This is a Tianjin breakfast restaurant in Monterey Park. While workers are ringing up handmade baos for $0.92 a pop, an elderly woman weaves in and out of the kitchen, sometimes momentarily pausing to take it all in, hands on her hips. Her name is Anna Wen and she's the founder of the eatery, a place that started in her garage and so is named Garage Restaurant.
Wen, 65, operated the restaurant from her home for three years before it was shut down and she moved to a more orthodox setting. Garage has been open for a year now and is a tribute to the deep-fried, doughy cuisine typical of Northeastern China—which relies heavily on preserved foods and buns because of the long winters.
By 7 a.m., the tables at Garage are completely occupied and covered with large masses of fried dough accompanied by bowls of soymilk, still steaming and slightly foamed at the edges. Some tables have platters of jianbing guozi, a spongy egg crepe with a thin layer of mung bean wrapped around a youtiao, a Chinese version of a fried cruller. The egg layer is soft and savory but the youtiao — flaky on the outside and chewy on the inside — is the heart and substance of the dish.
At first glance, the menu is nothing new to the San Gabriel Valley. Youtiao, soy milk, porridges, leek turnovers and the different permutations of stuffed buns are common in the breakfast eateries around the area. But Garage's breakfast is specifically inspired from the morning fare in Tianjin, a northeastern coastal city that hugs Beijing's fringes. From a culinary standpoint, the difference is in the details.
Mung bean is a theme. It's spread underneath the egg layer of the jianbing, and there's a dish appropriately titled "crispy mung bean," or gabacai, in which mung bean is the main highlight. The dish is composed of mung bean flakes drenched in a thick gravy of chili oil, light soy sauce, fermented milk, sesame sauce and parsley. It's a simple dish, but it boasts more than 300 years of history and was popularized by Qianlong, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, after he discovered it on an undercover excursion to sample layman food.
And then there's the Tianjin equivalent of a doughnut, served two ways. There's the youtiao, fried to a golden brown sheen with a generous coating of oil, and an item aptly labeled "fried dough with brown sugar," a shapeless mass of fried dough baked with a layer of sugar on top.
Wen is most proud of her Tianjin-style buns, which ring up to $4.99 for six. At the core of each bun is a seasoned lump of pork, simmering in its own juices and steamed inside a pillow of thick, spongy bread.
The region's savory doufunao, or tofu "brain" soup, is a prime example of the Northern tendency for hearty textures. It's a broth of tofu clumps drenched in a cornstarch rich soup of sesame sauce, soy sauce, ground peanuts, wood ear, black moss and pickled vegetables. The bulk of the dish is just silken tofu, but the steaming, glutinous broth is more than enough to carry one through a cold Chinese winter morning.
Buses with Chinese tourists often make a early stop at the eatery before their daily itinerary, and for Wen, that regular source of traffic is overwhelming. "We don't have enough people in the kitchen," she explained. Wen and her family do all their own cooking and serving, arriving at the restaurant as early as 5:30 a.m. for prep work. The restaurant opens seven days a week from 6 a.m. and takes in its last customers at 11:30 at night.
The work is strenuous for the small team, but despite the grueling hours, Wen is thankful for the storefront and the manpower she does have.
"I've come a long way," she says.