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.)

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.