Choose your adventure: an eating tour of the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs
I’m back in the San Gabriel Valley for spring break and am eating up as much as I can. It might be a lot farther from the beach than I’d like, but the abundance of great, cheap food everywhere you go more than makes up for it. (If you haven’t seen the Fung Brothers’ ode to SGV food, watch it before continuing!)
Here are my suggestions for how to make the most out of a day of gluttony in the Asian parts of the SGV. Most of these recommendations are in the western part of the Valley, since I don’t spend much time on the eastern side (Rowland Heights, Walnut, etc.). If you have any suggestions, please let us know in the comments!
If I could, I’d start every day with a big Taiwanese breakfast: thin, savory crepes topped with eggs (蛋餅; danbing), balls of glutinous rice stuffed with fried crullers and shredded pork (飯糰; fantuan), and huge bowls of soy milk, taken plain, sweet, or salted. Thankfully, I don’t have to fly all the way back to Taipei to get my fix, as there are Taiwanese breakfast joints all over the SGV. My favorite is the awkwardly-named Huge Tree Pastry (大樹豆漿點心坊) in Monterey Park, where you can fuel up for less than $5 a person.
Alternately, you could try some Teochew-style noodles for breakfast. People from Chaozhou in Guangdong province migrated all over Southeast Asia, and many of their descendants ended up in the US as a result of the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam. Some good choices for Teochew noodles include Kim Ky Noodle House (金記潮州粉麵) in San Gabriel and Mien Nghia Noodle Express (綿義餐室) in Rosemead.
* Dim sum was probably the first thing to come to mind, but I’m not a big dim sum fan, so you’re on your own for that one.
Since the SGV has one of the highest concentrations of Chinese people in the US, many of whom trace their origins to Cantonese-speaking parts of Guangdong province, it is unsurprising that there would be amazing variety Cantonese restaurants around here. For a less conventional eating experience, try one of the many Hong Kong-style Western cafes in the area for lunch. These restaurants serve up a slice of Hong Kong’s colonial legacy: Western food adapted for Chinese tastes. You can get Cantonese standards as well as some interesting takes on Western food, such as borscht (羅宋湯) and baked rice or pasta in white sauce or curry-based Portuguese sauce. Some good places to try this type of cooking include Garden Café (嘉頓港式西餐) in Alhambra and Tasty Garden (稻香) in Arcadia.
Less known about the SGV is that there is also a large Vietnamese population here. While the primary Vietnamese community in Southern California is in Orange County’s Little Saigon, many ethnic Vietnamese live in working class cities in the SGV, particularly in my hometown of El Monte. Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam are also spread throughout the region.
Phở is another good choice for lunch, and El Monte and South El Monte is where you go to find it. A number of phở restaurants specializing in higher-end cuts of beef have opened up on Garvey Boulevard. One place that gets consistently high reviews is Phở Huỳnh, though there are many other choices along this street as well.
Craving a sandwich and/or dessert? Bánh Mì & Chè Cali is a small local chain that will satisfy both of those cravings at the same time. Their location on Valley Boulevard in Rosemead is consistently packed with people ordering sandwiches, coffee, and chè (dessert soups).
For dinner, I always recommend my favorite eating establishment of all time, Nem Nướng Ninh Hòa, a Vietnamese restaurant located across the street from Rosemead High School. They serve amazing nem nướng (super-garlicky grilled pork meatballs) and you can’t go wrong with any of their large cơm tấm (broken rice) plates. If you’d rather have something soupy, they also make an excellent bowl of bún bò Huế, Huế-style beef noodle soup.
For classic Cantonese restaurant food in a greasy family restaurant, head to Sam Woo Barbecue Restaurant (三和燒臘麵家) in San Gabriel’s San Gabriel Square (also known as Focus Plaza). If you come for dinner any night of the week, expect to wait a while for a table, as the line goes out the door. Some of my favorite dishes here include fried tofu (酥炸豆腐), fried rice with salted fish and chicken (鹹魚雞粒炒飯), and seafood and tofu stew in a clay pot (海鮮豆腐煲).
It seems that youthful, Americanized SGV entrepreneurs have found their niche in dessert shops. Hip, well-decorated shops selling boba and shaved ice have been popping up all over the place, and they all claim to innovate on these two classic Taiwanese desserts. I’m not a huge fan of Half & Half Tea House (伴伴堂), which is one of a number of places that soak their tapioca pearls in honey, but so many people recommend it that it would be strange not to put it on the list. For fluffy “shaved snow,” try Fluff Ice in Monterey Park, Salju Dessert in Alhambra, or Class 302 (三年2班台灣料理) in Rowland Heights.
- Huge Tree Pastry (大樹豆漿點心坊) – 423 N Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, CA 91754
- Kim Ky Noodle House (金記潮州粉麵) – 1108 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (multiple locations)
- Mien Nghia Noodle Express (綿義餐室) – 7755 E Garvey Ave, Rosemead, CA 91770 (multiple locations)
- Garden Café (嘉頓港式西餐) – 228 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801 (multiple locations)
- Tasty Garden (稻香) – 1212 S Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA 91007 (multiple locations)
- Phở Huỳnh – 9706 Garvey Ave, El Monte, CA 91733
- Bánh Mì & Chè Cali – 8450 Valley Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770 (multiple locations)
- Nem Nướng Ninh Hòa – 9016 Mission Dr, Rosemead, CA 91770
- Sam Woo Barbecue Restaurant (三和燒臘麵家) – 140 W Valley Blvd, Suite 107, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (multiple locations)
- Half & Half Tea House (伴伴堂) – 120 N San Gabriel Blvd, Ste H, San Gabriel, CA 91778 (multiple locations)
- Fluff Ice – 500 North Atlantic Boulevard #153, Monterey Park, CA 91754
- Salju Dessert – 35 W Valley Blvd, Ste B, Alhambra, CA 91801
- Class 302 (三年2班台灣料理) – 1015 Nogales St # 125, Rowland Heights, CA 91748 (multiple locations)