DURING the two-week period celebrating the Lunar New Year, I've made it a tradition to crash Buddhist temples for the food. That might sound like freeloading to Western ears, but offering a meal to visitors, particularly at this time of year, is a common gesture of goodwill for Buddhists. The food is generally in the temple's community room - which may require walking through the prayer hall - and consists of refillable tea and homemade vegetarian food that's either given away or sold at minimal cost.
My most recent stop was Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights (3456 S. Glenmark Drive), one of the largest Buddhist compounds on the West Coast. The strong smell of incense, left by the daily worshipers who come to pray, permeates the air along the road leading up to the hillside temple. During the next few weeks the main square by the prayer halls and the statues of Bodhisattva will be decorated with colorful lanterns and stuffed, child-sized rodents signifying the year of the rat.
The eating goes from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. (until 2:30 on weekends) in the temple's modest dining room where a $5 donation gains you access to a vegetarian buffet spread that's constantly refilled with Chinese food: fried rice, vermicelli noodles, melon soup, mapo tofu, vegetable fritters, curry and sweet and sour "pork" (wheat gluten, also called "Buddha's meat"). In the middle of the room, by the Buddha statue, is a large plaque bearing the "5 contemplations when taking a meal," a reminder to be thankful for cheap eats year-round (amen!).
After busing your own dishes, head out across the dining hall for dessert, where the temple's nuns make dainty red bean cakes (3 for $2) while you wait.
After leaving the hilltop temple, a Jinbao Chestnut vendor by the entrance to Pakai Supermarket (3130 S. Colima Road, Hacienda Heights) sells roasted chestnuts in the winter. He cooks the nuts in a giant cast-iron pot and is happy to discuss the complexities of chestnut-roasting with his customers. Be patient, as it takes a while for each batch ($5 to $10 per bag) and there's generally a line--which might be explained by the sign on the cart extolling benefits. "Chestnuts are a lusty and masculine food for men, and able to make women well complexioned."