San Gabriel Velley | 99 Essential Restaurants 2015

San Gabriel Valley

Chengdu Taste

photo by Jim Thurman

The Sichuan restaurant trend has climbed to even greater heights in the San Gabriel Valley this year, elevating once-obscure provincial dishes, such as diced rabbit in younger sister’s secret sauce or “water-boiled” fish with green chiles, into the kind of experience that often requires waiting an hour outside a Valley Boulevard storefront. What continues to set Chengdu Taste apart is not only its electrifying use of lip-numbing peppercorns and tongue-lashing chile oil but its tantalizing restraint in the sweat-inducing heat department. The gustatory equivalent of a slinky burlesque performance, a meal at Chengdu reveals its heat slowly, giving way from milder dishes such as garlicky dan dan mian to deep-fried tubes of intestine that practically twitch with spice. The waiters, to their credit, prepare you well: The meal begins with a plastic sheath to protect your phone from chile-soaked fingers, and ends with a bottle of soothing yogurt accompanying the check. —Garrett Snyder

Din Tai Fung

photo by Danny Liao

More often than not, going to the San Gabriel Valley to eat means going to the San Gabriel Valley to eat xiao long bao, those soup dumplings filled with minced pork and boiling hot broth, which are brought to your table in steaming silver covered baskets and unveiled with a flourish. While there are those who may quibble with Din Tai Fung — that its dumpling skins are too thin, that its prices are a whopping buck or two more than other XLB joints — it’s hard to not at least appreciate how terrific DTF’s XLB really are: These are juicy, deeply flavorful dumplings wrapped so tight they may as well be hermetically sealed. The other plates on the menu shouldn’t be ignored; Din Tai Fung also makes fairly elegant spicy wontons, nicely chewy rice cakes and a surprisingly comforting chicken soup. How can you quibble with all that? —Tien Nguyen

Dai Ho Kitchen

photo by Clarissa Wei

For 3½ hours each day during lunch, Dai Ho Kitchen in Temple City serves what can only be described as life-altering noodles. They are soft, slurpable and slightly stretchy, formed by hand each morning and sold out by early afternoon. You can order them in a murky, long-simmered beef broth speckled with chile oil, smothered in creamy sesame sauce, or topped with ground pork and fermented bean paste. That’s essentially the menu (outside of the deli containers of pickled items filling the refrigerator case), as it has unflinchingly remained for almost two decades. Are owners May and Jim Ku the original noodle Nazis, as some customers have joked? Put it this way — they were doing the “substitutions politely declined” thing long before it was cool. —Garrett Snyder

Golden Deli

photo by Danny Liao

By now, you know about Golden Deli. You know about its egg rolls (still the best in Los Angeles County). You know about its pho (no longer the best, still considerably more than serviceable when it’s sweater weather). You know about its operating hours (closed on Wednesdays; you may know this, but it doesn’t mean you’ll remember it). You know, in other words, that Golden Deli is as reliable as your old Honda Civic, the quintessential Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in generalities, meaning it’s the place to go when you and your buddies want a little bit of everything: pho, bun, egg rolls, egg noodles. It’s not without reason, then, that folks have been lining up here for more than three decades now. And likely will continue to do so for decades more. —Tien Nguyen

Hot Pot Hot Pot

photo by Danny Liao

For a city that rarely sees temperatures drop below 60 degrees, Angelenos have a surprising appreciation for hot pot, the communal meal that involves dunking various proteins, noodles and vegetables into scalding broth. At Monterey Park’s ever-popular Hot Pot Hot Pot, Mongolian-style hot pot has evolved into a sort of hyperefficient dance. Carts whisk by, filled with everything from sliced squid to beef tendon, flanked by cauldrons of potent bubbling soup at each table’s center, seasoned with scalding amounts of red chile and peppercorns, or a more soothing assortment of medicinal herbs and roots. At the heart of any hot-pot meal is choice, and the best testament to Hot Pot Hot Pot, perhaps, is that here it is hard to make a wrong choice.—Garrett Snyder

JTYH Heavy Noodle II

photo by Anne Fishbein

One of the heavy hitters of the San Gabriel Valley noodle scene is JTYH Heavy Noodle II, an entirely unassuming restaurant in one of those ubiquitous strip malls. Here you’ll find fantastic Shanxi-style noodles hand-cut by the chef, Shi Peng. Well, hand-shaved might be more accurate: Using a thin metal blade that resembles the bench scraper you use to round your sourdough, Peng shaves rough strands of noodles from a smooth mound of dough; the fresh noodles then make their way into more than half of the dishes on the menu. There is, for instance, the terrific dan dan mian, or the Taiwanese beef soup. Even the moo shu pork, which is described on the menu as “cat ears” because of its shape, is worth a try, especially if your last memory of the dish involves a shopping mall food court. Unsurprisingly, fresh noodles and nicely scrambled eggs make a world of difference. The restaurant also makes great, thick-skinned bao stuffed with pork, then steamed and pan-fried until their bottoms are beautifully golden. —Tien Nguyen

Lunasia

photo by Clarissa Wei

Dim sum in the SGV: It’s not just brunch, it’s a lifestyle — one that involves spending Sundays braving overcrowded lobbies, aggressive elderly women and elbow-banging steamer carts. At Lunasia, the modernized Alhambra banquet hall with an interminably long waiting list and a thick tome filled with dishes, you’ll at least be able to skip that last hurdle (orders are marked on a sheet of paper by diners, rather than pulled from carts). The most iconic item here is probably the jumbo shiu mai, a roe-crowned dumpling the size of a child’s fist, which requires two bites minimum, though it’s hard to imagine sipping your chrysanthemum tea without at least one order of everything else: slippery shrimp-stuffed har gow, flaky yellow egg tarts or the stellar pan-fried turnip cakes, which achieve a level of crispiness rivaled only by diner hashbrowns. If geographically inclined, you can even visit Lunasia in its splashy new Pasadena location — though don’t be shocked when the famed braised chicken feet are conspicuously absent from the menu.— Garrett Snyder

Newport Tan Cang Seafood

photo by Amy Scattergood

The signature house lobster at Newport Tan Cang Seafood is a formidable, wonderful thing, a mass of orange-red shell and glistening meat heaped on a platter and showered liberally with garlic, chilies, pepper and scallions. You and your friends — the lobster usually clocks in at a minimum 5 pounds, so you will need to bring friends — will crack, scoop and poke your way through the crustacean, and it’s safe to say your chopsticks won’t rest until you’ve wrestled out as much meat as you can handle. After that, it might be time to try a few of Newport’s other terrific dishes, some of which, like the excellent bo luc lac (shaking beef) are Vietnamese; some of which, like the salt and pepper pork, are Cantonese; some of which, like the hot and sour soup, are Thai; and some of which, like the lobster, are clearly Southeast Asian but otherwise can’t be conveniently slotted in a more specific category. If ever there was a restaurant that best represented the San Gabriel Valley, this would be it. —Tien Nguyen

Nha Trang

photo by Anne Fishbein

When Nha Trang opened a few years ago, it did so in a space not much bigger than a Beverly Hills closet, with a menu not much longer than a Lydia Davis short story. Still, folks lined up by the dozen to be replenished by its signature bun bo Hue, a Vietnamese beef soup with thick rice noodles swimming in a murky red broth spiked with lemongrass, cubes of blood and pig knuckles. Nha Trang’s version was, and continues to be, one that reaches such a depth of flavor that you can’t help but wonder what the restaurant could do if it weren’t constrained by a market that expects low price points even for the most intensive bowls of soup. Nha Trang has since expanded into something of a mini-empire across the San Gabriel Valley; it now has four locations throughout the SGV, all of which are considerably bigger than its original, though all with essentially the same core menu of chicken pho (pho ga), crab-tomato soup (bun rieu) and, of course, bun bo Hue. Thus if you find one location is out of your choice soup, as folks often did back when Nha Trang was just that one tiny restaurant, there’s probably, thankfully, a full pot simmering just a few blocks away. —Tien Nguyen

Omar's Xinjiang Halal

photo by Anne Fishbein

No matter what hour you visit Omar’s Xinjiang Halal, it can feel as though you’ve stumbled in during staff meal, when the large Islamic Chinese family that runs the joint sits polishing off strands of chewy hand-pulled noodles or a bowl of creamy house-cultured yogurt. The reality is that Omar’s is as much domestic dining room to regulars as it is restaurant, serving Islamic Uyghur cooking from China’s northernmost tip, which is as emphatic on heavily spiced lamb and thick flour noodles as perhaps any cuisine on Earth. It might appear strange, then, that the literally translated “big plate chicken” acts as the centerpiece on almost every table, a mesmerizing chile-powered, beer-spiked stew heavy with chunks of bone-in chicken, peppers and soft potatoes. But why not? It’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of family-style — and here, it’s hard to not feel familial.— Garrett Snyder

Summer Rolls

photo by Anne Fishbein

The restaurant formerly known as Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa closed briefly not too long ago, emerging from its nap completely made over, with a new paint job, new furniture and a new name that roughly translates its former one into English. Other than changes in aesthetics and in signage, though, Summer Rolls’ heart and soul remains the same; this is still the Central Vietnamese restaurant you’ll want to go to when the mood for nem nuong — charcoal-grilled sausage patties — strikes. The nem nuong can be ordered wrapped and rolled up with vegetables in rice paper, but surely the more fun way to do it is to do it all yourself, in which case the meat, a stack of dry rice papers, a bowl of warm water to dampen said rice papers and a forest of herbs and vegetables will arrive in quick succession for you to wrap and roll at will. While you’re doing so, you might notice that most every table also has at least one order of the steamed rice cakes called banh beo, and the woven mats of toothpick-thin rice vermicelli called banh hoi. You’d do well to follow suit. —Tien Nguyen

Szechuan Impression

photo by Anne Fishbein

Lynn Liu and Kelly Xiao, Szechuan Impression’s young owners, had very specific aims when they opened the SGV restaurant last year: They hoped to bring the food that people grew up eating in the southwestern Chinese province to this corner of the southwestern United States, with an updated feel to appeal to younger diners. Plenty here will set your mouth and heart ablaze, in the true Sichuan style. But there’s also nostalgia and subtlety at play, much more than you’d typically find on a menu with these origins. If you love heat, or even just extremity, many dishes here will blow your palate out in a blaze of masochistic gratification, such as the boiled fish in red chile, or the “old-school hot pot starch noodle.” More interesting are the dishes that rely less on the urgent sting of overpowering flavors, or that pair those flavors with quieter pleasures. The fish with green pepper shows the famous Sichuan peppercorn’s intensely aromatic side. If this is just the first wave of a new Sichuan influx, all the better. It’s a very good beginning. —Besha Rodell