Good morning, sleepyheads. This is the first diary entry for a trip we are presently taking through the San Gabriel Valley with some friends. You can find the developing map here, which has some photos and may also have comments as the trip goes on, tied to each location we visit, and organized according to date.
As is our usual, we stopped at the Tita’s Pupuseria food truck in Buttonwillow for lunch, which was our first official meal of the day, having picked up drinks and pastries at Sweet Adeline to start the journey in the morning. Serendipitously but not surprisingly, our passenger (who is a very accomplished food industry person in the SF Bay Area) is also a fan of Tita’s Pupuseria. I mention Tita’s here at length because if you look up the food scene in the area of Buttonwillow, at the base of south-bound, over the mountain highway 5 (“The Grapevine”), on Google Maps, it has a 4.1 rating, and on Yelp, the Truck and the Restaurant both have 4 stars, and when Jen and I went on this trip together, without the group (we didn’t know about the group we’re going with this year until later), it had a 28/30 Zagat rating. And all of these are absolutely well deserved ratings. Tita’s was, in 2013, the highest rated place around. With good reason. It’s excellent. If you are in the area around a meal time, do your favorite and visit and try a pupusa. Or even their tacos are good. And for at least Jen, our passenger, and me, the food truck is slightly better. We don’t know why. It may be atmospheric.
We arrived at our hotel, sort of in the thick of things, nearby the restaurants we’ve so far planned to visit, the Hilton LA/SGV, around 4:45p, and met up with the group for inaugural champagne and a quick snack, around 6p, then headed for our first stop among 3 for dinner type explorations for our first day of the tour.
Chong Qing Special Noodles重慶特色小麵
708 E Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Here we did the bulk of our eating. It’s a Sichuanese place that is apparently Jonathan Gold’s favorite, and also this guy David R. Chan (also his blog: http://chandavkl.blogspot.com/) seems to like it too. I quite enjoyed it.
They had a good balance of mala yu, which is not just a sauce but a sort of aesthetic. Keep ma (Sichuan peppercorns and its attendant tingling/numbing) in balance with la (other spicy capsaicin chiles) and you can sort of ever-escalate the spiciness of dishes which, when eaten separately would be trying to tear your face off with spiciness (yeah, I see you side-eyeing me – I was skeptical too when I read various Chinese food luminaries talking about it, but it’s true – the restaurant’s dishes can help you, but you must also not be afraid of the chiles – move forward with courage). Chong Qing has a good mix of ma and la, and many dishes with both. Also they have non- or significantly less spicy dishes too, which are delicious and no less skillfully cooked and seasoned. A good spot.
(As an aside, this looks to be a good primer on Sichuanese flavors.)
And like all SGV eateries, please pay no or little attention to either location (in a strip mall it can be excellent) or service (to Western tastes, Chinese service can be abrupt and impolite – instead assume good intent – these folks are like any other folks and want to get to the point – get food on your table). Also as the Fung Brothers say in their 626 video the health department’s “B” rating can be racist and just stand for “Better Tasting” I believe Chong Qing has an “A” anyhow.
- Sour plum soup (drink) – On the menu, this was listed as plum soup, but it comes in a full pitcher and is just enough for our party of six. It’s smoky-flavored. It can sometimes be thick and smell/taste reminiscent of BBQ sauce. So very not Western. But give it a chance, because it’s delicious with the tingle-burn of a good mala yu balance, and it can help you calm the tingles of the ma part of the Sichuan peppercorn. Highly recommended. It was only after it was gone that I realized I didn’t take a picture of it. It looks like plum juice. What do you want?
- Spicy Pig’s Ear – This is one of my favorites in general. They do a terrine with pig’s ear, cooked until soft – the cartilage still a little crunchy, then slice that thin and douse with a healthy dose of chili oil. Just all around tasty and a great illustration of the variety of textures you’ll encounter in Chinese food in general.
- Cold steamed chicken with hot sauce – This was also very good, and started the journey into the mala yu endorphin high. It’s basically white cut chicken doused with Sichuan peppercorns and toasty warm Sichuan chili oil. It’s also free, here, for parties of 3 or more. So Free! Yay!
- Chongqing Noodle (#7) – So very tasty, complex. That blob on top is a fried egg. And you need that richness to continue your mala yu journey. There is so much going on here besides just mala yu. Notice the other spices and seasonings. I think there’s ground meat in there, and preserved vegetables, and bok choi. Yeah it’s hot, but there’s so much more happening. Stir it up and share it with your friends. It’s okay to cut these long noodles. Do it with the edge of the serving spoon against the braced inner side of the bowl. Or your fingers. No one really cares as long as no one’s afraid of your cooties.
- Gele Mountain style fried chicken – You can’t see them, but there are more Sichuan peppercorns in this dish. You can’t see them, probably, because these are red, black, ground, and they’re hiding among the mountain of red chiles on top. I think there were peppercorns in the batter. I don’t know. But this time I may have been high from my own endorphins. That said, the dish was delicious. Hot, fresh oil kept the chicken crisp and delicious. We hunted out every last piece of chicken or fried batter or whatever we could from among the chiles, which were all that remained on the plate.
- Sautéed Vegetable and Black Fungus – First, I want to apologize for the photo. This wasn’t as it was served to us. Several of us lost the plot by now (blame the endorphin high) and had taken servings before taking a photo. That said, though sparser, this was the dish. black fungus (wood ear) and greens. The sauce was mild and incredibly flavorful. We think concentrated chicken broth. There were other things going on here, and a sort of perfect late-mid-game break from the mala yu feelings which were otherwise sort of intensifying at this point since we’d run out of plum soup.
- Stir-Cumin Lamb Pull Noodle – The noodles were AWESOME. Really toothsome and I thought the dish tasty and again relatively milder. Though there were still chili flakes on the dish – But by this point, chili flakes were also DELICIOUS. Some of my fellow diners were not as keen on the dish, feeling it was a little odd and out of balance. But notably we did like the noodles, all of us, and many of us appreciated the cumin, though we agreed that it was almost too subtle for the rest of the flavors, I think.
Kang Kang Food Court
27 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801
We returned to this spot, which, in 2017 we started our tour with, with high expectations. We were disappointed, but we still ate 2 dumplings each. Partly we chose this second because the spot closed earlier than our 3rd and final spot of the night. There was some confusion. I think Yelp or Google maps listed the closing hour as 9:30 pm but the banner inside Kang Kang said 10 or 10:30 pm. In any case, the next spot, 101 Noodle Express, is open until 1 am.
Anyway, the point of Kang Kang as far as our group is concerned is sheng jian bao, which are, we think, the better alternative to the wildly popular (in the US xiao long bao). Sheng jian bao are dumplings, for sure, but the wrapper is a thin bao skin. On our 2017 trip, it was one of the things we sought out (along with beef rolls, and potsticker-style dumplings, cooked with extra starch so as to make a lacy crispy effect around the dumpling edges – why yes we are food geeks! Anyhow, sheng jian bao are cooked a bit like potstickers, but with some add-ons. Cooked crimp up or down, they’re placed in a pan with some water, covered to steam them, then fried to boil off the water, and give the bottoms a nice heavy browning. They’re prepared with a filling that has gelled stock, so that, like xiao long bao, they’re juicy inside. Ideally the wrapper should be slightly bready, like a thin bun bao skin, and have that sort of silky outer texture. They’re also adorned with some scallion and sesame seeds, though we had some other sheng jian bao last year that had the sesame seeds cooked into the bottom, which was a technique we liked.
Kang Kang’s sheng jian bao this time were, yes, juicy, and flavorful, and delicious, but the texture of the skin was all wrong. More like a chewy, thick noodle skin than a puffy bao wrapper.
As Jen says, this kind of argues for trying new places rather than revisiting old places for fear of disappointment. But then there’s 101 Noodle Express.
101 Noodle Express
1408 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801
We satisfied our goals and our bellies here. They do not have sheng jian bao, but they do have beef rolls, condiment, and potstickers with the lacy starch crispiness.
Here’s a nifty review from 2009.
And indeed they delivered. Our group talks in reverent tones about the condiment, which they first encountered with beef rolls on a trip where we were not with them. There was a certain je ne sais quoi about it. But they said this last night’s condiment was better than last year’s, but not as good as the first condiment. They talk about it on Chowhound but to my mind, they haven’t identified precisely what’s in it.
Anyway, get the beef roll (yes, the one as big as your arm). Share it with some friends (if you can bring yourself to share), and misapply this condiment to it liberally (apparently it’s meant for the beef soup). I mean by the teaspoon/tablespoon. To each bite. Just go nuts. The beef roll by itself is complex, but the condiment makes it better. I can’t explain it. Try the roll without, too. But every person we know who’s tried the beef roll with and without the condiment prefers it with the condiment.
And wouldn’t you know it? I don’t have a picture of the condiment, even though I was using Google Translate to try to figure out what the Chinese label said on it.
Also get some dumplings. seriously. What are you? An Animal?