and San Francisco food writer and restaurateur Shirley Fong-Torres, who leads walking tours called "I Ate My Way Through Chinatown."
What we found was Chinese food tradition, with its vast range of edibles, taking enthusiastically to the wealth and ease of American suburban life. If you want Persian cucumbers as well as "regular" (Japanese) cucumbers, they're here; if you want Internet connection with your boba tea, it's here. Fong-Torres was repeatedly surprised by all the Chinese convenience foods, such as ready-reconstituted wood ear mushrooms.
By the end of the expedition, I found myself looking at a decorative shrub outside a bank and wondering aloud, "How do you suppose you'd cook that?"
"Now you're thinking like a Chinese," said Fong-Torres.
The choice was clearly juk, the traditional rice porridge eye-opener. The Baldwins recommended Lu's Garden, which serves nothing but juk and the "small dishes" -- in effect, Chinese tapas -- to go with it. You choose your toppings from a counter of hot and cold dishes.
Fong-Torres found quite different toppings at this Taiwanese-run place than she was familiar with in San Francisco. Even the juk was different, with a loose, soupy, delicate texture she debated duplicating at her own restaurant. We had it with plates of crunchy shredded jellyfish, spicy mustard greens and pork with soy sauce-boiled egg.
Best vegetarian lunch
Twenty years ago, a Monterey Park restaurant named the Fragrant Vegetable gave non-Chinese around here their first taste of one of the great vegetarian cuisines. These days there are half a dozen Chinese vegetarian restaurants on Valley Boulevard alone, and they're a regular part of the local dining scene: Vegetarian Wok's menu lists 108 all-day items, 46 lunch specials.
Many Chinese vegetarian dishes aim to reproduce the taste and appearance of meat, and these were a step above what I remember at the old Fragrant Vegetable. Sure, the deep-fried vegetarian chicken tenders looked only remotely like chicken, but they tasted startlingly like the real thing and even had the exact stringy texture. The vegetarian fish had no particular fish flavor, but it did have a credible fish-like skin and a flaky flesh.
As for those vegetarian kidneys (at $4.65, one of the more expensive dishes on the lunch menu), they had the exact spongy texture of kidneys, though without the funky kidney flavor. They were stir-fried with mushrooms in a tangy basil sauce, and I would come back just for them.
Best dim sum
On weekend mornings, 888 Seafood -- just south of the Rosemead line ("It's an honorary San Gabriel restaurant," said Harry Baldwin; "it's within sight.") -- serves the best dim sum on Valley. When you think of dim sum, you may think of a cramped, noisy room, but this is an upscale place, complete with raised dais seating at one end of the long dining hall and lavish representations of a phoenix and a dragon at the other. And though it fills up rapidly just before 11 a.m., the level of excited chatter never gets obtrusive.
At 10:30, eight or 10 food carts were gliding serenely among the tables. "Hong Kong service," observed Fong-Torres. "The waiters are all wearing bowties." However, this is a dim sum place like any other, and whenever she asked a server about a dish, she folded her hand into a fist before gesturing toward it, rather than pointing with a finger. "Otherwise," she said, "you point, you've bought it. It's on the table and they've stamped your bill, pow, pow."
We sampled the usual steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, and Shanghai dumplings like little clutch purses full of pork and herbs. Then it was taro buns, flaky outside, as soft as melted cheese inside. Custard-like soft tofu. Garlicky eggplant. Tripe perfumed with star anise. Stuffed rice noodles, like flattened pork-filled cannelloni. Mushroom caps generously stuffed with ground shrimp. Bright yellow shrimp fritters, as flamboyant as butterflies.
There were steam carts, carts of cold meats and desserts, carts where Chinese broccoli or taro pancakes could be cooked to order, and on top of that waitresses were carrying around trays of buns and fritters.
As for us, we topped off our dozen orders with three kinds of pudding and a plate of elastic coconut buns filled with chopped peanuts.
"Is anybody feeling a little full?" I asked.
There are half a dozen supermarkets on Valley Boulevard. The three biggest are the 99 Ranch Market in San Gabriel Square, the three-story shopping complex just west of Del Mar Avenue, the Hawaii Supermarket on the east side of Del Mar and the San Gabriel Superstore, just around the corner from Valley on San Gabriel Boulevard. They all cover much the same territory -- huge butcher departments, long displays of fresh, frozen and live seafood, islands of greens and gourds, aisles of noodles and condiments, steam tables of takeout foods, liquor counters.
Fong-Torres was struck by the many convenience foods. All three markets were selling chicken and duck feet -- and also boned feet. "Duck socks," quipped Harry Baldwin, gesturing at the pale, knobby tubes. "We don't have these in San Francisco," Fong-Torres said.
99 Ranch had a quiet, upscale tone, but you paid for it with slightly higher prices, and a lot of the produce, though clearly of good quality, was sold pre-wrapped, rather than loose for the shopper to pick and choose.
The largest produce section seems to be Hawaii Supermarket's. Unlike 99 Ranch, it sells nearly everything loose, rather than wrapped. It also devotes a whole aisle to fresh noodles, both Chinese and Southeast Asian, and has the largest selection of kitchenware, including a whole aisle of Chinese cleavers. Though Hawaii seems the low-budget store among the three (its entrance is a veritable flea market of tchotchke merchants), it does have a locked freezer case of dauntingly expensive abalone and shark's fin.
San Gabriel Superstore is like a supermarket crossed with a department store. Half its space is jewelry, clothing and perfume shops. It has the widest selection of fresh fish, and it will fry your fish for you. ("Be sure the oil is fresh when a store does that," said Fong-Torres. "I always ask them for an oil change.")
It also has by far the greatest range of frozen vegetarian foods, including seaweed fish, gluten pepper steaks and (rather unconvincing-looking) vegetarian lobsters. Surprisingly, alongside the counter of Cognacs that all these markets have, it features a smallish but serious selection of French and American wines.
Best Shanghainese dinner
At least nine restaurants on Valley Boulevard serve the subtle cuisine of Shanghai, and connoisseurs argue passionately about which is best. Many would point to Dragon Mark or Mei Long Village, both in Prospect Plaza, two blocks west of Del Mar Ave. The Baldwins like King's Palace, a rather grand place a block west.
King's Palace does not advertise itself as a Shanghainese restaurant, but you can find Shanghainese dishes on the menu. Filet of fish with lily flower: buttery and delicate, the flower petals like mild layers of onion. Shanghai-style pork ribs, cut into little bony chunks that you chew the meat off; the sauce is not a heavy sweet-sour sauce but a barely sweet orange sauce. Salted vegetable (bok choy, Fong-Torres said) with fresh soybeans. A special soup of chicken broth with Shanghai bok choy (known in California as baby bok choy), bamboo tips and short strips of tofu tied in knots, placed there for the interest of their odd texture, soggy and crunchy at the same time.
"I'm really starting to feel full," I said.
The area is rich in seafood restaurants, and many would say the best is Sea Harbor Seafood on Rosemead Boulevard, just a bit too far from Valley Boulevard for our purposes. We were going to Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant on the fourth floor of the Square. Despite the name, it's unaffiliated with the Sam Woo restaurant chain. Beside the elevator doors were signs advertising Danny So, a singer who styles himself "Beatlelvis."
It was pricey but still crowded; a good sign, since the local clientele has a keen price sense. We ordered pan-fried prawns with XO sauce (a vaguely Worcestershire-like concoction made from dried oysters and ham) with asparagus stems, sauteed filet of sole with limp, crunchy strips of bamboo pith and "rich man" fried rice, dotted with dried scallops.
The menu doesn't list lobster or crab, but they're usually available at market price. Another thing that's not on the menu is boatman-style shellfish. We ordered red clams this way, and they came brusquely tossed with a lot of chopped garlic that had been fried appetizingly brown.
"Thank God the next stop is just tea," I said.
Best tea scene
With its dark wood furniture and the bamboo growing in its window, the Tea Station is one classy tea parlor: quiet, comfortable, almost studious, like a rather serious-minded college student lounge, except the young customers are more likely to be playing cards than chess. It lists dozens of flavored hot and iced teas (mango, plum, star fruit, etc.), with or without milk or tapioca boba balls, and also sandwiches and Chinese snacks. Even better, it has an adjoining shop selling tea paraphernalia: Chinese tea services and rare teas (as much as $128 a pound).
Best stop for sweets
Kee Wah, right next door, is a name to conjure with in Hong Kong, where the 65-year-old bakery has two dozen branches. It won its original fame for traditional Chinese moon cakes and bridal cakes, but it also makes French-type cakes -- some with Asian touches, such as crispy layered taro cake or Japanese-style cheesecake.
Every four hours, it puts out fresh batches of snacks such as shredded ham buns (dusted with sugar and pulverized ham, filled with butter) and coconut cream buns with a stunningly rich cream filling. But many people come for the breads, particularly the coconut bread, which has a subtle swirl of coconut inside, and the Danish butter bread, an exceptionally fluffy pull-apart bread.
"Say," I said, "are you going to finish that coconut cream bun?"
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A food tour of Valley Boulevard
All are in San Gabriel, except where noted.
1. Lu's Garden, Valley Plaza, 534 E. Valley Blvd., No. 12; (626) 280-5883.
2. Vegetarian Wok, Sunny Plaza, 529 E. Valley Blvd., No. 128; (626) 288-6069.
3. 888 Seafood, Empire Commercial Center, 8450 E. Valley Blvd., No. 121, Rosemead; (626) 573-1888.
4. San Gabriel Superstore, 1635 S. San Gabriel Blvd.; (626) 280-9998.
5. Hawaii Supermarket, 120 E. Valley Blvd.; (626) 307-0062.
6. 99 Ranch Market, San Gabriel Square, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 150; (626) 307-8899.
7. King's Palace, Life Plaza Center, 250 W. Valley Blvd., Space M; (626) 282-9566.
8. Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant, San Gabriel Square, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 411; (626) 571-8686.
9. Tea Station, 158 W. Valley Blvd.; (626) 288-3785.
10. Kee Wah Bakery, 150 W. Valley Blvd.; (626) 280-2515.