There Are Hipsters in the San Gabriel Valley

I don’t want anyone to be alarmed, but there are hipsters in the San Gabriel Valley.

They’re hard to escape these days — bearded, tattooed young guys wearing Vans and cool t-shirts emblazoned with logos for Nashville honkytonks, their hair either coiled up in a man bun or shaved off entirely, accompanied by beautiful tattooed braless young women of often indeterminate Hispaneuroasian ethnicity.

Jaydyn, Willa and their dim sum

San Gabriel Valley is as unhip as it gets. Why, then, are the hipsters there? I partially blame it on Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Angeleno food critic. Jonathan Gold was unhip, too — a portly, balding guy with suspenders and a squeaky voice. But he wrote with the music and flourish of a poet as he gleefully took the road less travelled to L.A.’s grittier corners in pursuit of a great meal. He was, as it turns out, was a muse for L.A.’s hip and intelligentsia, who could boast amongst one another of the most recent Jonathan Gold treasure they’d frequented.

Many of his favorite meals were to be found in the San Gabriel Valley, a townless Chinatown spread in the eastern shadows of Downtown L.A. across strip malls, darting beneath freeways and inching along drainage culverts. And what exactly was I doing here? My son is an enthusiast of Airsoft simulated warplay, and wanted to go to Airsoft Con. “Where is it?” I asked, preparing my disappointing reply. But when he said, “Alhambra,” one thing popped into my mind: “Dim sum.”


Yes, I will take you. In fact, we will make a family day of it. Dad, the wife, the middle daughter and her friend, the younger daughter. “We’re going to Alhambra!” declared to scoffing muzzles from the girls.

I dropped Flynn and his pal Asa, along with mom, at Airsoft Con. The girls and I sped away from the camo’ed and gun-totting male crowd toward Monterey Park, Hong Kong-central for San Gabriel dim sum, where your options run three-to-four per block. Hoping to not alienate the girls too much with chicken feet and beef intestines, I opted for a classic dim sum palace — Atlantic Seafood & Dim Sum — several banquet-size rooms with gaudy chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters and friendly ladies pushing carts up to you and yelling in Cantonese.

The dim sum was tasty if typical. But it wasn’t really what I’d agreed to venture to this charmless, featureless valley for. Hipster-like, myself, it was a mythical Jonathan Gold haunt that had brought me here.

Chengdu Taste.

(l to r) spicy wontons, rabbit with younger sister’s secret sauce, dan dan noodles and toothpick lamb

The name had appeared so often amongst Mr. Gold’s writings that I felt my life incomplete having never been there. My wife called, she’d had enough of Airsoft Con and could we please pick her up? We grabbed the Mrs. and headed to a Chinese grocery store where I wanted to shop. I set the girls free in the exotic snack and sweets section and exited the market, heading next door to a nondescript restaurant with some Hollywood-style hipsters milling incongruously out front. I knew this was the place. I headed in.

True to Mr. Gold’s penchant for substance over style, the restaurant appeared your typical Chinese-American L.A. strip mall takeout joint with little if any charm. But in the Master’s own words: “Chengdu Taste is the most influential restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the place you take visiting friends when you want to tempt them to move to L.A.” More specifically, it is considered the place to go for the cooking of China’s Sichuan province, which happens to be my favorite style of Chinese cooking — spicy, savory, sour, blackened chilis vying with the curious tongue-numbing experience of Sichuan peppercorns which, again in Mr. Gold’s own words: “flits around your lips and tongue with the weird vibrancy of a flashing Las Vegas sign.” The influence of the region’s cooking can be found in such Chinese-American standards as kung pao chicken and hot and sour soup.

I ordered takeout — several dishes I’d read about in Jonathan Gold’s “Counter Intelligence” columns about Chengdu Taste, as well as other reviews — including red chili wontons, tan tan noodles, rabbit with “younger sister’s secret sauce” and toothpick lamb with cumin. All that, under $50. Returning to the market, I found my wife and girls just about finished with their purchase of weird-flavored gummies and tropical “pastes”, spicy fried peas and seaweed-tasting potato chips. And I made a quick dash to grab the things I would need to do Sichuan at home — chili oil, Sichuan peppers, black vinegar, doubanjiang broad bean sauce…

That evening, our friends Mike and Bridget popped by, and I pulled out the Chengdu Taste takeout bag. We loaded up our plates from the plastic containers, and immediately began to encounter flavors that were unusual and complex —  not the least of which was the spiraling dance between chili heat and peppercorn tingle that the Chinese refer to as “ma la”, and a similarly unexpected interplay between fresh and fermented. The noodles were sublime. The toothpick lamb a fun and funky finger food. The younger sister could’ve made the rabbit a more pleasant endeavor with a bit of judicious boning. But that’s one small complaint, more than made up for by the dish’s exquisite taste.

A few days later, I did my own take on the wontons and was as pleased with the results as I was to discover that preparing Sichuan at home didn’t have to be a long laborious process, provided you weren’t trying to toothpick and fry several hundred small cubes of lamb yourself.

My own take on red chili wontons

The parsing out of Chinese cuisine may be analogous to the greater familiarity in American life to regional Italian cooking. When I was a kid, there was one Italian restaurant — Papa Tony’s — that served spaghetti and meatballs, ragu sauces, saltimbocca. Carbonara was considered exotic. Now, most Americans have their favorite regional style of Italian cooking — the earthy simplicity of Tuscany’s beans and grilled meats; the briny sea-influenced sophistication of Venice’s risottos; or Southern Italy, with its spice and Arabic overtones. China, long considered to have one of the great cuisines of the world, expresses equally distinct and diverse variations in its regional cuisines. If you happen to like kung pao chicken or desire flavor that “flits around your lips and tongue with the weird vibrancy of a flashing Las Vegas sign,” I would suggest you explore authentic Sichuan cooking. And if you’re in L.A. and can handle hanging with the hipsters without the hassle of finding parking on Abbot Kinney, Chengdu Taste is a good place to start.



Messengers of the Mezcal Gospel

While I am a connoisseur of a variety of fine spirits, it is the artisanal Mexican elixir, mezcal, that I drink the most. While this is in part due to my close association with Del Maguey, the global leader in the category, it is also just because I like mezcal better than, say, tequila or rum. And because I have visited Oaxaca, traveled rutted dirt mountain roads to the poor Zapotec villages where the spirit is made, and have watched them roasting and mashing the agave hearts, mixing them with mountain stream water, and nurturing them into the intoxicating distillate, while chickens and goats forage nearby.

Espadin fields near San Luis del Rio in rural Oaxaca

While Del Maguey is 90% of the mezcal I drink (close associations have their benefits), I enjoy trying different brands when the opportunity presents itself. And I like a good David and Goliath story. So when I received an email from venerated West Los Angeles wine institution The Wine House singing the praises of a new mezcal called Paquera, I was intrigued. More

A Chili Cook Off of One

Every early November somethingth, our cozy little canyon community has a chili cook off and swap meet. I have participated in the cook off the past four or five years. It’s always the same group of us — Tom, who brings his homemade wine and last year forgot to put his truck in park and we all watched as it rolled off the cliff; my pal Dan, who won last year but drank too much during the morning and was passed out in his van when his name was announced; the young duo of Julian and Trevor, who object whenever I don’t win. Nobody cares much who wins or loses, it’s a lot of fun.


I’ve never won. I came in second a couple years back. “Dude, you got robbed!” said Julian and Trevor, who won that year. More

The Evacu-cation

The first sign that anything might be wrong came on a Thursday afternoon, driving my son Flynn to his baseball practice in Agoura Hills.

As we wound through Malibu Canyon, we spotted a large plume of smoke rising over approximately exactly where the baseball field was. “Uh, Dad…” said Flynn, pointing. We arrived to discover the fire was a ridge away, so practice proceeded as planned.

The next day we could see the smoke from our home, rising like a mushroom cloud over our drought-dry mountains. I was at an afternoon birthday party for a 7-year-old drinking wine when my wife pulled up unexpectedly. “Mandatory evacuation,” she said. She was on her way to our friends Bob and Shoba’s house in the San Fernando Valley. I went back home, gathered a few more photo albums and the important artworks, and descended on the valley to join her. More

A Waffle Does Not Make Good Sandwich Bread (and Other Thoughts)

I received a Groupon in my in-box this morning (why I still receive Groupons in my in-box is another conversation) for a place called “Red Maple Café”. A rather generic attempt at an Americana tavern/eatery type name (the trend these days). Obviously not drawing the people they expected, if they are putting out a Groupon.

The photo included with the Groupon was of an ill-conceived sandwich, a meat of some kind — probably smoked heritage pork belly — suspended between two waffles. Making matters worse was a sprig of cilantro sitting ominously close to the meat. More

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