Regional Chinese Cuisine
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. 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