When the world's great food cities are being discussed, Paris and Tokyo and Taipei and Rome, it would not be unreasonable to include among them . . . San Gabriel, Calif., population 30,072, which up until a few years ago was noted chiefly for the patty melts at Sandi's Coffee Shop. Consider this: the city of San Gabriel has at least 50 restaurants worth recommending, far more than Beverly Hills or Cincinnati, and scarcely fewer than Los Angeles' entire Westside.
In San Gabriel, you can find the cooking of almost any Chinese province in its purest and best form, as well as a scattering of great Mexican places, restaurants from half a dozen other East Asian cuisines, Asian markets and noodle shops of every size and distinction. What Monterey Park was to the '80s, San Gabriel is to the '90s, the white-hot center of Chinese food in America, but this time mostly fueled by Taiwanese energy rather than capital from Hong Kong. In Taipei, San Gabriel is almost as famous as Hollywood or Disneyland.
And the pulsing heart of Chinese San Gabriel is San Gabriel Square, a gleaming, sweet-smelling Oz of a shopping mall with a Chinese department store, a tremendous Chinese supermarket, boutiques and bakeries, Chinese restaurants of every description, acres of carefully landscaped parking. On a warm night, the red and green restaurant signs seem to glow like the lights of ships in the harbor, and wide walkways fill with contented Chinese windowshoppers who have just eaten well.
Where does one eat well in San Gabriel Square? Everywhere .
It's loud inside the 99 Ranch supermarket, cash registers beep, meat saws whine, the aisles ring with spoken Chinese. Near the live fish, a man in a Chinese coat works his way through the crowd and barks at the guy behind the tanks. The counterman dips a net into a tank and starts to scoop out a large carp. The man shakes his head; there is a plumper one just to the right. Down the way, a young mother, one hand on a stroller, points at a black-skinned chicken in the poultry case. When simmered with a sachet of dried barks and wolfberries from the herb shop a couple doors down, it will make a smoky, tonic soup--the soup will be good for her husband, the poultryman implies with a wink. She blushes.
Around the corner, shopping carts careening around spiky mounds of frozen durians, the produce section is large as a basketball court, sharp with the odors of unfamiliar Chinese greens. Grandmotherly women pick through cardboard boxes of corkscrew-shaped pea tendrils, stuffing their favorites into long plastic bags. (The tendrils are delicious stir-fried with garlic.) A man thumps warty bitter melons as long as prize zucchinis; another searches for a particularly fragrant bunch of Thai holy basil. Earlier this summer, when lychees first came in season, sharp-eyed shoppers hefted gift packs of the expensive, fragrant fruit and frowned with dismay. (They also giggled softly at a tourist a couple of aisles away who was carrying a box.) The lychees were not yet ripe. At 99 Ranch, grocery shopping can be a competitive sport.
Up on the mall's second level, in the sparsely furnished office of Golden Pacific Realty, the company that manages San Gabriel Square, Jack Chu, a Golden Pacific supervisor, and Felix Chen, the office owner, sit around a desk--talking food. Chu spent time in Chicago when he first came to the U.S. from Beijing and found the Chinese food there bland and inauthentic. Chen, from Taiwan, mentions the time in Southern California, not so long ago, when you had to drive 45 minutes to get a decent Taiwanese breakfast. Both chat excitedly about what has happened to the area in the past five years, comparing notes on their favorite noodle shops, marveling at the quality--and low price--of roast duck.
They both agree: The best part of the job might be lunch. As managers here, it makes sense for Chen and Chu to spread their business among the square's restaurants; as leaseholders, it makes sense for the restaurateurs to feed them well.
But hey . . . Does Roger Chen, the publicity-shy general partner of the company that owns the mall, love food as much as they do? Could this mall have been the singular creation of a good eater? Chu and Chen look at one another and laugh. Chu says: " Every Chinese person is obsessed about food."