Inspired by the San Gabriel Valley: Best Sichuan in the U.S.?
The Only Minority in the Restaurant~~
By way of explanation for the paltry number of recent posts, I mentioned last time that Fong Chong and I are living in Los Angeles for the summer. Or Pasadena, to be exact. I also noted that we are spending the majority of our time eating our way through the San Gabriel Valley, the epicenter of Los Angeles’s Chinese community and the vanguard of Chinese food in America. Several of the SGV’s cities are majority Chinese, so the only minority in the restaurant is often me.
Not that the SGV’s restaurants haven’t been discovered by non-Asians—come evening you’ll find all kinds of people have made the trek and are waiting in the long lines for the current hotspots. But Fong Chong and I usually go for a late lunch, after she gets out of summer school. At 2 p.m., we’re not only avoiding the lines, we’re eating with the locals. And I am almost always the only white person in the room.
Not that I mind in the least. I want Fong Chong to see that I—and everyone else in the restaurant—is comfortable with that situation, since when we are at home in Nashville she is often the only Asian in the restaurant.
Which gets to the real reason of why we’re here in Northeast Los Angeles for a few weeks. At home in Nashville my direct-from-China daughter is one of the few Asians—and very few Chinese—in her school. She knows a lot of Chinese people because she goes to Chinese school on Saturdays. But during the school week, she’s one of a kind.
And let’s be honest—sometimes that’s really hard for her. Nashville is a great, open-minded Southern city, welcoming to new immigrants and refugees. But that doesn’t mean that its kids are yet comfortable with kids from other cultures who speak other languages. Here at South Pasadena High, on the other hand, 40 percent of the students are Asian, mostly Chinese, and the rest have grown up with every culture under the sun. Fong Chong has made more friends—both Asian and otherwise—in a few weeks of summer school than she made in four years of middle school in Tennessee.
For me too, the summer is sweet, since some of my dearest friends are in L.A. or nearby.
Hot Restaurants, Cold Dishes
Or perhaps I should say the summer is spicy. Most of those aforementioned hotspots in the SGV are Sichuan, which has exploded in popularity here (and elsewhere) over the past few years, and especially over the past couple, as first Chengdu Taste and then Szechuan Impression made the scene.
After multiple visits to both, I can attest that the tales of their greatness have not been exaggerated. We have also frequented a few other Sichuan places with their own specialties—cold dishes or dry pot, for example. So this post is a mini tour of Sichuan in the SGV. I was going to try to fit all my favorite dishes into one post, but there’s just too many! So I’m splitting them into two posts, and rather than group them by restaurant I’m serving them by course.
First up are the cold dishes, or liang cai. Sichuan’s “cold” (actually room temperature) dishes—like Western salads—serve as starters or sides. They range from vegetables, seaweed and tofu to chicken, chicken feet and various forms of offal. You can get them readymade at most markets in Chengdu, and many of the more casual restaurants there—especially those that specialize in soups and stews—display a huge range of cold dishes that you can mix and match to start your meal.
A few years ago this became a trend in the SGV, with several Sichuan restos featuring cold tables with multiple enticing choices. The hotspot at that time was Chung King, and its cold dishes were so great that Fong Chong and I almost never got past them to the hot dishes. We just stuffed ourselves on liang cai.
Chung King has since closed, and Chengdu Taste now wears the crown. But CD Taste aspires to be more upscale, with nice decor and white tablecloths. It has cold noodles and cold chicken/rabbit/beef dishes on the menu—as do all Sichuan restaurants—but it doesn’t offer the variety plate of three liang cai for $5 or $6 of which we are so enamored. The same goes for the sensational Szechuan Impression and the lovely Chuan’s (which is the first American outpost of the famed Ba Guo Bu Yi chain, the flagship of which I’ve eaten at many times in Chengdu).
But several of the SGV’s older-school places still offer up a cold table with a nice variety of dishes for your visual and grazing pleasure. We tried, and loved, the cold dishes at Spicy City (San Gabriel; Chongqing-style Sichuan) and Yunnan Restaurant (Monterey Park; named for Yunnan but mostly Sichuan dishes). There are also some that are a farther drive into east SGV. We didn’t make the drive for those, because we didn’t need too—
I won’t judge whether the SGV’s Sichuan is the best in the U.S., but it certainly has the greatest concentration of great Sichuan (and Yunnan and Hunan and Wuhan) in the U.S. We are in heaven.
Below are some of our favorite cold dishes, from both the cold tables and the menus of the SGV. Let me know in the comments which of these dishes you’d most like me to attempt to recreate when I get back to my Chinese kitchen in Nashville, and I’ll give it a try.
Next up, the SGV’s best hot dishes!