Where to Eat in the San Gabriel Valley, LA’s Eastern Neighbor
It’s hard to explain the San Gabriel Valley to people who aren’t from LA. Growing up, I always assumed my suburban Los Angeles reality -- filled with Asian grocery stores, blocks lined with milk tea parlors, and mandatory weekend get togethers over steaming plates of dim sum -- was everyone’s reality.
My high school graduating class, composed of over 950 kids, was demographically over 70% Asian. After school study sessions took place at our favorite boba shops, where orders of Taiwanese popcorn chicken and minced pork with tea eggs kept growling stomachs at bay before dinner. Like all high schoolers, we sometimes ended up at Denny's for late night meals, but just as frequently gathered at the local Hong Kong cafe that stayed open until 4am. We fundraised by selling Krispy Kreme donuts by the dozen, but also by slinging out lychee jellies from the local 99 Ranch Market for 25 cents a pop.
Arcadia, the city where I grew up, and the San Gabriel Valley as a whole, is home to hundreds of Asian Americans and immigrants, which in turn means excellent ma-and-pop restaurants. Of the approximately 525,000 self-identified Asian Americans that call the SGV home, almost two thirds of them were born elsewhere, according to a report by KPCC. And although a good portion of them are Asian -- specifically Chinese -- it’s important to note the regional diversity of the many cuisines. There are Sichuan specialty shops with oxymoronic spicy and numbing cold noodles. There’s Cantonese soup dumpling restaurants where the liquid-filled parcels are hand-wrapped, and Taiwanese cafes that feature porkchop rice.
There are other surprising favorites, too, beyond the explosion of Asian flavors. A local Hawaiian restaurant run by a hardworking and stubborn auntie. A place where Hainan chicken is the well-known specialty, but Italian food favorites -- like creamy baked halibut and mushroom pizza -- are also worth a shot. A late night taco truck where people of all backgrounds gather for dollar tacos and slender glass bottles of Mexican Coke. A Japanese-American owned donut shop that’s open 24 hours a day, and produces one of Jonathan Gold’s favorite donuts. A burger spot that’s been open for over 50 years, where locals still sit in the no-fuss swivel bar stools and dive into fresh, beefy patties and pie.
The San Gabriel Valley -- and the food within its confines -- has a quiet magic to it. The primarily homestyle cooking teems with the experiences of its creators. The more upscale spots are trendy yet unpretentious. As an Angeleno who’s rendezvoused at the Beverly Hills steakhouses, eaten fresh fish on the ocean-hugging west side, and watched the sunset on rooftops in Downtown LA, I can confidently say that no other neighborhood in the city of angels has the same heart as the food in the San Gabriel Valley. I mean, I guess there’s no place like home.
Premium all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue with endless banchan to choose from
Korean barbecue is legendary in Los Angeles, but getting to K-Town from the east side of LA can be a bit of a hassle. Thankfully, Thirsty Cow exists. Thirsty Cow Korean BBQ is an all-you-can-eat spot in Rowland Heights where the quality of meat is worth the approximately $30 per person price tag. Choose from a long list of proteins, including short ribs, brisket, marinated pork, chicken, and shrimp (to name a few) and then keep the meat coming. And coming. And coming. The servers are attentive and will change your grill frequently to ensure there’s no crusty char on your meat. The sides are unlimited, and the steamed egg is divine. There’s cinnamon dusted grilled pineapple for dessert, which is absolutely as refreshing and delicious as it sounds. I typically need to roll myself out after a trip to Thirsty Cow, and it’s always worth it.
Half restaurant, half grocer with flavorful and unfussy Indian fare
Bhanu is a discreet spot. Located in a random strip mall (as so many great LA restaurants are) next to what was formerly a Petco, the Indian restaurant-grocer combo doesn’t seem too enthralling from the outside. But this is why we learn not to judge a book by its cover; Bhanu is excellent. The brother and sister pair who started Bhanu once owned restaurants in Bombay, and brought their know-how and recipes -- much to the delight of all of us -- to the SGV. The array of samosas, regardless of the filling, is always pleasing. The masala dosa is crispy while the dough is perfectly tangy and stuffed with spiced potatoes. Popular dishes, like tikka masala, butter chicken, palak paneer, and lamb vindaloo, are executed just right and intensely flavorful. You can not go wrong here. And the best part of finishing a meal at Bhanu’s? Wandering the grocery aisles for snacks and sweets to take home.
Comforting tofu soups with an array of Korean classics like bulgogi and bibimbap
You won’t find an AYCE deal for Korean barbecue at Young Dong, but what you get in its place are bubbling pots of sundubu-jjigae (or Korean tofu soup), platters of marinated bulgogi, a stunning Korean pancake layered with green onions and carrots, and enough banchan (aka small plates) to keep you full. Young Dong has always been the ideal spot for a rainy day meal; there’s just something that comforts you from the inside out when eating spicy soup loaded with cubes of soft tofu. Every soup order comes with a raw egg to crack into the boiling masterpiece, as well as cabbage kimchi, spicy cucumbers, and sesame bean sprouts. There’s an array of tofu soups to choose from, like kimchi, seafood, beef, and -- my personal favorite -- dumpling. If tofu soup isn’t enough, order a plate of bulgogi; I guarantee the meat, soup, and banchan will be plenty.
Arcadia and Diamond Bar
DIY platters of veggies and proteins cooked in fragrant soups within a surprising pot
Hot pot is such a comfort food in the SGV, especially during the colder seasons. There’s nothing quite like the DIY spirit of the meal, where you can select your favorite meats, veggies, and broth, and leisurely cook them in a personal pot of boiling broth while simultaneously getting a steamy facial. Paper Pot seems gimmicky with its otherworldly paper pots that somehow boil soup bases without catching fire (thanks to some clever induction heating), but wading past that wow-factor you’ll find bright slices of well-marbled beef, baskets of fresh produce, and a wide selection of savory soups to choose from. The sesame sauce Paper Pot provides is nutty and earthy, while a yuzu-laced soy sauce is perfectly complementary to freshly cooked beef. Paper Pot is the perfect spot for a long lunch with a friend where you’ll get proteins, veggies, rice, and endless amounts of soup.
San Gabriel and Temple City
A beloved, Jonathan Gold-approved Vietnamese restaurant with generous egg rolls
Golden Deli is a mystical place within the San Gabriel Valley, and no guide would be complete without mentioning it. The family-owned Vietnamese spot makes arguably the best pho in Los Angeles complete with cooked down bone broth, tender slices of ribeye, and bouncy rice noodles. But, like many Vietnamese spots, pho isn’t the only star. The grilled pork vermicelli bowl contains a generous portion of charbroiled, marinated pork, alongside fresh herbs and veggies atop a bed of thin vermicelli noodles doused with a sweet and funky fish sauce with pickled carrots. The chả giò, or fried egg rolls, possesses a crackly skin and is crammed with pork and served alongside platters of fresh veggies to lighten the appetizer. Dessert includes mung bean and pandan jelly coconut beverages, and a tart lemon soda perfects the meal.
San Gabriel & Rowland Heights
Tingly Szechuan food served with a cooling mung bean tea
Mian serves a mindblow in a bowl. Of all the things to order at the noodle shop -- including a steamy bowl of spicy beef noodle soup and a delicate, souffle-like steamed egg topped with minced pork -- you must get the Szechaun cold noodles. The springy bowl of noodles is one of the most perplexing dishes I’ve ever had. Though the noodles are chilled, they’re fired up with chiles and Szechuan peppercorns, which deliver a numbing tingle to your tongue and lips. How can something be so hot and simultaneously so cold? To accompany the chile-laced noodles, Mian serves all its guests a soothing, chilled mung bean tea which is subtly sweet and deliciously nutty. Pork dumplings smothered in chile oil round out the meal.
Monterey Park and Alhambra
Northern Chinese spot specializing in flaky meat pies and lacey pan-fried dumplings
It's not uncommon to order a meal entirely built from carbs at Beijing Pie House. In fact, I would venture to say that such a feat is encouraged. As its name suggests, Beijing Pie House specializes in Chinese meat pies, which can be stuffed with an array of meats and veggies; there’s summer squash and lamb, fennel and pork, and the classic combination of green onions and beef -- among another dozen or so options. And though the pies are the namesake of the restaurant, the menu stretches beyond them with a variety of mouth-watering options. The nutty dan dan noodles will tingle your tongue with Szechuan peppercorns, while the pan-fried dumplings don attractive and crispy lace skirts, hiding the juicy and meaty filling. Even something as simple as a green onion pancake is dressed in fragrant white pepper and cut to look like a bready rose. Be honest; no one is mad at consuming a carb-filled wonderland as a meal unless they’re unfortunately imprisoned by the keto diet.
Upscale-without-the-price Southeast Asian eats in trendy Old Town Pasadena
Though the San Gabriel Valley is well known for cheap eats at cash-only spots, we can do high end Asian food, too. Take Bone Kettle, for example; situated in the center of Pasadena’s trendy Old Town, the Southeast Asian kitchen heavily influenced by Indonesian, Thai, and Malaysian cuisine brings forth eloquent dishes charged with the sophisticated flavors of the region. Their signature noodle soups are served with a beef bone broth that’s cooked for 36 hours and choice of varying tender proteins, like melt-in-your-mouth fatty brisket and braised oxtails. Round out your meal with an order of crispy chicken wings, fragrant pandan creme brulee, and a refreshing raspberry yuzu lemonade for the full experience.
Cozy brunch spot with fresh-baked pastries, bechamel-stuffed hashbrowns, and a memorable burger
Though Cos&Pi is a relatively new restaurant, it's left an undeniably strong impression on me and other LA eaters -- especially in the brunch category. Cos&Pi is family owned and operated, so expect warm service, homemade pastries, and well-made comfort food. Highlights include a beef burger smothered with a fragrant and meaty bacon jam and glistening caramelized onions, crunchy bricks of hashbrowns au gratin stuffed with creamy bechamel sauce, and IG-worthy avocado toast delicately layered with edible flowers. This is an elevated neighborhood breakfast spot perfect for families, people with dogs, and anyone who wants to have an excellent meal. Bonus? You won’t have to fight for street parking or end up circling the block 14 times.
Late-night taco truck with a huge selection of meats for an affordable price
I live in New York now, and there's no denying New York City’s food scene is incredible. But, if there were ever a food to make me homesick -- aside from In-N-Out’s classic double-double -- it would be dollar tacos from my favorite food truck in the SGV, Tacos La Doña. The late night taco truck has been around since I was in high school, a beacon of light during intense midnight hunger pangs. For a mere dollar per taco, I’d load up on al pastor (marinated pork flavored with pineapple), carne asada (beef), suadero (beef brisket), carnitas (fried pork), and lengua (beef tongue) tacos before getting cozy on the trunk of my car and devouring the entire platter. An order of Mexican Coke is mandatory. Though the tacos aren’t a single dollar anymore, they’re still a steal at $1.25. A bonus is the salsa bar, where you can customize your tacos with lime, cilantro, onion, and a rainbow of salsas to your heart’s content.
No-frills classic burger and pie spot that’s been family owned and operated for decades
In addition to having some of the best Chinese food in the country, the San Gabriel Valley is also home to one of Los Angeles’ best burgers -- in fact, the best burger according to our national burger critic, Kevin Alexander. This family-owned joint, which has been open since 1963, will timewarp you with its board menu, swivel stool bar seating, and no-nonsense selections. As the name of the diner-like spot suggests, I’d recommend going with the pie and, uh, burger. The char on the well-salted patty is mouth-watering, while the simple toppings -- lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, thousand island dressing, and a single slice of American cheese -- make for a perfectly balanced cheeseburger. Fries come out hot and fresh, and the pie selection is generous (I’d suggest the fresh strawberry if it’s in season, or the baked peach).
Casual, no-fuss Chinese food where the dim sum options are limitless and affordable
Though Ocean Bo specializes in dim sum, you won’t find steaming push carts jamming into your chair legs or frantic aunties trying to push an additional plate of taro dumplings into your order here. Instead, Ocean Bo operates like two different businesses. In one entrance, the restaurant is treated more like a donut shop during the earlier hours, where diners can select an assortment of dim sum dishes to be packaged in styrofoam containers for take-out. The remainder of the restaurant operates like a typical sit down spot, where guests order dim sum dishes from a menu rather than flagging down the shumai cart that’s blown past them for the third time. Ocean Bo is simple, and the food is good, hearty, and affordable. Don’t expect velvet-backed chairs and luxurious carpeting. Do expect excellent dim sum at a reasonable price and a crowd on weekend mornings.
Mom-and-pop restaurant specializing in Hawaiian favorites
Like any legitimate mom-and-pop shop, the food at Aloha Food Factory comes out a bit slow, but is very obviously crafted with genuine care and a love for traditional Hawaiian dishes. Whatever you order, be sure to get a stack of macadamia pancakes to go along with it. It’s topped with a luscious macadamia cream sauce and crushed macadamia nuts, and the pancakes themselves are fluffy and griddled to perfection. My personal favorite is the Loco Moco, a hearty hamburger patty topped with yolky fried eggs and gravy, but you can’t go wrong with the savory kalua pork or Portguese sausage.
Hainanese chicken and Italian food that somehow goes together perfectly
Savoy is one of those “if you know, you know” spots. Opened in 1982, the specialty of this corner restaurant on Valley Boulevard is a simple yet comforting dish of Hainanese chicken and rice. Each order comes with fragrant rice, juicy cuts of white and dark meat chicken, and a trio of sauces which may just be the highlight of the entire meal: a tongue-tingling ginger with bite, a zesty chile-based sauce with a healthy kick of acidity, and a balanced sweet-and-salty soy sauce. I’d also recommend getting an order of the creamy and butter baked halibut, which is topped with a rich, bubbling cheese. The halibut comes with either rice or pasta; I’d recommend getting rice and scooping cuts of delectable fish over it. And don’t forget: Orders of iced lemon tea are refillable and the perfect complement to whatever dish you end up getting at this Valley Boulevard mainstay.
Soup dumplings and stir fried Shanghainese noodles in a discreet plaza
Tucked away in the corner of an unassuming plaza, Jin Jiang is the spot to frequent for hand-wrapped xialongbaos -- or soup dumplings -- that’ll make you forget that Din Tai Fung even exists. The unfussy xialongbaos are generously filled with your choice of pork or crab submerged in an uplifting, meaty broth and served with a mandatory side of ginger intended for diners to douse in black vinegar. In addition to the homely soup dumplings, Jin Jiang serves up a warming hot and sour soup, flaky green onion pancakes, and oil slicked Shanghainese fried noodles. Opt for the complementary hot jasmine tea, served in styrofoam cups, to cut through the heaviness of the meal.
24-hour donut shop well-known for seasonal favorites, like the fresh strawberry donut
A trip to Donut Man is an adventure down route 66 that guarantees happy memories of stuffed balls of fried dough. The 24/7 donut shop churns out fresh yeast and cake donuts multiple times a day and has been owned and operated by the same man, Jim Nakano, for over 45 years. The seasonal specialties here are, in all honesty, some of the best donuts I’ve ever eaten in my life. Take, for example, the fresh strawberry donut: it’s only available during the warm berry season -- roughly from January until September in sunny Southern California -- but the limited time offer is a sphere of gooey, fruity heaven. You get a glazed yeast donut crammed full of easily 10 gigantic fresh strawberries. In the fall, Donut Man opts for creamy pumpkin and cinnamon-laced apple filled donuts. And you can’t go wrong with Tiger Tails: a twisted donut swirled with cinnamon sugar that’s available year round.
Chinese classics made exclusively with vegetarian-friendly ingredients
Happy Family Restaurant is a good name for this restaurant, as it allows meat eaters and vegetarians alike to leave perfectly pleased. Though the entire menu is plant-based, you wouldn’t be able to tell for some dishes; their version of orange chicken is on par with your favorite Chinese spot, despite being made from mushrooms. The menu is extensive but covers all Chinese favorites, like hot and sour soup, Singaporean noodles, fried rice, and more. And if you’re someone who really desires that meat flavor and texture, Happy Family Restaurant also has plenty of dishes with soy bean proteins. Trust me, you won’t miss meat when eating here.
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