View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Taiwanese Breakfast: The Tao of You Tiao at Huge Tree Bakery."
Back at the dawn of time, when Jerry Brown was the governor and Bad Company still ruled the Billboard charts, my favorite restaurant in Chinatown was an upstairs dining room somewhere around the old Madame Wong's, a place that probably served some variation of what was then called "Mandarin'' cooking at night, but in the mornings served Taiwanese breakfast — big bowls of hot tofu, little stuffed breads and, most essentially you tiao, twisted Chinese crullers, which are long and unsweetened and look a little like churros that have been surgically joined at the waist. In high school, when most of my friends were still obsessed with the orange butter at the International House of Pancakes, I was taking the bus to Chinatown for breakfasts of salty tofu and pork sandwiches. After I briefly succumbed to IHOP myself, I was dismayed to discover that I remembered neither the restaurant's name nor its exact location. (I had long since broken up with the girl whose parents had taken me out for tofu in the first place.)
Still, Taiwanese breakfast — Shanghainese breakfast, if you listen to my friend Louise — has not been hard to find in the San Gabriel Valley in the last couple of decades, and the brotherhood of the you tiao and the hubei doupei, the dou jiang and the niu ruo shao bing have long been going into places like Four Seas, Doe Jon and Yung Ho Tou Chiang when they needed to float away on a sea of soy milk.
Especially beloved (although I was more of a Yung Ho partisan) was Yi Mei, a particularly cramped bakery corner a few doors south of Elite, which was jammed as tightly as an express bus on weekend mornings, and where it was nearly impossible to get through a bowl of doufu fa in syrup without encountering the business end of a great-grandmother's walker. There was nothing resembling an English menu, and the non-Chinese-fluent had to order by pointing, but it wasn't too hard to get breakfast with a little exertion, and the fried turnip cakes were awfully good.
A fire closed Yi Mei last summer; sighing locals relocated their soy-milk longings to the other places in the neighborhood.
Then Huge Tree Pastry opened, a spacious, gleaming café in the space occupied for years by Dumpling Master, which turned out to not just resemble Yi Mei but be Yi Mei, with the same waitresses and kitchen staff, plopped down by the Shun Fat Supermarket. If what you liked about Yi Mei was the food rather than the sensation of eating in a crowded freight elevator, Huge Tree was home — flaky baked lard pastries filled with curried meat or sautéed leeks, hot sesame bread that may be half green onions by weight, little pyramids of glutinous rice steamed in lotus leaves, pearl-white almond milk as thick as a vanilla shake.
And those you tiao are grand — hot, crisp and hollow, fried to order, softening in a bowl of soy milk like proper biscotti do in sweet wine. If you visit Yi Mei without ordering the you tiao, you are definitely missing the point.
If you have ever been to a Taiwanese breakfast joint, you probably know the routine. First you order a bowl of either soy milk or tofu, hot or cold, sweetened or served with a dash of vinegar and a fluffy pile of pork "floss" that slightly resembles Sinaloan machaca. (If you are on the edge, go for the tofu rather than the soy milk — I don't pretend to be a connoisseur, but the latter is bland even by soy-milk standards.) Then get either the you tiao or one of the breads, a pastry or two if you're in the mood, or that niu ruo shao bing, a simmered-beef thing with pickled cabbage that ranks among the better sandwiches in town.
Are the pan-fried dumplings a bit dull, the soup dumplings a bit stodgy, and the texture of the noodles not quite up to the standards of the hand-pulled ones you can find within a few minutes' drive? Unfortunately so. As at Swingers or the Pancake House, breakfast is what you came to eat, even at 4 in the afternoon.
But the fried turnip cakes, crisp on the outside and almost liquid within, are almost a different species than the examples you find on dim sum carts — they actually taste like turnips, for one thing — and should also be an almost automatic order.
One morning, the chef brought out a tray of freshly smoked chicken to cool on a dining-room table, and the aroma was of the sort that causes cats to commit felonies in the better cartoons, feathery tendrils of desire strong enough to become almost visible. The warm, bronze-tinted chicken turned out to be juicy, salty and as smoky as Kansas City barbecue — or more to the point, smoky as the pomfret that the late Charming Garden used to charge $35 for.
The menu is translated into English, but if you take a stab at the Chinese name of a dish, the waitresses will make you feel as if you have just won a Nobel Prize.
HUGE TREE BAKERY 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 458-8689. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Breakfast for two, $8-$10. Recommended dishes: hot tofu (salty), twisted bread, baked leek dumpling, shao bing with beef and pickles, fried turnip cake, smoked chicken.