San Gabriel Valley: Best Sichuan Cold Dishes in the U.S.?
Inspired by the SGV: The Only Minority in the Restaurant
By way of explanation for the paltry number of recent posts, I mentioned last time that Fongchong and I are living in Los Angeles for the summer. Or Pasadena, to be exact. I also noted that we are spending the majority of our time eating our way through the San Gabriel Valley, the epicenter of Los Angeles’s Chinese community and the vanguard of Chinese food in America. Several of the SGV’s cities are majority Chinese, so the only minority in the restaurant is often me.
Not that the SGV’s restaurants haven’t been discovered by non-Asians—come evening you’ll find all kinds of people have made the trek and are waiting in the long lines for the current hotspots. But Fongchong and I usually go for a late lunch, after she gets out of summer school. At 2 p.m., we’re not only avoiding the lines, we’re eating with the locals. And I am almost always the only white person in the room.
Not that I mind in the least. I want Fongchong to see that I—and everyone else in the restaurant—is comfortable with that situation, since when we are at home in Nashville she is often the only Asian in the restaurant.
Which gets to the real reason of why we’re here in Northeast Los Angeles for a few weeks. At home in Nashville my direct-from-China daughter is one of the few Asians—and very few Chinese—in her school. She knows a lot of Chinese people because she goes to Chinese school on Saturdays. But during the school week, she’s one of a kind.
And let’s be honest—sometimes that’s really hard for her. Nashville is a great, open-minded Southern city, welcoming to new immigrants and refugees. But that doesn’t mean that its kids are yet comfortable with kids from other cultures who speak other languages. Here at South Pasadena High, on the other hand, 40 percent of the students are Asian, mostly Chinese, and the rest have grown up with every culture under the sun. Fongchong has made more friends—both Asian and otherwise—in a few weeks of summer school than she made in four years of middle school in Tennessee.
For me too, the summer is sweet, since some of my dearest friends are in L.A. or nearby.
Hot restaurants, cold dishes
Or perhaps I should say the summer is spicy. Most of those aforementioned hotspots in the SGV are Sichuan, which has exploded in popularity here (and elsewhere) over the past few years, and especially over the past couple, as first Chengdu Taste and then Szechuan Impression made the scene.
After multiple visits to both, I can attest that the tales of their greatness have not been exaggerated. We have also frequented a few other Sichuan places with their own specialties—cold dishes or dry pot, for example. So this post is a mini tour of Sichuan in the SGV. I was going to try to fit all my favorite dishes into one post, but there’s just too many! So I’m splitting them into two posts, and rather than group them by restaurant I’m serving them by course.
First up are the cold dishes, or liangcai. Sichuan’s “cold” (actually room temperature) dishes—like Western salads—serve as starters or sides. They range from vegetables, seaweed and tofu to chicken, chicken feet and various forms of offal. You can get them readymade at most markets in Chengdu, and many of the more casual restaurants there—especially those that specialize in soups and stews—display a huge range of cold dishes that you can mix and match to start your meal.
A few years ago this became a trend in the SGV, with several Sichuan restos featuring cold tables with multiple enticing choices. The hotspot at that time was Chung King, and its cold dishes were so great that Fongchong and I almost never got past them to the hot dishes. We just stuffed ourselves on liangcai.
Chung King has since closed, and Chengdu Taste now wears the crown. But CD Taste aspires to be more upscale, with nice decor and white tablecloths. It has cold noodles and cold chicken/rabbit/beef dishes on the menu—as do all Sichuan restaurants—but it doesn’t offer the variety plate of three liangcai for $5 or $6 of which we are so enamored. The same goes for the sensational Szechuan Impression and the lovely Chuan’s (which is the first American outpost of the famed Ba Guo Bu Yi chain, the flagship of which I’ve eaten at many times in Chengdu).
But several of the SGV’s older-school places still offer up a cold table with a nice variety of dishes for your visual and grazing pleasure. We tried, and loved, the cold dishes at Spicy City (San Gabriel; Chongqing-style Sichuan) and Yunnan Restaurant (Monterey Park; named for Yunnan but mostly Sichuan dishes). There are also some that are a farther drive into east SGV. We didn’t make the drive for those, because we didn’t need too—
I won’t judge whether the SGV’s Sichuan is the best in the U.S., but it certainly has the greatest concentration of great Sichuan (and Yunnan and Hunan and Wuhan) in the U.S. We are in heaven.
Below are some of our favorite cold dishes, from both the cold tables and the menus of the SGV. Let me know in the comments which of these dishes you’d most like me to attempt to recreate when I get back to my Chinese kitchen in Nashville, and I’ll give it a try.
Next up, the SGV’s best hot dishes!
Excellent article! I vote for Spicy City’s Saliva Chicken. The picture had my mouth watering.
Thanks, Paul! Cold chicken in chili oil is way overdue on this blog. Perhaps this will be the one.
Definitely the spicy pan fried tofu!
Everything looks so delicious though. I was adopted from China too and I think it’s great that you’re giving your daughter this chance to live someplace where she doesn’t feel so isolated in her racial indentity, even if just for the summer.
Thanks, Hannah! So glad to hear from another food adventurer and writer. And especially a Chinese adoptee. I hope my daughter will follow in our footsteps some day and write about her mad love of food. Thanks for voting!
Diced rabbit!! Wo xihuan tuzi rou 🙂
Pls try both of the cold noodle (Chong Qing and Chengdu) recipes. I have such fond memories of both of these cheap student eats from the 80’s when I lived there! Love the blog!
Thanks, Rebecca! Those are likely to happen because they are my husband’s votes too.
I vote for deep-fried lamb ribs but the dried beef looks really good too and the saliva chicken and the impressive noodles.
We have a few sichuan restaurants in Columbus now. If you are ever visiting Ohio please let me know. We’d love to take you to some of them.
If ever in Columbus I’ll take you up on that! I love to meet other culinary tour folks.
The tofu, lamb ribs, potato slivers, saliva chicken and the noodles! So hard to pick out of them, they all look fantastic.
It IS hard to pick! I’m going to have to find time for several of these, I think…
I don’t expect it will get many votes, but Fu Qi Fei Pian is certainly my favorite.
It has more votes than chicken feet. 🙂
I’ve never seen pickled chili chicken feet. I’m much more familiar with chicken feet in black bean sauce.
They are very popular in Chengdu. The chicken feet themselves are pickled with spicy green peppers. They’re my daughter’s absolute favorite chicken feet, so I’ve made them for her with these chilies: http://posharpstore.com/en-us/paocaifang-sichuan-pickled-green-chili-peppers-33-lbs-p6173.aspx
Spicy pan-fried doufu takes my vote! But please, I’d love to find out what is in the “Impressive Cold Noodles,” they look so good but the mysterious name reveals so little about the taste! Also: I love how a sprig of cilantro makes any dish more visually appealing and also delicious.
Thanks, Chenyun. I’ll definitely be tackling those Impressive noodles. And probably the doufu. And I agree about that cilantro. I’ll have to use that trick more often! (Even though I’m one of those genetically predisposed cilantro-haters, I do like the way it looks.) 🙂
Chengdu native here but grew up in the states. Just found your blog and love it! I gotta say I’m surprised that anyone none Chinese loves Sichuan cuisine. Quite a few friends of mine love spicy food but when I cook for them and throw in Sichuan peppercorn or none toned down MaPo tofu they all shy away.
I might have to goto L.A. now for the Fu Qi Fei Pian alone. Wonder what your take is on Flushings? I remember my family visiting Flushing 12 year ago and going to back alley restaurant with only language signage and it was the most authentic Sichuan food I have ever had in the states to date. My uncle requested to speak to the chef and of course he was from Chengdu as well, which showed in his cooking. It was 90% comparable to home.
So great to hear from a Chengdu native! From the response to this blog, I think there are a lot of us non-Chinese who fell in love with real Sichuan food the first time we tasted it. I can’t judge the current Flushing scene. I haven’t lived in NYC in years and haven’t kept up. But I do know there are real chefs from Chengdu popping up there and elsewhere around the country now. So a lot more people are going to get the chance to love it.
Thanks for the kind words!
Duck necks first, and the rest of them…..
Saliva Chicken please!
+1 for the Spicy pan-fried doufu! I would also love to learn how to make either of those cold noodle dishes. I’m going to Szechuan Impression for lunch this coming week; since reading your post all I can think about are trying those Impressive Cold Noodles.
Thanks for your vote, Robert. My first attempt at the tofu did not pass Fong Chong’s approval, so I’m still working on that one.
Do try those noodles. They are simple but Impressive.