Both the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year were celebrated last week, and this past weekend featured Costa Mesa’s Tet
Festival, the largest Vietnamese New Year celebration in the world. It seems
apt, then, to discuss the culinary state of the San Gabriel Valley (SGV), the Los Angeles
benchmark for Chinese and (arguably) Vietnamese cuisine.
The SGV is well known
for churning out restaurants, but 2013 was a volatile year even by its own
standards. Around 87 restaurants opened in the area and nearly as many closed, according to LA Weekly (and David Chan, a
remarkable man who has managed to eat at literally every Chinese
restaurant in LA and keep Excel records of them, which is particularly helpful when
college newspapers need to cite Chinese restaurant statistics). By Chan’s
count, there are currently around 600 Chinese restaurants in the SGV, so that
opening-closing turnover rate is enough to make Eli Manning blush.
More than a few
of the newly opened restaurants have been received very well, including BeBe
Fusion, which has been lauded for being a restaurant not named Din Tai Fung
while also presenting Taiwanese cuisine that hasn’t been watered down to typical
boba cafe standards (not that we can’t appreciate those, too). Multiple outlets have
written at length about Chengdu Taste’s merits, but all one really needs to know is that it serves perhaps the most refined Sichuan cuisine in the
Valley, and thus the United States. If you want to taste food like what you’d find in Chengdu—right up there with Napoli as one of the more serious foodie
cities in the world—then Chengdu Taste is your spot.
restaurants have been received dubiously, like Magic Restroom Cafe, which serves perhaps the least refined Chinese cuisine in the United States. The restaurant
and its menu are entirely toilet-themed, with classic dishes such as (but not
limited to) “golden poop rice.” It’s actually a duplicate of Taipei’s Modern Toilet,
a real restaurant chain supported by real investors that serves real customers.
Personally, I’m on board with the American expansion, even if the expression “don’t shit where
you eat” lingers in my mind.
strong push aside, Hunan Mao was my favorite 2013 addition to the SGV. Generally
underrepresented, Hunan cuisine most closely resembles spicy Sichuan and Yunnan
cuisine. Hunan Mao’s Hot Over Spicy dish—peppers marinated in chili before being thrown in a wok with yet more
peppers—is possibly the scariest plate of food in LA, but it’s also
surprisingly delicious. And that’s why I’ve come to love Hunan Mao: It’s not as
subtle as Chengdu Taste, but its unrelenting onslaught of flavors is hard to
pass up. The Hunan spicy fish head is also extraordinary,
and it’s easy to tell why the earthy Hunan braised pork was Mao Zedong’s favorite
less action on the Vietnamese side of the SGV equation; the most notable opening has been an expansion of Nha Trang, the bun
bo hue noodle shop named after the beach town in central Vietnam.
majority of the LA’s new Vietnamese restaurants are developing not in
the SGV, but in the Costa Mesa area and Orange County in general—hence the Tet
Festival’s location.Whereas the near-constant turnover of Chinese restaurants
keeps me on my toes, I prefer to simply return to the SGV’s typical standard-bearers for Vietnamese, notably Nha Trang (Central/Northern Vietnamese noodle
staples like bun bo hue, mi quang, and bun rieu), Golden Deli (for fried spring rolls and bun), Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa (for
make-your-own spring rolls and bang beo
rice cakes), and Fresh Roast (for
excellent Vietnamese coffee).
James Gordon PO ’15 studies environmental analysis. He also writes about food at tentacleseverywhere.com