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Where the action is

From dim sum to pastry, the new hot spot for Chinese food is San Gabriel's Valley Boulevard.

January 15, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

GLISTENING black nuts that boil up to taste like chestnuts. Bright yellow melons, halfway between a casaba and a cucumber. Cakes split open to show chartreuse crumb. Peach tea. Coconut bread. Vegetarian kidneys.

Yes, vegetarian kidneys, and you don't have to be a vegetarian -- or like kidneys, for that matter -- to enjoy them.

That's Valley Boulevard for you.

In the last decade, as immigration has made the Chinese California's largest Asian group, the action has moved north from Monterey Park, the country's first Chinese suburb. There are about 60 Chinese restaurants in Monterey Park, but Valley Boulevard now has more than 100, 75 of them just on a 1 1/2-mile stretch in San Gabriel plus a couple of blocks of Alhambra.

As a symbol of its status, people haven't given this neighborhood a nickname along the lines of Chinatown or Little Taipei. "Everybody just calls it Valley Boulevard," says former San Gabriel mayor and current City Councilman Harry Baldwin. The name stands on its own, like Melrose Avenue or Rodeo Drive.

There are half a dozen multistoried shopping centers -- always called plazas -- on the San Gabriel stretch, and another one is being built now, complete with a Hilton hotel. The boulevard has Chinese restaurants and markets, Vietnamese coffeehouses and Franco-Asian bakeries, traditional herbalists and youth-oriented shops selling brightly packaged snacks from cookies and candies to dried fish products. There are restaurants here named Noodle City, Noodle World and Noodle Planet.

Fusion genres have emerged, such as U2 Cafe (clams in black bean sauce and taro ice cream, but also chicken a la king and baked Alaska) and Monet Cafe & Pub, which boasts karaoke, sports TV and free Internet connection. Savoy Kitchen has a pizza and pasta menu in Chinese and English, though most diners seem to be ordering curries.

To explore this dense growth of food businesses, I enlisted Baldwin, a native son with many contacts in the community; his wife, Sally, the vice president of the Asian Youth Center; and San Francisco food writer and restaurateur Shirley Fong-Torres, who leads walking tours called "I Ate My Way Through Chinatown."

What we found was Chinese food tradition, with its vast range of edibles, taking enthusiastically to the wealth and ease of American suburban life. If you want Persian cucumbers as well as "regular" (Japanese) cucumbers, they're here; if you want Internet connection with your boba tea, it's here. Fong-Torres was repeatedly surprised by all the Chinese convenience foods, such as ready-reconstituted wood ear mushrooms.

By the end of the expedition, I found myself looking at a decorative shrub outside a bank and wondering aloud, "How do you suppose you'd cook that?"

"Now you're thinking like a Chinese," said Fong-Torres.

*

Best breakfast

The choice was clearly juk, the traditional rice porridge eye-opener. The Baldwins recommended Lu's Garden, which serves nothing but juk and the "small dishes" -- in effect, Chinese tapas -- to go with it. You choose your toppings from a counter of hot and cold dishes.

Fong-Torres found quite different toppings at this Taiwanese-run place than she was familiar with in San Francisco. Even the juk was different, with a loose, soupy, delicate texture she debated duplicating at her own restaurant. We had it with plates of crunchy shredded jellyfish, spicy mustard greens and pork with soy sauce-boiled egg.

*

Best vegetarian lunch

Twenty years ago, a Monterey Park restaurant named the Fragrant Vegetable gave non-Chinese around here their first taste of one of the great vegetarian cuisines. These days there are half a dozen Chinese vegetarian restaurants on Valley Boulevard alone, and they're a regular part of the local dining scene: Vegetarian Wok's menu lists 108 all-day items, 46 lunch specials.

Many Chinese vegetarian dishes aim to reproduce the taste and appearance of meat, and these were a step above what I remember at the old Fragrant Vegetable. Sure, the deep-fried vegetarian chicken tenders looked only remotely like chicken, but they tasted startlingly like the real thing and even had the exact stringy texture. The vegetarian fish had no particular fish flavor, but it did have a credible fish-like skin and a flaky flesh.

As for those vegetarian kidneys (at $4.65, one of the more expensive dishes on the lunch menu), they had the exact spongy texture of kidneys, though without the funky kidney flavor. They were stir-fried with mushrooms in a tangy basil sauce, and I would come back just for them.

*

Best dim sum

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