If there’s a de facto mecca for Chinese food in this country, it’s surely located in the greater Los Angeles area—more specifically, the suburban enclaves of the San Gabriel Valley, whose satellite communities have earned SoCal elite status as a destination for Sichuan specialties and grapefruit-sized dumplings. The New York metropolitan area boasts a larger Chinese-American population than metro Los Angeles, so how did this shift in power take place?
From 2009 through 2013, more Chinese immigrants came to Los Angeles County than any other U.S. county. Eight of the ten suburbs with the highest percentage of Chinese population reside in the San Gabriel Valley. China, meanwhile, is made up of 22 provinces, four autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions. Currently, 25 of those 32 cuisines are represented in the SGV.
In the 1980s, one of those suburbs, Monterey Park, was billed as the ‘Chinese Beverly Hills,’ ushering in a population comprised of professional, technical, and upper middle-class Chinese with legit spending power. That type of clientele attracted not only serious international investment, but also classically trained chefs with impressive pedigrees from places like Sichuan.
When chef Tony Xu opened Chengdu Taste in Alhambra in 2013, it proved a game-changer—hour-long waits made folks perk up and take notice. Sichuan restaurants had long been part of the area, so what made Chengdu Taste different? It was Xu’s creative use of Weibo, the Chinese version of Facebook, and his higher-quality ingredients that set a higher standard for the cuisine—and spawned a series of copycats in its wake.
L.A.’s sheer number of restaurants—and resultant increased competition—didn’t hurt its cause either. Los Angeles attorney David Chan, a keen observer of the Chinese restaurant scene, estimates there are 800 total restaurants, with 200 of those situated along Valley Boulevard (a.k.a., “The Magic Mile”). To parse out the overwhelming amount of options, from lamb meat pies to soup dumplings, here we give you a breakdown of regional Chinese food in the greater Los Angeles area.
All photos by Jim Thurman, unless otherwise noted.
I. North China
Target areas: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi
Styles and traditions: Wheat is the grain of choice in the north, where it’s primarily used for noodles, buns, and dumpling wrappers. Peking duck might be the best known dish from Beijing, but lamb and pork are the most common meats. Offal dishes are also popular, like the pungent garlic-drenched liver and intestine stew, chao gan. Located not far from Beijing, the seaport city of Tianjin makes use of more seafood and river fish. Both cities are known for use of salt as a seasoning, though Tianjin less so than Beijing. Corn and millet also turn up in Tianjin-style cuisine. Located over the mountains to the west of Beijing, Shanxi Province has a reputation for its noodles and aged vinegar. It’s said there are 1,000 types of noodles in Shaanxi.
Where to find it: Beijing cuisine is in surprisingly short supply in the SGV, but fortunately there is Beijing Restaurant (250 W. Valley Blvd, #B2, San Gabriel; 626-570-8598). Though run by someone from Tianjin, the restaurant features a large menu of items from the nation’s capital, but you won’t find Peking duck. For that, there are a couple of aptly named duck specialists, most notably Duck House (501 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park; 626-284-3227). Beijing Pie House (846 E Garvey Ave, #3A, Monterey Park; 626-288-3818) serves meat pies to doorknob-sized xian bing, which feature a thin layer of pliable dough and are lightly pan-fried. The lamb pies, however, are the most touted. Tianjin Bistro (534 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; 626-288-9966) features a menu filled with dishes from its namesake city, including the bone-filled yellow croaker fish with dense corn cakes, and meat-filled Tianjin-style steamed buns. For Shanxi-style noodles, JTYH (9425 Valley Blvd, Rosemead; 626-442-8999) has been the favorite for dao xiao mian (knife-shaved noodles) and cat’s-ear noodles, so named for their resemblance to feline ears. A fairly recent opening, Lao Xi Noodle House (600 Live Oak Ave, Suite A, Arcadia; 626-348-2290) features those familiar Shanxi items with some obscurer items, such as potato starch noodles and thickly sliced buckwheat noodles. The Lao Xi’er fried mixed vegetables is a Shanxi version of home fries, using shredded potatoes.
II. Northeast China
Target areas: Lianoning, Jilin, Heliongjiang
Styles and traditions: Collectively known as Dongbei, which literally translates as “east-north,” the three provinces in the heavily industrial region are known for brutally cold winters. As one might expect, hearty food is in order. Meats and starches, and liberal use of vinegar, are common. A Dongbei favorite is pickled cabbage (suan cai), which is remarkably similar to sauerkraut. Pork and cabbage stew and dumplings are signature dishes of the region, which features food quite unlike you’ll see anywhere else around China. With Lianoning bordering the Korean Peninsula, there are some shared influences and commonalities with Korean cuisine. The region also boasts the original sweet and sour pork, guo bao rou (twice cooked pork) that is far superior to the overly sweet, gloppy Americanized version.
Where to find it: More and more Dongbei-style restaurants are opening in the area. Among the dishes at Yao’s Restaurant (1277 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; 626-281-9261) are breakfast congees (rice porridge) and corn flour noodles in soup. For the widest Dongbei-style menu, check out Shen Yang (137 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel; 626-292-5758).
III. East China
Target areas: Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong
Styles and traditions: Shanghainese food is milder due to a restrained use of chile peppers, and is much sweeter from adding sugar. Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are among the better-known Shanghainese items. Another favorite is niangao, a stir-fry of glutinous rice, pounded, rolled, sliced, then mixed with Chinese cabbage and either pork or chicken in a brown sauce. Jiangsu and Zhejiang, to the north and south respectively from Shanghai, feature cuisines similar in style to Shanghainese, yet distinctively their own. Further north, Shandong Province is known for its use of onions and soy sauce—particularly in the form of the scallion pancake, cong you bing.
Where to find it: Shanghai Dumpling House (227 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; 626-282-1348) features a small menu of classic Shanghainese dishes including xiao long bao Nanxiang-style and rice cakes. Kang Kang Food Court (multiple locations), might just be a humble Pan-Chinese steam tray place, but it serves the best sheng jian bao, a pork-filled bread that is steamed and then pan-fried on the bottom. Bamboo Creek (331 W Garvey Ave, Monterey Park; 626-569-9919) is the only place you’ll find specific Jiangsu and Zhejiang dishes such as shredded eel, while Wang Xing Ji (140 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; 626-307-1188) is a branch of a dumpling house from the Jiangsu city of Wuxi that dates back to 1913. It’s the only place to get the softball-sized juicy pork and crab bun, tang bao, a huge soup dumpling filled with broth sucked through a boba straw, as well as the much sweeter Wuxi-style xiao long bao. One of the few sit down Shandong-style restaurants, Earthen (1639 S Azusa Ave, Hacienda Heights; 626-964-1570) is known for its great rendition of the scallion pancake, a chewy, layered pastry, and its House Chicken, done Shandong-style with garlic, soy sauce, and black vinegar.
IV. South Central China
Target areas: Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hong Kong
Styles and traditions: The spiciest and hottest of all Chinese cuisine is that from Hunan, whose dishes often include piles of dried, pickled, and fresh peppers that bring waves of capsaicin. (If it weren’t for the piles of peppers and chile oil, it could pass for Midwestern fare.) Hubei Province is bordered by Hunan and Sichuan, which means its cuisine often skews spicy, though not nearly as much as its neighbors. Guandong, the former Canton, at one time represented what most Americans knew as Chinese food. While Cantonese cuisine has faded somewhat with immigration patterns, there are still Cantonese palaces that serve high-end seafood dinners after dim-sum service ends. The autonomous region of Guangxi is home to the city of Guilin, known for rice noodles in a heavily vinegared broth, while the island of Hainan specializes in Hainan chicken, a dish that spread around southeast Asia to be considered a national dish in both Singapore and Malaysia. Hong Kong’s specialty, of course, is dim sum.
(Photo: Yelp/Cristina G.)
Where to find it: The area has several good choices for dim sum, and everyone has his or her favorite. Elite (700 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park; 626-282-9998) is always mentioned in discussions on the subject, but most acknowledge Sea Harbour (3939 Rosemead Blvd, Rosemead; 626-288-3939) as the mantle-holder for its range and innovative items. Hunan Mao (8728 Valley Blvd, #101, Rosemead; 626-280-0588) is the standout for steamed fish head with chiles, and Gui Lin Cuisine (138 E Garvey Ave, Monterey Park; 626-280-9818) has the widest selection of Guilin-style noodle soups. While there aren’t any specifically Hainanese places, Savoy Kitchen (138 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; 626-308-9535) is perpetually crowded with folks ordering the signature chicken dish. Food from Hubei’s capital city of Wuhan is better represented around L.A. than anywhere else in the U.S., with four restaurants featuring the lesser-known cuisine. Tasty Dining (301 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; 626-570-1234) and Happy Tasty (140 W Valley Blvd, No. 209, San Gabriel; 626-348-3885) have Wuhan specialties such as dry pots, dou pi (shrimp and pork bits with mushroom wrapped in a pan-fried tofu skin), and mian wo (savory doughnuts made from soy milk and rice flour). Premier Dessert Art (four locations) is a fairly recent arrival featuring a mix of modern Hong Kong-style and traditional Cantonese.
V. Southwest China
Target areas: Chongqing, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan
Styles and traditions: Sichuan is regarded for its fiery, chili pepper-laden dishes as well as its Sichuan peppercorns, which provide numbing relief from the heat. This varies within Sichuan, as food from the city of Chongqing, formerly Sichuan’s capital, is generally much hotter and spicier than that from the city of Chengdu. Guizhou Province combines the spiciness of neighboring Sichuan with the sourness from vinegar, while Yunnan is known for its rice noodles and cured ham.
Where to find it: The most acclaimed restaurant, Chengdu Taste (locations in Alhambra, Rosemead and Rowland Heights), set a new standard for ingredients and technique with dishes like Diced Rabbit with Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe, and Toothpick Lamb with cumin. Szechuan Impression (1900 W Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-283-4622) soon followed with traditional Sichuanese items. Don’t look for mapo tofu or dan dan mian though, as owners Lynn Liu and Kelly Xiao want you to delve deeper into genre’s history. Most of the Yunnan-style restaurants in the U.S. are in greater Los Angeles. At Yunnan Garden (545 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel) you can get Yunnan’s signature dish: Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles. It’s a mild chicken broth with rice noodles, thin slices of ham, chicken, bean curd sheets, bok choy, and sprouts that reminds one of a milder version of pho ga, the chicken soup from Vietnam, which shares a border with Yunnan Province. Taste Guizhou (17919 E Gale Ave, #101, City of Industry; 626-839-9989) is the only restaurant featuring more than an item or two from Guizhou, including the signature fish and tomato in sour soup. You can also find dishes made using the provincial specialty, zao lajiao, a pepper paste fermented in baiju.
VI. Northwest China
Target areas: Shaanxi, Gansu, Xinjiang
Styles and traditions: Shaanxi Province, not to be confused with adjacent Shanxi Province, makes wheat noodles and breads. Gansu Province is home to Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles, which are served in a clear, mild beef broth alongside thinly sliced beef. Xinjiang is home to the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority. Being muslim means following the halal code—lamb, hand-pulled noodles, breads, and rice pilaf show the pronounced Central Asian influence.
Where to find it: Shaanxi Gourmet (locations in Rosemead and Arcadia) and Xi’an Kitchen (18213 E Gale Ave, City of Industry; 626-965-9000) have pretty much anything New Yorkers will find at Xi’an Famous Foods, such as cold skin noodles, belt-wide biang biang noodles, and ground cumin lamb burgers. At China Tasty (1308 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; 626-457-8483) you can watch through a large window as your Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles are made to order. For Xianjing-style cuisine, Omar (1718 N. New Ave, San Gabriel; 626-570-9778) and Silk Road Garden (18920 E Gale Ave, Rowland Heights; 626-999-6165) serve cumin lamb skewers and da pan ji, literally “big plate chicken,” a seasoned, chopped chicken, served over winding strands of noodles.