Monterey Park is the new "middle kingdom," as the Chinese call their homeland. Over the past few years, this sleepy suburb has turned into a paradise for eaters. Its provinces are Alhambra and San Gabriel, and together they boast hundreds of quality Chinese restaurants. The competition among them is fierce.
Deciding which restaurant to eat in isn't easy--especially if you are not Chinese. For the best of these places share one unifying flaw: They tend to strut their best stuff for the local community, leaving serious Western eaters to the heartbreak of pan-fried noodles.
If you want to go on beyond egg rolls, here are some restaurants that will accommodate your appetite. Chefs move around a great deal and new places are opening at a furious pace, but at the moment (and with apologies to the wonderful restaurants I couldn't include), these are my 10 favorite Monterey Park restaurants. If none of these will satisfy you, there's a flight to Hong Kong leaving any minute.
Wonder is a gastronomic temple, a Chinese version of Paul Bocuse. In three short years, under the steady guidance of Tony Lai, Wonder has developed into a world-class restaurant.
The plain, dimly lit dining room is festooned with endless banners that inform the enlightened ones (those who can read Chinese), of their seasonal specials.
One of their best dishes is a snake soup made from cobra, chicken and dried scallop. It's beyond description, the kind of dish people travel great distances to experience, with legendary powers as an aphrodisiac. Another amazing dish is fat tiu cheong , which means "Buddha jumped over the wall" (because he smelled the soup, and it smelled so delicious). This stew that serves 10 contains abalone, conch, soft-shell turtle and a host of other ingredients.
Many other dishes beckon: succulent fresh giant scallops from one of the tanks in the front, abalone and duck hot pot, sizzling crystal shrimp in rice wine, and a can't-miss English menu. If you want one of the live fish (ask for lobster and they will bring it past your table on the way to the pot), be sure and ask which dishes are cooked with them; there are tanks filled with live shrimp, which go into some of the dishes, but others are made with the more ordinary sort.
You can ask Ricky Wu, a young waiter, for his guidance through this wonderland of delights. Still, this is one place where a Chinese friend is helpful. If you haven't got one, rent one.
Wonder Seafood restaurant, 2505 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (818) 308-0259. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Limited parking. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, $20-$50.
Should Wonder loosen its grip a bit, Sam World is ready to move into the top spot. This restaurant has it all--an expert owner-chef named Ho Hon, a tightly run dining room marshaled by Ho's wife, and a great location, the busy corner of Monterey Park's Atlantic Boulevard and Garvey Avenue, home to about 24 Chinese restaurants. Sam World is always packed, and that should tell you something.
Eating here is inspiring. Food always arrive at the table hot, and they never rush you through your meal. Barbecued tripe, which you'll find on the menu as "pig intestine with daily special," arrives sweet and crispy. Beef balls with seasoned vegetable is a Hakka specialty, owner Ho's home region, and the dish has a crunchy texture and a saucy bite. Chinese beer is its perfect complement.
Other dishes dazzle: sizzling oysters, with caramelized ginger and onion sticking to the pan, clams in black bean and the zesty, mildly sweet duck with orange flavor, as close to classical French as you'll find in the Chinese repertoire. As they say in the Guide Michelin, "vaut le voyage . "
Sam World restaurant, 715 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 289-9898. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Cash only. Dinner for two, $20-$35.
Jumbo was the first live seafood restaurant in this area, and owner Ricky Wong is still on top of the latest trends. He has built up a loyal following, the dining room is usually overbooked, so come early, especially on weekends.
The restaurant has recently been remodeled. What was once a drab, crowded dining room has been transformed into a pale pastel green room with widely spaced tables. The kitchen, however, has been left unchanged, and what comes out of it continues to be wonderful.
Batter-fried soft-shell crabs, which taste as if they had been plucked from the ocean minutes before preparation, are a bargain at four for $6. Goose feet in clay pot comes bubbling to the table, perfumed with star anise and garnished with spinach, straw mushrooms and fresh bamboo. (It tastes a lot better than it sounds.)