On the eastern side of the megalopolis known as Los Angeles, just past the dense skyscrapers and loud, concentrated freeways, the landscape begins to mellow out and transition into a series of suburban towns that, aesthetically, look like any other burg in Southern California: two door garages, palm tree-lined streets, and marvelous succulents of blue and green hues. This is the San Gabriel Valley, also known as the SGV, and what makes this ordinary place extraordinary is the cuisine.
There’s a deep history of food in this area. Long ago this was the home of the Tongva tribe, who built their livelihoods off the rich rivers that once crisscrossed the area. They made porridge from the grand reserves of acorns throughout the valley, snacked on succulent bunches of miner’s lettuce, and feasted on smoked fish caught from the rivers. The valley were transformed into cattle ranches by the Spaniards and later, fruit orchards by the Americans, eventually morphing into the suburbs it is today.
Still, even with the fertile plain now paved the area has not lost its dedication to cuisine. In 1948, In-N-Out Burger built California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand in Baldwin Park. The Hat, with its incredibly rich pastrami dip sandwiches, first opened its doors in Alhambra in 1951. Trader Joe’s built its grocery empire within the confines of the 626, the region’s area code. Today, the neighborhoods are mostly synonymous with Chinese food. While Greater Los Angeles ranks third in the number of Chinese Americans, it is an indisputable first in Chinese restaurants. Of China’s 34 provinces, 21 are represented by at least one restaurant in SGV. The Chinese dining scene is the best in the West. You’ll find platters of pork ribs tea smoked gently over the course of two days, topped with a splash of crushed peanuts and dried chili (at Sichuan Impression in Alhambra). There’s tilapia coated in a fragrant broth of chili pepper oil and the elusive Sichuanese peppercorn, a citrus spice that will numb your tongue (Chengdu Taste in Alhambra). There’s the ridiculously fragrant Beijing style duck, meat oozing with natural savory juices with a crispy skin subtly sweet from a thin maltose glaze. The duck is cut up into bite-sized pieces and served with a thin wheat crepe, cucumbers, and scallions. At some places the poultry is in such high demand that customers have to pre-order the dish at least 24 hours ahead of time (Beijing Tasty House in San Gabriel).
Establishments touting soup dumplings stuffed with pork broth and meat draw long lines to their doors (Din Tai Fung in Arcadia). On the weekends, Hong Kong cafes are a popular destination, operating well past midnight. They have fantastic egg waffles, which look like gigantic slabs of bubble wrap, and family-style Cantonese dishes with a slight Western flair: think mayonnaise-coated shrimp and filet mignon cubes drenched in black pepper, all served over rice (Tasty Garden in Arcadia). An entire subculture has been built around this Chinese-centric dining scene; after a meal, young Asians will opt for boba instead of coffee and dessert. Boba shops, with their fat straws and honey-coated tapioca balls served in sweet milk tea, can be found on nearly every block on the western strip of Valley Boulevard. These boba-loving millennials have proudly defined themselves as the 626 Generation.
On the weekends, traffic backs up from Downtown Los Angeles with folks making the pilgrimage for good Chinese food. But in the late evenings, when the restaurant doors all close, the sun sets, and the street lights illuminate, the valley becomes rather quiet. It’s suburbia after all, and nightlife, to this day, is virtually nonexistent. Toddlers are tucked into beds, the public parks are dotted with elderly Chinese couples out for a late night walk, and the only places that remain bustling are the multitudes of boba shops – where kids are easing into the last cram session of the week, indulging in the final strands of gossip, and dreaming about which restaurants to eat at next.