Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Day in the San Gabriel Valley

The San Gabriel Valley is one of the most interesting, but least appreciated areas of Los Angeles. If you've ever been disappointed by flashy Chinatown, consider driving the extra miles to spend a day here. It has some of the best Chinese/Taiwanese food in LA, which is much more than I can say for Chinatown. It's also nestled against the (very tall) San Gabriel Mountains, which provides outdoor activities for working off all the Chinese steam buns you will consume. In addition to my recommendations, I suggest you try any place you stumble upon that looks promising. There are countless dessert places, bakeries, tea shops, restaurants, grocery stores and shopping. When driving home, you might feel like you just went abroad.

Happy Family:
This is (hands down) is some of the best Chinese food I've ever eaten. The way it's set up, it's best to go with a group, as this place specializes in "family style" dining, which is kind of like all-you-can-eat. On the larger tables, there is a circular disc that whisks the dishes around in a circle, so everyone can try whatever comes out. The menu has over 60 dishes on it, and each person can just point to a few, and they will bring them out for everyone to enjoy. If you like one in particular, order a few more plates of it. You also get rice, and endless green tea. I don't even like mentioning that this is a vegetarian place, because I have surprised even the most picky carnivores with the awesomeness of this place. And it's pretty easy for folks who don't eat dairy, since most Chinese food already doesn't use it. It's pretty easy to eat gluten free (except maybe soy sauce), and very vegan friendly. Try the house "chicken," (mushrooms) and the basil eggplant. And really, just about everything else.
500 N Atlantic Blvd, Ste 171, Monterey Park, CA 91754
Phone: (626) 282-8986

A&J Restaurant
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You might be confused when you arrive at a strip mall right near an auto-parts store. But I swear this little place serves great Chinese(/Taiwanese) food. Their dumplings are made in-house, the sauces are flavorful, and the bill will make you even happier. Try the peanut-sauce noodles, the pickled-anything, or the thousand-layer pancake. Be careful if you're vegetarian, because even some of the items listed as veggie aren't really. So make sure to tell them if you don't want meat. Non-veggies will definitely be satisfied by the large menu to choose from, but even vegans can leave full and happy.
Just don't forget to bring cash, this place is CASH ONLY.
27 Las Tunas Drive, Arcadia, CA 91007-8511
Phone: (626) 445-7270

Grocery Stores:
I don't know if I'm slightly strange, but I love a good grocery store. I will stay for hours. If you've ever had trouble finding tropical or Asian ingredients, you'll probably find them in one of the grocery stores in the San Gabriel Valley. Here's a couple of my favorites: 

The San Gabriel Superstore
This place seriously deserves the title "superstore." The grocery store itself is huge, and has anything from cassava-coconut cake, frozen whole rambutan, dried bean curd, and bitter melon tea. And it's really cheap...I get scared when I fill up the grocery chart, but I'm always relieved when they tell me the final amount. But this isn't just a grocery store...there's a whole market inside, with little stands of clothes, boba tea, dried foods, and jade jewlery. You could truly get lost in this place, or just go around in awe trying to figure out what-on-earth-is inside of this can....just don't expect the employees to speak much English to explain it to you.
1635 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Phone: (626) 280-9998Hours: Mon-Sun 9 am - 10 pm

Bodhi Vegetarian Supply
This is a vegetarian's heaven, or an interesting place for just about anyone. It's a tiny grocery store packed with-get this-vegetarian meat substitutes. And I'm not just talking veggie-burgers. They have "lamb mutton" (spiced mushroom stems), veggie duck, canned "tuna," and yes, even vegetarian pigs feet. You could literally find any veggie substitute you can think of...non-meat tripe, anyone? What's interesting is that these eccentricities actually taste really good! Since the Chinese Buddhists have been making veggie food for over 2,000 years, they really have it right. Plus they have spices, sauces, (mushroom "oyster" sauce!), snacks, and other goodies. You really can't miss this spot.
8450 Valley Blvd Ste 106, Rosemead, CA 91770
Phone: (626) 280-7936

Hiking Trails: 
For the hard-core workout buff: Mt. Wilson Trail
I've done some steep hikes, but this is longer and more-uphill than almost any of the west-side trails. If you choose to do the whole thing, it is 7 miles to the top (meaning 14 miles roundtrip). And it's a serious incline almost the whole way. I love the challenge, but even I have neglected to bring enough water and underestimated the mid-day heat. It's got some neat sites, (rivers, waterfalls, and the like), and the view is amazing. Just be prepared for the steep drop-off next to the trail, and don't feel bad if you turn around a little early. 

89 E Mira Monte Ave, Sierra Madre, CA 91024

For the more mellow hikers who like waterfalls: Eaton Canyon Park and Nature Center
This frequented trail has a few nice attributes. You can explore the visitors center to see local snakes, history, and flush toilets. The trail itself is quite scenic, and ends at a really nice waterfall. It crosses the river quite often on the way, so be prepared to hop stones and maybe get your feet wet. It can get a bit crowded, so if you can, sneak out on a weekday to avoid crowds. But it's not an uphill battle, so you can relax a bit and even take kids when the water isn't too high for safe rock-hopping.  

1750 N Altadena Dr, Pasadena, CA 91107
Phone: (626) 398-5420

You can't visit San Gabriel without stopping for some tea. That doesn't mean your normal black or green tea, since the tea shops in this area have many many options. You can get a blended taro-root drink, milk tea with boba, matcha lattes, melon tea, or many other exciting concoctions. Try almost any one that looks good, but I do have a few regular places...Au 79 has a great vibe, nice seating, and you can choose your level of sweetness. There are quite a few locations of Ten Ren, where they have good quality hot tea, and fun treats. (Try the thousand-year-old egg, cooked in black tea and soy sauce.) The most unique (and my personal favorite) is Bin Bin Konjac. Instead of using Boba, they use pieces of Konjac, which are like having squares of jelly. But it's actually made of a nutritious root, which is loaded with fiber (and vegetarian.)
To see the locations of these places, take a look at my tea map:
Tea Map

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