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.”

Hipster

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.

 

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Winner!

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