Chinatown began in the heart of Los Angeles' downtown, however, due to the city's cultural evolution, the hub of 'real Chinese cuisine' is East of the original historic Los Angeles within the ever expanding belt loop of the San Gabriel Valley. I've been inside the belly of this dumpling house dragon ("The 626" or "The SGV" as we Angelenos call it) led by the chopsticks of my food critic fiancé, best known for his extreme eating adventures via his decade-seasoned blog Deep End Dining. Sometimes we are stared at with curiosity, a white woman and a Chinese man. It's not uncommon in modern Los Angeles to see an interracial couple like us, but in the neighborhoods of Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights, Alhambra, Rowland Heights and Arcadia, most of the diners and waitstaff are just-off-the-plane Chinese immigrants, and yes, the waiter plunks down a fork in front of me.
When I was first forked in a Chinese restaurant, it was almost midnight. We were both hungry after attending an outdoor summer concert. Our picnic dinner under the stars consisted of wine, crackers and cheese. With little food and several glasses of wine sloshing around inside me, I was in the mood for something more substantial. In search of late night Chinese eats, we stumbled upon a brightly lit diner called Sunday Bistro.
A lanky waiter flung a menu at my fiancé and left us to peruse the extensive list of offerings. On his side of the table, chopsticks. On my side of the table, a busboy swiftly removed the chopsticks and replaced them with a fork. My eyes opened with surprise then rolled in amusement. I had just been forked.
We looked over the menu selections such as deep fried frog, imitation abalone and bitter melon soup, X.O. sauce seafood fried rice along with the usual noodle offerings, seafood selections, bean curd dishes and Americanized versions of "Chinese food" like sweet and sour pork, orange chicken and chow mein.
The oddest menu listings, by the way, were French Toast with peanut butter, Russian Borscht and Creole seafood gumbo which piqued my curiosity simply because they were so misplaced. Hong Kong style dishes led to eccentric French versions of escargot bourguignon, French onion soup and the random Spaghetti Bolognese among soft shell crab, baked green mussels and beef chow fun. Perhaps forks were paired with chopsticks given the mélange de cuisine?
Our waiter returned with spicy swagger like chili mixing in a dish of soy sauce. My fiancé asked casually about the crocodile meat soup. The smug waiter curtly stated that crocodile was illegal and therefore not on the menu.
"But it's right here," my fiancé insisted in his Mandarin Changlish, pointing to the laminated menu describing "crocodile meat in herbal soup" for $6.95. The waiter shook his head and firmly insisted, "It's not on the menu. Illegal." Then he smirked, "Why don't you try the kung pao chicken?" It all seemed a joke to him. The fork in front of me. Kung pao chicken. Of course. A white woman with a Chinese-American man.
Rather than suffer the kung pao chicken mentality of our waiter, I pushed my shiny fork aside and ordered some braised sea cucumber with black mushrooms and mustard greens. As my request seemed to disappoint his bravado, I really stuck my fork in and demanded a pair of chopsticks.
For a just a moment I meditated upon this fork treatment and wondered if it was a gesture of hospitality that I misinterpreted as culinary racism. Perhaps the fork was placed there for my convenience in case I was too embarrassed to ask for it. I can't argue this fork-versus-chopsticks treatment. It isn't always a problem for me, regardless of how dexterous I am with sticks. I can eat like a good Chinese daughter-in-law, managing rice, dumplings, slippery shrimp and jelly textures without fail. Reluctantly, a fork gives me identity.
The Chinese have been wielding chopsticks since 1200 B.C, yet I've only been at it since 1982. My tastes for xiao long bao, black mushrooms, sea cucumber, noodles and rice aren't as challenging with a fork, yet I stake my claim with two chopsticks into the center of the San Gabriel Valley for my Chinese feasting.
Want to sink your chopsticks into something delicious in the San Gabriel Valley? Here are a few places I recommend getting forked at:
China Red 855 S. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia. (626) 445-3700
Forks and chopsticks down, China Red is my most favorite place for dining on delectable dim sum delights. This is where I go all chopstick happy and rarely (if ever) get forked at the table (because they know me) but if they do give you the fork, you'll need it to handle their deluxe soup dumpling. Maybe.
Lunasia Chinese Cuisine 500 W. Main St., A, Alhambra, (626) 308-3222
If my sweetheart and I make a dumpling date, Lunasia is our place to go. Among the chicken feet and juicy Shanghai style pork dumplings, linger over the luscious Lunasia dim sum specialties like pan fried turnip cake in X.O. sauce, sticky rice lotus leaf wraps and polish it all off with some deep fried almond crusted fish balls. You may not need your fork after all when those finger licking good egg tarts come to the table.
Shanghai No. 1 Seafood 250 W. Valley Blvd., M, San Gabriel, (626) 282-1777
The oversized magazine of a menu features Shanghai-style cuisine. Its chic interior proves Shanghai No. 1 Seafood to be a treasure among the many Chinese eateries in the San Gabriel Valley. You will not be deceived by a fork when tasting sheng jian bao, xiao long bao and stir-fried green beans, but use your lips when kissing your shark lip abalone soup. For vegetarians I recommend the stir-fried bean vermicelli with garlic and carrot in a clay pot.
Mama's Lu Dumpling House 153 E Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 307-5700
You may get a fork here and there, but ah, who cares! Mama's Lu (or is it Mama Lu's?) Dumpling House is like eating at your Chinese grandma's kitchen table meets Jerry's Deli. It's all about the dumplings plus so much more. A great spot for families, kids, moms and dads alike to dig in their chopsticks and chow down on chow fun, green beans and those tender juicy dumplings.
Chengdu Taste 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 588-2284.
The pleasure of pain comes with your hot pot of chili. In fact, food here it is so fork-meltingly fiery you'll get a spoonful of Sichuan sizzle instead. Try the hot pot and discover how tasty pain can be.
Elite Restaurant 700 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, (626) 282-9998
Elite is the perfect dim sum choice for vegetarians and omnivores to eat together in double happiness. Plenty of juicy veggie dumplings to choose from as well as tofu and braised mushrooms. No forking around, this is some of the best dim sum I've tasted.