Taoist principles call for ingredients to be eaten as close to the way they exist in nature as possible, never overcooked or overseasoned. (Chicken, for instance, is served pink at the bone, and red marrow is the mark of a well-prepared bird.) Cantonese cooking is refined, often done very quickly by steaming or stir-frying, and nearly always light. The Cantonese even favor a soy sauce less viscous and dark than that used in other regions, and their menus tend to emphasize seafood, as the walls of fish tanks in San Gabriel restaurants attest. The Cantonese, who eat five to seven little meals a day so as not to stuff themselves in the warm weather, are also, of course, famous for their dim sum, and lines wind out the doors of valley restaurants on Saturdays and Sundays for that Chinese version of brunch.
Their size may make the Cantonese places the most conspicuous restaurants in the valley, but a random sampling of some of the smaller places packed cheek by jowl along the boulevards and in the mini-malls reveals an astounding variety of cuisines. Recently immigrants from the People's Republic and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam have added to the diversity. Probably no region of China or style of Chinese cooking is unrepresented here. There are Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, where tofu is artfully shaped to look and taste like pork, chicken, or fish. There are Taiwanese restaurants serving Japanese-influenced foods—steamed shrimp with mustard sauce, baked fish with miso, and even sushi. There are extraordinarily authentic Szechuan restaurants serving dishes that combine the numbing heat of peppercorns with the spicy heat of red chilis, like one whose name we saw translated as "spicy with spicy."
There are Shanghai restaurants, serving the cuisine of the rich coastal provinces of Zhejing and Jiangsu—perhaps the most sophisticated restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. These places eschew fierce spices, concentrating instead on bringing out the natural flavors of foods with delicate and ultra-refined seasonings, complemented by vinegar, ginger, scallions, and other aromatics. Even a dish that may taste fresh and unspiced in fact usually requires elaborate preparation: for example, the classic xiao long bao—dainty, bite-sized pork dumplings stuffed with a complex filling and an aspic that melts as the dumplings are steamed, ten at a time in a bamboo steamer (which even imparts its own flavor). They burst with juice in your mouth.
Shanghai restaurants also feature freshwater ingredients like those of the provinces' many rivers and lakes—crab, eel, shrimp, duck, watercress, and bamboo shoots—and incorporate more wine, sugar, and honey in their preparations than do restaurants that specialize in other regional cooking styles. They use special dark soy sauces to produce dishes like "simmered fish tails," in which whole fish are braised in soy sauce, scallions, and ginger until they take on a coppery color and the bones dissolve.
China Valley also has Islamic restaurants, serving food introduced to Beijing by the Mongols, where customers cook paper-thin slices of lamb, glass noodles, and vegetables in communal bowls of steaming soup, dip them in sauces, and eat them with sesame cakes. And there are places that specialize in the thick, irregular noodle of the Shanxi province; places that serve Hunan honey ham; places that suffuse peppery morning-glory stems with garlic, as the ethnic Chinese do in Thailand; places where you can get soupy Fujianese dishes and translucent crepes you paint with sauce and roll around elaborate fillings, to combine more than ten tastes and textures. There are even several examples of an anomalous pan-Asian and American amalgam known as a Hong Kong coffee shop, where at 3:00 A.M. you can get dishes like shredded beef on spaghetti, thousand-year-old-egg congee, and club sandwiches.
ANNA Chi, an independent filmmaker and a casting consultant for such movies as Nixon and The Joy Luck Club, grew up in mainland China and now lives on the Westside of Los Angeles. Ironically, Chi, who was once a leader of the Red Guard and even the subject of a Cultural Revolution poster, has an almost fanatical appreciation of Chinese food. Like many Chinese-Americans who live in southern California outside the San Gabriel Valley, she goes there twice a week or so to eat. Her Chinese friends from other parts of the United States or from the People's Republic always insist on being taken to Monterey Park, as the area is often collectively called. In this mecca of Chinese food they have been known to start early and go from restaurant to restaurant, exhausting the possibilities of an entire mini-mall.
We took the same approach when we devoted an evening with Chi to xiao chi, or "little eating," restaurants, where you can get snacks or lots of different foods, simply prepared, rather than formal courses of complex dishes. We started at a Mandarin restaurant, which, like many others, has an English name, Mastro's Food, that bears no relation to its Chinese name, Three Family Village. Northern Chinese cooking relies heavily on wheat rather than rice, and works that grain to the limit, producing breads and pastas in all sorts of shapes and weights and flavors. Noodles in particular are so important that Mastro's, like most northern-style kitchens, employs a special "white-board" chef just for them. (The "red-board" chef prepares the meat.) We made a tiny dent in the array of handmade noodles, ordering three at one sitting—"shredded," "cat's ear," and "wheat knot." One came in a soup, and the other two were sautéed with a typical northern combination of garlicky pork, vegetables, and plum sauce. With our noodles we sampled what in Beijing are everyday comfort foods: spicy pork on sesame buns, looking remarkably like barbecued-pork sandwiches; cornmeal porridge; and smoky cubes of gelatinized pork skin sprinkled with raw garlic, which the Chinese munch while they drink, the way Americans eat peanuts.
Then, after devouring juicy shrimp-and-leek dumplings in the fluorescent pallor of a tiny dumpling house, we went to a place popular with late-night snackers, Lu's Garden, where a huge bowl of smooth rice congee, or porridge, studded with sweet potatoes is the centerpiece of every meal. The congee there is complemented by crunchy, salty, and spicy side dishes—exotic leafy greens and asparagus (green vegetables always look especially lustrous in China Valley restaurants), shrimp, and a mess of teeny dried anchovies, for instance. Finally we stopped at Tung Lai Shun, a branch of a Chinese Islamic restaurant famous in Beijing (Simonds claims the branch is just as good as the original), for a loaf of sesame bread stuffed with scallions, in case we got hungry on the way home.
Twice during the evening we found ourselves seated next to delegations from the People's Republic, easily identifiable in southern California by their stiff suits. The San Gabriel Valley offers these visiting Chinese, for whom Taiwan is effectively off limits, the best opportunity to sample a greater variety of regional specialties, often prepared with fresher ingredients, than they could find in most of their home towns.
SO the good news is that a fantastic variety of terrific and authentic, not to mention well-priced, Chinese food is right there in suburban Los Angeles, seemingly as accessible as Disneyland and Universal Studios. The bad news is that you probably can't have it. The downside of a suburban Chinatown that attracts few tourists is that restaurateurs have no incentive to make their food easy for non-Chinese to order. If you've ever enviously eyed the interesting dishes that the Chinese people at the table next to you are enjoying, or pointed at one of the "specials" handwritten in Chinese and been assured by a smiling waiter that you won't like it, you understand the frustration.
Of course, we have to admit that those waiters are often right. Having spent years tracking down authentic Chinese food in holes-in-the-wall from Vancouver to Queens, we thought we were bold and sophisticated diners, but when faced with dishes like twice-cooked pig's intestine, sliced beef lung, and shredded pig's ear, we searched the menu for something that sounded more like kung pao chicken. We wouldn't have eaten nearly so well in the San Gabriel Valley if we hadn't often had Chi with us to choose the best dishes, to translate, and to insist that yes, indeed, the confused-looking Westerners fumbling with their chopsticks would like it.
One big problem is the menus. When we went to the Garvey Restaurant, where the Szechuan food was nothing like the takeout we order from the Szechuan restaurants ubiquitous in our own neighborhood, Chi examined the Chinese signs taped to the wall and chose six dishes, only one of which appeared on the English menu. Even when the names were translated into English, the terms were often meaningless (the cat's-ear noodles became "pegular" noodles, for instance) or confusing (the spicy pork on sesame buns was called "pork with seame cookied pie") or even downright unappetizing (like "noodle in gray soup").
In part, obviously, this is a problem of language. Lui Zhishun, the young owner and chef of the Garvey Restaurant, left Chongqing to come to Monterey Park only five years ago, and because he spends sixteen hours a day in the markets and at his restaurant, he has had little time to study English. Nor does he really need to learn it in a place where the bankers, the video-store clerks, the dentists, and the mechanics speak Chinese. (Zhishun's restaurant, by the way, like many of the small places in the San Gabriel Valley, had a short life. The Garvey Restaurant is now a Hong Kong-style seafood house.)
But in part, as Kevin Wu, the owner of the Royal Star (originally a branch of Monterey Park's famous Ocean Star that opened in the affluent Westside community of Santa Monica last year), laments, it is difficult to persuade Chinese restaurateurs that there's any point in making the effort to describe dishes in English with the complex and compelling detail they lavish on the Chinese menu. They're proud of a cuisine that has been continually refined over a 3,000-year history and don't really believe that Westerners can appreciate it. Even a San Gabriel Valley acquaintance of Chi's assumed that Chi had become "pretty American" after ten years in the United States, living on the Westside, and so suggested that they meet for lunch at the Monterey Park branch of Marie Callender's, the southern-California equivalent of Howard Johnson's and one of the very few non-Chinese restaurants still in the area.
ON our way to see the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere, we stopped for gas in the eastern reaches of China Valley, where all the Spanish-style houses in the quintessential southern-California subdivisions look alike. We asked a man in a BMW at the pump next to us to recommend a restaurant in the area. "I think most of the food is too weird for you," he said. But when we assured him that we liked weird food, he was very forthcoming and directed us to a Taipei restaurant popular with Hong Kong movie stars, whose pictures are on its walls.
Wu Gee is just off the freeway in the Diamond Plaza, which is full of Chinese restaurants, and only a quarter of a mile away from the Hong Kong Plaza, which is also full of Chinese restaurants, which is across the street from the Pacific Plaza, a mall in the shape of a medieval castle, which has a food court full of Chinese restaurants, which is right next door to yet another mall, this one without a name but not without Chinese restaurants.
We had never had Taiwanese fire pot before, as the waiter quickly ascertained when we tried to order what were apparently ridiculous combinations. Despite an impenetrable language barrier, the three of us finally managed to cobble together some sort of lunch he could approve. We figured the hard part was over.
But not long after he had brought us a huge bowl of broth that roiled on the table's hot plate, six or seven plates of raw food—including bright-green leaves, thinly sliced beef, and enoki mushrooms—and little bowls of chili sauce, minced garlic, and chopped scallions, he realized that now he had to teach us how to eat the stuff. Once he had shown us that we weren't to drink the broth but rather to cook the other ingredients in it, and once he had mixed our spices and chilis and soy sauce in the proper proportions and demonstrated that we were to season our cooked foods with this, and once he had kept us from dumping all the beef into the pot at once, he invited a friend from the kitchen into the dining room to watch us eat.
Yes, we were a spectacle. In this case two Caucasians eating in a mall in the middle of suburbia made a very weird sight indeed. But finding the exotic amid the familiar is not an unusual experience in Los Angeles. No one can argue that much of southern California is not outwardly homogenous. Much of the population has attained the standard trappings of the American good life—the shiny car, the new house, the well-tended lawn, maybe even the pool. But as the San Gabriel Valley attests, for those who know Los Angeles, its charm is how it juxtaposes this superficial homogeneity—what some might even call sterility—with the vibrant and the strange.