Americana January 1999

Going All Out for Chinese

Some of the best Chinese food in the world is being served in Los Angeles's new Sino-suburbs

EAST of downtown Los Angeles, just east of East L.A., where the Interstate 10 freeway careens or crawls well beyond the last breath of the ocean toward the Inland Empire, is a series of towns in the San Gabriel Valley. This sprawl looks just like any other tentacle of the southern-California megalopolis except that here the signs for the Rite Aid drugstore, the Walgreen's, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and the car wash are in Chinese. Here in the wide-aisled supermarkets, alongside the Fruit Loops and the Oreos, are tanks of live geoduck and carp, pig snouts and ears and feet, and more than twenty varieties of soy sauce.

This is not a traditional Chinatown; Los Angeles has one of those, too, of course, urban and crowded, but in the San Gabriel Valley the sidewalks aren't wet with fish entrails and the unfamiliar produce doesn't spill into the gutters. Beginning with Monterey Park and spreading into Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead, San Marino, South Pasadena, Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, West Covina, Walnut, City of Industry, Diamond Bar, Arcadia, and Temple City, the largest concentration of Chinese in the United States lives in middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbia, a twenty-mile swath of unassuming wooden bungalows, 1970s stucco condominiums, and lushly landscaped faux-Spanish developments, shot through with commercial strips and studded with mini-malls. Here is the best Chinese food in America.

Food critics agree that Chinese and French, as Julia Child says, "are the two great cuisines of the world," and the San Gabriel Valley has what Chinese-food aficionados find elusive in the United States—real Chinese food. Unlike even the restaurants in New York's and San Francisco's Chinatowns, which are often crowded with tourists on Saturday nights, the hundreds of restaurants here feel no pressure to Americanize, because they cater almost exclusively to the area's huge population of recent immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China; Chinese-Americans who have come from all over southern California and the rest of the country; and delegations from the People's Republic of China.

Here you can encounter tastes that can be found scarcely anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere: dense, chewy hand-cut Shanxi noodles; crispy ground pork spicy with garlic and chilis and the fresh burst of cilantro on soft sesame rolls; tofu as creamy as yogurt; chicken stir-fried with whole red chilis as they do it in Szechuan, until the oil permeates the meat; wheaty "pancakes" whose delicate layers unwind in your hand; Taiwanese dried beef; gingery chicken soup in which the intensely flavored broth comes entirely from condensed steam; and sweet almond tea with beads of tapioca as big as marbles at the bottom of the glass. As a recent visitor from the People's Republic put it, the food in the San Gabriel Valley "has taste of Chinese."

THE San Gabriel Valley didn't become "China Valley" spontaneously. In this respect the area resembles much of the rest of Los Angeles, which didn't evolve so much as it was invented, taking the form willed by particular men—usually real-estate developers. In 1970, two years before a developer named Frederic Hsieh bought his first property in Monterey Park, that city was about 50 percent Caucasian, 34 percent Hispanic, and 15 percent Asian, with the majority of the Asians being Japanese—though among the recent arrivals were a few young Chinese professionals like Hsieh. Monterey Park was perceived as a community for those who had modestly made it, a place like lots of other Los Angeles suburbs where a family could buy a quiet, relatively inexpensive home close to the freeways and downtown. But Hsieh, who continued to buy and develop property in Monterey Park, imagined something much more ambitious. In 1977 he announced to the town's incredulous Chamber of Commerce, "You may not know it, but [Monterey Park] will serve as the mecca for Chinese business."

Hsieh understood that many Chinese with capital to invest were poised to come to America, for the 1965 Immigration Act had dramatically increased the yearly immigration quota from the People's Republic of China and Taiwan to the United States. Because of political instability on Taiwan, the increasingly wealthy population there was a large potential immigrant pool, particularly after 1982, when, Taiwan having relaxed its emigration laws, the United States gave that country its own significant quota. The task Hsieh set for himself was to divert this stream from the traditional U.S. destinations for Chinese immigrants—San Francisco and New York—to suburban Los Angeles. Using an attractive translation of "Monterey Park"—Mengtelu Gongyuan, meaning "Lush, Very Green Park"—Hsieh aggressively marketed the city in Taiwan and Hong Kong as the "Chinese Beverly Hills," promoting its school systems, its proximity to downtown, and its good weather. The campaign worked, drawing hundreds of thousands of Chinese, overwhelmingly from Taiwan, to the area that soon became known as "Little Taipei." Today Monterey Park, with a population that is 60 percent Asian, has a higher concentration of Chinese than any other city in the country. And as the population has increased in number and affluence, it has spread north and east, across the San Gabriel Valley as a whole.

Many in this immigrant wave came with the resources to transform the San Gabriel Valley in just the way Hsieh had anticipated. "First it was the real-estate people, and then trading companies, heavy investors, people that come with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash," a longtime Monterey Park resident explained to Forbes in 1985. So much money poured into the city that tire stores, veterinary hospitals, and doughnut shops were converted into banks. Greater Los Angeles became the largest Chinese business center in North America, and now the San Gabriel Valley is both one of the engines of the southern-California economy and a base for Taiwanese and Hong Kong businesses to expand to other parts of the continent.

Although not all immigrants to the San Gabriel Valley are flush with cash, as a group they are very different from the proletarian work force that lives in, say, New York's Chinatown. Most are highly educated, working in health care, education, and computer technology, for instance, along with banking, real estate, and international trade. By now they have transformed not only Monterey Park but nearly the whole San Gabriel Valley into a focal point of the interdependent Pacific Rim economy, so that it attracts investment from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China (in the past four years overseas Chinese investment in Los Angeles County as a whole has approached $1 billion) and generates capital to be reinvested and goods to be exchanged in Asia. Hsieh eventually expanded his operations across the Pacific, turning back on itself the process he helped to engender and reflecting the interconnectedness of Asia and the San Gabriel Valley.

ALL of this, obviously, has important implications for the global economy and for ethnic and class relations and political power in southern California—in fact, the San Gabriel Valley has been the subject of numerous sociological studies. We came to China Valley recently, however, not to explore weighty issues but to eat.

Stand at almost any point on Atlantic or Garvey, Valley or Garfield—the four major streets that intersect like a tick-tack-toe frame in China Valley—and you can count five, seven, eleven Chinese restaurants, from six-table storefront dumpling houses with fluorescent lights and linoleum floors to marbled and mirrored 800-seat palaces whose parking lots are stuffed with the Mercedes, Infinitis, and BMWs of customers who can afford to pay $40 for braised goose webs with spiny sea cucumbers and $90 for bird's-nest soup. Driving east on Valley, you pass rows of restaurants on both sides of the street, interrupted by mini-malls in which nearly every store is a restaurant. Keep going and you reach the San Gabriel Square, once a drive-in theater, now a mall the size of a city block, built of stucco to resemble a Spanish mission, with two floors of restaurants—all Chinese but one, which is Japanese. Get on the 60 Freeway and drive still farther east to the eerie outskirts of metropolitan Los Angeles, where land prices fall and strawberry fields abut railroad warehouses behind never-ending discount malls, and just off the highway it's the same: malls filled with Chinese restaurants, across the street from more malls filled with Chinese restaurants.

In part, the sheer number of immigrants keeps the food authentic and the restaurant business thriving. The Chinese are so obsessed with food that one Chinese greeting means "Have you eaten?" Thomas Tseng, an urban planner who grew up in Rowland Heights and watched that town's commercial strip change from barber shops and bowling alleys to Chinese restaurants, explains that in Chinese culture socializing is almost impossible without food. As he puts it, "You have to have good food with good conversation." Given that the first order of business when friends and family get together is to decide where they're going to eat, it's no surprise that so many restaurants are packed every weekend. On weeknights restaurants cater to the young professionals in the San Gabriel Valley who have the proclivity and funds to eat out as often as five or six nights a week.

Because so many restaurants are packed so close together, the competition to serve the best food at the lowest prices is fierce. Restaurateurs complained in late 1995 to Shawn Hubler, of the Los Angeles Times, that to keep up they are forced to steal one another's chefs and managers, undercut one another's prices, and stage, say, twenty-eight-course banquets with imported guest chefs. When they see a competitor succeed with a new enterprise or in a new location, they open a copy next door. And the informal places that one would expect to be inexpensive, in which the owner is the chef and manager, are compelled in this sea of restaurants to hold prices lower than low to compete. Six dishes at one of these restaurants, far more than enough food for four big eaters, usually costs less than $30.

But the San Gabriel Valley owes its stellar cuisine to more than the plethora of customers and restaurants. The same factors that make the area interesting sociologically—the predominance of immigrants from Taiwan, the population's relative wealth and continued ties to Asia, and the area's suburban character—make it unique culinarily.

THE finest Chinese food in the world is in Taiwan," Barbara Tropp, a food writer specializing in Chinese cuisine, asserts. Nina Simonds, another prominent Chinese-food expert, calls Taiwan a "treasure trove of cooking." The island's gastronomic distinction is in large part a reaction to the decline of cuisine on the mainland, particularly after the Communist takeover in 1949. In the People's Republic, communism's utilitarian bent first poisoned the culinary arts and then, in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, tried to deracinate what were regarded as the insidious strains of China's former culture. Meanwhile, in Taiwan the Nationalists worked with almost religious fervor to preserve Chinese artistic forms, including gastronomic traditions, which many consider to be as essential to China's culture as its music, art, and dance.

After 1949, when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan from all over the Chinese mainland, the island became a microcosm of that huge country, and its cookery came to demonstrate the glorious range of Chinese cuisine. The far-flung regions of China, each with its own distinct gastronomic style, have given rise to at least 5,000 well-established dishes. So various is this cuisine, Julia Child told us not long ago, that she could happily eat Chinese food every night for the rest of her life. In other cultures crowding such disparate regional traditions onto one small island might have resulted in a new form altogether, a blending of styles, but, as Tropp explains, that idea is anathema to most Chinese sensibilities. Chinese expatriates saw Taiwan as a haven in which to preserve and refine China's gastronomic traditions, so that the island now boasts all the styles of the mainland in addition to its own distinct cuisine.

Immigrants have transplanted this range and refinement to the San Gabriel Valley. "It's almost as if an entire community moved intact to California," Simonds says. In the early 1970s Simonds, who lives in Massachusetts, went to Taiwan to learn Chinese cookery, but today her mentor lives in Monterey Park. When Simonds went to visit her, the teacher took her to a restaurant whose chef, originally from Beijing, had taught Simonds how to make Peking duck.

Many San Gabriel Valley restaurateurs reinvigorate their menus by making a couple of trips a year to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canton, and especially Taipei to identify culinary variations and refinements and to lure top chefs. These chefs find that they are simultaneously sought after by restaurants in all these cities and also those in Vancouver, San Francisco, and the San Gabriel Valley—which effectively make up a single international market. For restaurants in the valley, keeping up with Asia is essential in order to please the sophisticated local diners, who are themselves regularly jetting back to Asia and presumably eating very well there.

MOST of the giant, formal restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are Cantonese, but this is hardly the Americanized "Cantonese" of the old-fashioned chop-suey house. Since the Szechuan and Hunan craze of the 1970s, Caucasians who want to appear sophisticated about Chinese food have looked down their noses at Cantonese restaurants, but that's because they've been served too much gooey sweet-and-sour pork and have never tasted true Cantonese cooking. The Cantonese are, as the Chinese food scholar Kenneth Lo has written, "the sybarites of China so far as food is concerned," and no other regional cooking can compare to Cantonese for "indulgence, variety and range of repertoire." An incredible number of foods flourish in Canton's semitropical climate, and the Cantonese take full advantage of this abundance. (We use the term "foods" loosely—the Cantonese are justly famous for their lack of squeamishness. As the Chinese joke, the Cantonese will eat anything that flies, anything that swims, and anything that has legs except the table.)

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Winston Churchill.

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