Authentic Asian Cuisine: A Unique Food Culture in the 626

Originally published in The Quarterly, Summer 2015 issue

By Ann Suk Wang

Venture east, not Far East, but much closer for some Asian palate pleasers. East of Los Angeles and into the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) is where a vast variety of authentic Chinese food outmatches any outside Asia. These days, even New York, San Francisco, and Chinatowns around the country cannot compare to the offerings in the “626” (a term adopted by Generation Xers and Millennials, referring to their beloved hip area code.)

Truffle Pork XiaoLong Bao from Din Tai Fung. Photo courtesy of dintaifungusa.com
Truffle Pork XiaoLongBao from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

In our cultural stew that is Southern California, the SGV is a welcome haven and home to many new immigrants, primarily from Asia. And we all benefit from the cultural exchange, especially when it comes to the amazing food options around Main Street and Valley Boulevard.

According to Clarissa Wei, columnist for Have You Eaten? at kcet.org,

“We have some of the most apt and undiluted representations of Asian cuisine here.” From Yelp reviews to food bloggers and top food critics, people agree that the SGV is turning the commonly thought of “Chinese food” on its head and has been for the last 30 years. The poor man’s chow mein is old school. Now, specialties like “water boiled fish” from Sichuan are perfected nearby and take the spotlight.

Even the entertainment industry speaks to the unique food culture in the 626. The Fung Brothers ignited excitement around businesses in the SGV while giving people a taste of good eats on their catchy YouTube music video that went viral in 2012 and remains unmatched. Search “Fung Bros 626” for the original video and bounce along.

“We didn’t create the food wave, the Asian food movement; but we helped brand it,” says David Fung in a phone interview from South Carolina where the brothers are filming a show for the FYI network. They helped make it cool for the younger generation to drink boba milk tea and have pride in their neighborhood.

Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit dintaifungusa.com
Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

But taking a step back, the Asian food boom in the area began in the 70s. The attraction for Asian immigrants to come to the SGV can be traced back to a single realtor, Fredrick Hsieh. “He wanted to make Monterey Park the new Taipei,” says Tony Chen, freelance food writer at Eater.com and SinoSoul.com. Wei adds in her article in firstwefeast.com, “He began to advertise homes in the San Gabriel Valley in Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers. In the 1980s, Monterey Park was heralded as the Chinese Beverly Hills. Today, that title belongs to Arcadia.”

The affluent, who were drawn to the SGV, brought their appetite for authentic quality food with them. Today, more wealthy mainland Chinese people are attracted to the area, bringing with them even more tasteful delights, pushing the boundary of culinary excellence even further east, past the 605 Freeway.

Sichuan food is an example of even more variety in Chinese food now available in the area. “Sichuan food has blown up in China and now here,” says Chen. For some of the best and spiciest dishes, try one of Chen’s and Wei’s favorites: Szechuan Impression in Alhambra. Chen raves, “They’re elevating the game. They believe in restauranteering.”

Some of Fung’s favorites include (and I must agree here): Savoy for their juicy Hainan Chicken and Vietnam House for your pho fix (pho – pronounced “fuh” – is a noodle soup with fresh herbs, vegetables and meat.) Both are modest restaurants that serve delicious food at a very reasonable price. Expect a wait, especially at Savoy on weekends and lunch and dinner hours.

For the best variety in one location, visit the hugely popular “626 Night Market” at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia. There you can try many types of food like Korean BBQ, fried squid on a stick and egg custard desserts. End the night by sharing a packed bowl of Asian fruit over shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk while enjoying arts, entertainment and shopping that doesn’t break the bank.

Modeled after the famed Night Markets of Taiwan where patrons push through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, vying for the freshest foods and the most popular goods, the Arcadia version is much tamer in comparison, but still scented with stinky tofu and lots of fun. The next of these periodic events will be July 3-5. Visit http://www.626nightmarket.com for details.

Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit newportseafood.com
Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit: newportseafood.com

Whatever your taste, you can certainly enjoy the combination of exotic authentic ingredients only 10-15 minutes away. Even better, you’re sure to find new favorites there.

** Some of my favorite Pan-Asian fare in the 626:

– Din Tai Fung (Arcadia) for hand-made Taiwanese xiaolongbao or juicy pork dumplings. Also try the Shanghai rice cake, cucumber salad, fried rice, and 8-treasure sticky rice for dessert.

– Golden Deli (San Gabriel, Temple City) for Vietnamese pho noodles, spring rolls and egg rolls.

– Lunasia (Alhambra, Pasadena) or King Hua (Alhambra) for dim sum, a sampling of Chinese dishes.

– Newport Seafood (San Gabriel and other locations) for their special lobster.

– Phoenix Food Boutique (South Pasadena, Arcadia) for any meal item and dessert.

– Noodle World (San Marino, Alhambra, Pasadena, Monterey Park) for pan-Asian noodles.

– Huge Tree Pastry (Monterey Park) for authentic Taiwanese breakfasts and classic dishes.

– Why Thirsty (San Gabriel) for Taiwanese pork chops and fresh tea.

– Fluff Ice (Monterey Park) for a unique take on shaved ice.

– Paris Baguette (Arcadia) and 85 Degrees (Pasadena) for French and Asian-inspired desserts and coffee.

– Half and Half Tea (Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Monterey Park and other locations) for honey boba (tapioca pearls) and ice milk drinks. I ask for everything “½ sweet” for less sugar.

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Extraordinary Child Chefs

Final 6: Gavin, Sarah, Troy, Dara, Jack and Alexander Photo credit: Mercury News
Final 6: Gavin, Sarah, Troy, Dara (final 2), Jack and Alexander (final 2)
Photo credit: Mercury News

I have always believed you can learn something new from anybody. This could not be more true than in “MasterChef Junior,” where 8-13 year-olds create restaurant-quality dishes in a competition judged by popular professionals: Chef Gordon Ramsay, restaurateur/winemaker Joe Bastianich and Chef Graham Elliot.

The entertainment value is high and heartwarming, while the ability of these kids never cease to amaze and inspire me.

A nationwide search found 25 young home cooks to compete on the MasterChef stage. And now there are two!

This Friday, November 8, on Fox at 8/7c, the first-ever Junior MasterChef will be crowned, along with a prize of $100,000.

What makes this show so special? Simply, the kids. They are really just kids… with fantastically mature abilities to create culinary works of art.

During a mystery box challenge with less than kid-friendly ingredients like snail, kidneys, sardines and brussel sprouts, to name a few, 9-year-old Sarah from Culver City, CA said with a scrunched face, “This is so not gummy bears!”

I fell in love with this adorable and passionate Sarah who made a perfect lava cake in one show, a winning Mediterranean dish of fried sardines and an olive salad in another show, and in yet another episode, eagerly yelled “Whip it like a man” to whip into shape fellow contestant, Gavin, during a competition to turn cream into “soft peaks” by hand. (As an adult, I am still unable to do this.)

When Judge Bastianich tried to make Sarah feel better for dropping a pan on the floor with a cut of beef still on top and sharing that he believes in the 5-second rule, she whispered, “You do know you’re being recorded.” And when she didn’t move on to the top 4, I admittedly cried with a tearful Sarah.

However, other favorites did move on, like lovable Hawaiian-shirt wearing 10-year-old Jack from East Rockaway, New York and hard-core 12-year-old Troy from Thousand Oaks, CA.

Dara, 12, from Culver City, CA, made her mother’s wedding cake, wears a huge Hello Kitty-like bow on her head and has a smile to match. In the last episode, according to the judges, she made soy and ginger wings with pickled vegetables that not only should be on a restaurant’s menu, but was worthy of being a restaurant’s “signature dish.”

But the one to beat is the composed 13-year-old Alexander from New York, NY. One of the judges noted about him, that he has a special relationship with food. He made liver (something he has never liked or worked with) into a beautifully rustic and savory masterpiece, moving him onto “another level” of culinary excellence. After trying Alexander’s creation, Ramsay jokingly offered him a job as assistant sous-chef at his restaurant in London. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some truth to his offer; Alexander’s creativity knows no bounds.

Whether taking over the kitchen of an upscale restaurant in LA, making aioli and macaroons by heart, or cooking with spaetzle or branzino (what is that?), these kids teach me and my own kids, the possibilities when passions are pursued.

Yes, it is fascinating to watch children turn various ingredients into artful creations, but it is also motivating for our family to be inspired together. After each episode, my boys (11 and 6) are encouraged to try new foods and cook with me more often. (Maybe I can groom them to become contestants in the future? Okay, if you knew my boys, you would know that’s a long shot, but if they could cook even one meal a month that would be tremendous progress!)

Even more, watching these kids’ accomplishments, opens a discussion about excellence in whatever my children do, the hard work needed and the perseverance to keep on pressing on.

If you know any amazing child chefs, sign them up here for the next season http://www.fox.com/masterchef-junior/ — then let me know you did!

Warmer and messier side of judges: Chef Gordon Ramsay, Chef Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich Photo credit: TV Guide

Warmer and messier side of judges: Chef Gordon Ramsay, Chef Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich
Photo credit: TV Guide