99 Essential Restaurants 2014

San Gabriel Valley

Bánh Mì My-Tho

photo by Danny Liao

Until we’re all lucky enough to have neighborhood bánh mì shops the way we have neighborhood taquerias and neighborhood cafés, Bánh Mì My-Tho will have to serve as our collective neighborhood Vietnamese sandwich shop, a tiny, standing room-only place where you’ll find fantastic, crusty bánh mì. Here the sandwiches are layered with pickled carrots and daikon, mayo, sprigs of cilantro and your pick of meat, like, say, grilled pork (thit nuong) or the ever-popular đac biet (cold cuts), which comes with that critical shmear of pâté. Regardless of what you order, you always could top off your sandwich with a fried egg and have yourself the best morning sandwich in L.A. Banh Mi My-Tho has served the breakfast and lunchtime crowd for a remarkable 20 years; even more remarkable — almost criminal, in fact — is that, even after all that time, most every bánh mì here is $3 or less. If there were any justice in the world, a sandwich here would cost at least as much as almost any other sandwich in L.A. But who’s complaining?

-- Tien Nguyen

Chengdu Taste

photo by Amy Scattergood

Shortly after the Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste opened in 2013, long lines began forming on the sidewalk outside, making that stretch of the concrete universe on Valley Boulevard seem like the unlikely home of a pop-up concert or a pot shop. Nope, just hungry people waiting for a bowl of the pragmatically named “numb taste” wontons or a plate of the stunningly good “toothpick lamb,” which is just as pragmatically named and which you can see on pretty much every table in the place, making you also wonder whose job it is to skewer tiny bits of lamb with toothpicks day after day. Thank God somebody does it, as the dishes here are worth the inevitable wait. Which is to say that the lines have not perceptibly diminished — if anything, they’ve gotten longer. Is it worth the hype? Absolutely. For the wontons and the lamb, and also for the dan dan mian and the plates of fish, even the simple dish of spicy cooked cabbage. This is terrific food, done in the manner of Chongqing, sometimes lighter and milder than you’d expect at other SGV Sichuan palaces, but then sometimes not. Bring a book and maybe a lawn chair. And yes, order the rabbit with “younger sister’s secret recipe.” Would that Chengdu Taste wrote everybody’s menu.

-- Amy Scattergood

Din Tai Fung

photo by Danny Liao

Happily these days there are many places in L.A., particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, where you can get an order of xiao long bao, the basket of Shanghai-style soup dumplings uncovered with a flourish when it arrives at your table, like the magic trick it is. So easy is it to find XLB that you might sometimes question the wisdom of waiting in the invariably long lines at any of the three Din Tai Fung locations. Bring your Tolstoy-loaded Kindle, because however long the wait is, it’s worth it — particularly at the original shop in Arcadia, the first U.S. branch of the famous Taipei dumpling palace. Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are works of art, their near-perfect architecture of filling and soup and wrapper repeated 10 times in each basket. Ask for (at least) one order of the juicy pork dumplings, then as many as you can manage of the rest, plus maybe some shao mai and spicy wontons, fried rice and mustard greens and cucumbers — we could go on, but maybe just get in your car and get in line instead.

-- Amy Scattergood

Golden Deli

photo by Danny Liao

Golden Deli is now just over three decades young, or, to put in perspective, the same age as a Millennial. That it has not only survived but thrived, in a part of town that sees restaurants open and close with alarming regularity, is testament to its dependability, which rivals that of your old Civic. No matter what your age, the bowls of pho here are always comforting, as is the chicken curry served with bánh mì or steamed rice. And, of course, those egg rolls: search for #chagio on Instagram, and you’ll very likely pull up at least one photo of the restaurant’s amber, cigar-sized egg rolls. With the possible exception of the ones your family makes at home, these are the best you’ll find in L.A. County. More recently, the restaurant introduced cupcakes — yes, cupcakes — to its menu; as is the style these days, these are sometimes topped with things like Fruity Pebbles. Will you Instagram them, too? Probably. But not before posting a photo of that egg roll. Hashtag: best.

-- Tien Nguyen

Ha Tien Quan

photo by Danny Liao

Part of the menu at Ha Tien Quan you’ve seen before: pho, rice with grilled pork chops. The other part? That’s where things get interesting. Ha Tien is a city on the Mekong Delta well known for its bun mam, a hyper-regional soup that’s often referred to as “Vietnamese gumbo.” Like comparing bánh xèo to a crepe, though, this is an analogy so inexact as to be almost useless. Bun mam is a soup that can be defined only on its own terms, and there is perhaps no better place to experience it than at Ha Tien Quan. Here, rice noodles, eggplant, shrimp, pork belly and catfish are submerged in a complex, murky broth with a profoundly fishy umami, which can be traced to the fermented anchovies that owner Larry Ta imports from Vietnam. It’ll be served with herbs and a lemon wedge; both should be liberally applied. You’ll also want to order cha gio re — egg rolls with an intricate net of thin vermicelli, rather than rice paper or egg wrapper, hugging the filling. Is any other restaurant in L.A. cooking what Ha Tien Quan is cooking, and just as well? Probably not. All the more reason to go.

-- Tien Nguyen

JTYH Heavy Noodle II

photo by Anne Fishbein

In the vast pantheon of noodle-dom — the pasta rolled paper-thin by Italian grandmothers, the noodles pulled and strung tableside at Chinese restaurants, the udon pounded and sliced as finely as filaments — there are few things as glorious as a bowl of knife-shaved noodles done in the manner of Shanxi. At JTYH, an unassuming restaurant at the back of a Rosemead parking lot, there are many, many bowls of some of the best hand-shaved noodles in Los Angeles. You can choose your method of delivery, as half the menu, more than 30 dishes, is devoted to the noodles. They come heavily laced with Sichuan peppercorns in a numbing dan dan sauce; submerged in a soup with stewed beef tendon; pan-fried with pieces of meltingly tender lamb. Once you tire of noodles, you might try some of the dumplings that restaurant workers often make at one of the center tables in the afternoons. Or the excellent leek buns, their edges fried to gorgeous filigrees. Or just get them to go (sold frozen, they’re 50 for $15), and order another bowl of noodles.

-- Amy Scattergood

Lunasia

photo by Amy Scattergood

If your ideal weekend brunch involves not pancakes and mimosas but rather shrimp har-gow and chrysanthemum tea, the San Gabriel Valley and its formidable, frenetic dim sum scene probably is where you want to be first thing Sunday morning. Specifically, you might want to head to Lunasia, perhaps the most formidable, most frenetic dim sum restaurant of late, a sprawling emporium in Alhambra where you’ll put your name down on a long waiting list and will be handed a pencil and a paper menu in return. The menu unfolds like a map. You’ll huddle with your group and check off your desired dishes one by one: Yes, a few orders of fantastic, fist-sized, pork shu mai, and certainly the fluffy BBQ pork buns — but also Lunasia’s take on pan-fried turnips, tossed here in a blistery XO sauce, or the white radishes fried to a delicately crunchy puff. This might be one of the most decidedly modern dim sum stops in the SGV, so you may not be surprised to count four flat-screen televisions on the walls. Dim sum and the Dodgers? There is no better place in town to catch a game.

-- Tien Nguyen

Newport Tan Cang Seafood

photo by Amy Scattergood

At Newport Tan Cang Seafood, the hugely popular, Vietnamese-inflected Chinese restaurant located in a former Marie Callender’s on Las Tunas, you’ll likely wait for your table in the same part of the restaurant that houses tanks of crustaceans. Many will stare at you as you wait; many more will bear a passing resemblance to the frightening extraterrestrial from Alien. For those who grew up believing that a trip to the aquarium was the same thing as a trip to 99 Ranch, though, those tanks won’t be as scary as that wait: On a weekend night, it feels like half the San Gabriel Valley is here, and here specifically for the restaurant’s formidable house special lobster. The lobster of Newport clocks in at 5 pounds or more; it comes out fried and fiery red, showered with black pepper, chiles and scallions and not so much placed as heaped on a plate. Most tables, you’ll notice, also have a spread of clams, shaking beef (bo luc lac), pan-fried pork chops and fried rice, all of which are very, very good and, as it happens, pretty much represent all that is wonderful about eating in the San Gabriel Valley.

-- Tien Nguyen

Omar’s Xinjiang Halal

photo by Anne Fishbein

The people who love Omar’s Xinjiang Halal operate as a sort of secret-handshake society, meeting up in the parking lot behind the decidedly inauspicious San Gabriel Valley restaurant in small groups. Only difference is that the point of their excursion is the lamb and noodles inside instead of, well, whatever other reason you meet someone in a parking lot. And what a point it is. This is Islamic Uyghur cooking, in the manner of Xinjiang, which is the northwestern corner of China bordering Mongolia and about a half-dozen other mountainous countries. Bring lots of friends, because you’ll over-order in remarkable ways. And send someone in to reconnoiter, to grab a table and order the Big Plate Chicken, which takes a while to make, especially if you order it (as you should) with the fantastic hand-pulled noodles. Then order as many variations of lamb as you can manage while you wait for that plate — which comes loaded with chicken and noodles and vegetables and a remarkable sauce, plus a pair of scissors to manage the noodles. The family that owns the place will keep your pot of tea filled, and a small boy might Rollerblade through the cozy dining room pulling noodles (not kidding). Shake hands. Tip well. Plan your next visit. Reconsider Rollerblades.

-- Amy Scattergood

Sinbala

photo by Danny Liao

Pity anyone for whom “snacks” still means a trip to the 7-Eleven — or the vending machine. An infinitely better, and just as economical, solution is to head for the San Gabriel Valley mini-malls, particularly the one in Arcadia that houses the fantastic Taiwanese snack shop Sinbala. Sinbala specializes in small plates, snacks or, as the massive menu characterizes the surfeit of wealth between its pages, “deli food.” As you wait outside the restaurant along with what seems to be half the population of Arcadia, you’ll probably spend a while memorizing the numbers of the dishes you want — the radish cakes, the spicy noodles, definitely the plate of sausages with slices of raw garlic. You won’t be disappointed, and you certainly won’t be hungry for long. The milk tea is sweet and strong, the pumpkin noodles are outstanding, the shaved ice is marvelous — and the amount of raw garlic you’ll happily munch with your sausages will keep you pungent and healthy for days. Or at least until you make it back, hungry again, to the strip mall.

-- Amy Scattergood

Summer Rolls

photo by Anne Fishbein

Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa closed late last year for renovations, reopening right around the Lunar New Year with a fresh coat of paint and a new name on its sign — Summer Rolls: A Nem Nuong Restaurant. If you’ve been here before, though, you’ll quickly realize that these changes are merely cosmetic; this is the restaurant you’ve always known, bursting with the same infectious energy. Families and extended families are, as always, cramming the tables for the nem nuong, very porky, charbroiled meatballs that you can, and should, order as part of a DIY spring-roll platter, which includes the nem nuong, pork sausage patties, cigarette-thin shrimp egg rolls, a plate overflowing with herbs and, finally, a thick pile of rice paper wrappers. That everyone here clearly loves to wrap and roll is an understatement: Mere days after reopening, there was barely an empty table in the house — no small feat given that the restaurant practically shares a wall with an In-N-Out Burger. Then again, if your stomach is set on stellar nem nuong, not even the smell of animal-style fries could convince you otherwise.

-- Tien Nguyen