When we compiled our 2016 list of the 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants, the city's array of superb Chinese restaurants was sure to play a huge part. The San Gabriel Valley alone is a vast goldmine of regional Chinese cooking, in addition to modern chefs in other parts of town who are putting their own touches on traditional fare. Below is a sampling of what we believe are some of L.A.'s most essential Chinese restaurants — make sure to check out the full list to see everything else.
Navigating the restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley can be intimidating, especially for those who aren’t Chinese. You don’t want to be the dude ordering beef skewers at a place specializing in abalone porridge, after all. But if there’s a restaurant where your directives are clear from the moment you sit down, it’s Beijing Pie House. The wildly crowded restaurant in Monterey Park focuses on the most dangerous style of dumpling. Here, the unit of consumption is xian bing, puck-sized dumplings that contain a loose patty of meat and vegetable suspended in boiling-hot broth that spurts out when prodded with a chopstick. How do you tackle the xian bing? Do you perch one on your wide soup spoon and gingerly slurp out the innards? Do you bare-hand the thing and risk first-degree burns? These are matters of personal debate, but what’s undeniable is that the pan-fried lamb and green onion “meat pies” are crispy and juicy and utterly addictive. You drizzle it with a bit of black vinegar and a few drops of chili oil, which perfectly cut through the richness of the minced lamb, and tear off bites of the dumpling’s thick skin piece by piece. Just don’t forget what your chemistry teacher taught you about contents under pressure. —Garrett Snyder
846 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-3818.
Dai Ho Kitchen
If you plan to eat at Dai Ho, arrive early. The kitchen is open for less than four hours each day, six days a weeks, and an open table at the cramped Temple City diner is as rare as a parking space along Venice Beach. There’s a glass display case filled with cold sliced pig ears, spicy pickled papaya and crispy peanuts with tiny fried fish, but everyone, including you if you manage to snag a seat, is patiently waiting for the wonderful handmade noodles — long, tensile strands with the elastic properties of a Stretch Armstrong doll. They can be had swimming in murky beef broth with soft hunks of braised shank, doused in rich sesame sauce or smothered in a ground-pork sauce mixed with salty bean paste until it resembles thick Bolognese. The cooking at Dai Ho might be described as Sichuan by way of Taiwan, or vice versa, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. Owners-chefs May and Jim Ku make their own rules, the parameters of which involve no substitutions, long waits, limited availability and boiling hot tea served in styrofoam cups. But when you finally get that bowl of noodles slicked with chili oil, these constraints feel like part of Dai Ho’s charm. —GS
9148 E. Las Tunas Drive, Temple City; (626) 291-2295.
To some purists, the proliferation of Din Tai Fung locations — its status as an international chain — makes the dumpling house less thrilling than it was when we knew it as a single restaurant in Arcadia. There are now two locations in Arcadia and one attached to the Americana at Brand mall in Glendale, as well as an Orange County outpost and a couple of branches in Seattle (not to mention the 11 other countries with Din Tai Fungs). But if that means you can eat juicy, thin-skinned xiao long bao before running errands at a fancy mall, or wait a little less time for a seat in Arcadia, then what’s not to love? The truth is that no matter how many outposts of Din Tai Fung there are, the food — those XLB soup dumplings, as well as the other dumplings and the veggie dishes and the noodles and the rice cakes — are still damn good. When the urge strikes to stuff ourselves with seven different kinds of dumplings, this is still the first place we turn. If that leads to world dumpling domination, then so be it. —Besha Rodell
1088 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 574-7068, dintaifungusa.com.
The Chengdu Taste empire just keeps growing, with four restaurants now under the same ownership, all thanks to the public’s hunger for this particular brand of spicy, numbing, complex, alluring Sichuan food. We still prefer the original Valley Boulevard location, for toothpick lamb bristling with cumin, wontons that have an almost floral undertone (if you can taste anything under the extreme chili-oil heat), slick jelly noodles and water-boiled fish with green chilies. You can order a whole pork shank cooked in a deep, sweet braise and slathered with red chilies, or chopped rabbit in Younger Sister’s Secret Sauce. What’s in that secret sauce? Peanuts, and — you guessed it — chili. Yes, this is a pilgrimage spot for spice masochists, but focusing on that alone takes away from the nuance in this cooking, the layering of flavors that make this food so much more complex and satisfying than places where heat is the primary characteristic. Expect to wait a long time for a table, expect to order far too many things, expect to fall into a kind of Sichuan peppercorn–induced stupor for the rest of the afternoon or evening. —BR
828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 588-2284.
In the increasingly competitive San Gabriel Valley scene, the reputations of top-tier dim sum houses can shuffle as quickly as NBA power rankings. But like the perennial team that seems to never miss the playoffs, Elite has managed to remain in the forefront. At this unassuming banquet hall on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, you’ll find no old-school carts but sharp service and an illustrated menu that will relieve some of the stress accumulated by hourlong waits on the weekends. Few establishments can top Elite’s buttery, flaky Hong Kong egg tarts or its golf ball–sized shu mai dumplings crowned with bright orange fish roe. And few culinary joys can match that feeling when your table is blanketed in metal steamer tins and you’re passing around niblets of spare rib in black bean sauce, crispy turnip cakes and soft cream buns that ooze yolk-colored decadence. Utter dominance can’t last forever — just look at the Lakers — but we’ll gladly ride Elite’s grand wave while we can. —GS
700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-9998, elitechineserestaurant.com.
There are times when browsing the menu at Szechuan Impression — the acclaimed Alhambra restaurant most often compared to the San Gabriel Valley’s other temple of Sichuan cooking, Chengdu Taste — that the non-Chinese diner can feel like he’s reading a list of inside jokes rather than dishes: “Potato Strips on Street Corner,” “Big Mouth Ginger Frog,” “Fiery Temper Goose Intestine” and, perhaps most famously, “Cinderella’s Pumpkin Rides.” What these signify, though, is Szechuan Impression’s homestyle cooking, which invokes serious nostalgia for those well-versed in the food of Sichuan. No translation is need for soft-skinned wontons bobbing in a pool of lip-numbing chili oil, thin sheets of garlic-braised pork belly or cumin-blasted bits of lamb impaled on individual toothpicks. In proper Sichuan fashion, many dishes here will leave your mouth smoldering, but there are plenty of others that showcase the more subtle, aromatic side of China’s famously fiery province. —GS
1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 283-4622.
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Huge Tree Pastry
If you’ve never experienced the vast joys of Taiwanese breakfast, there is no better place to dive into sticky rice rolls and warm savory soy milk than Huge Tree Pastry, a small breakfast counter in Monterey Park whose tables are packed with Chinese grandparents reading their morning World Journal. You’ll want an order or two of you tiao, long, fried crullers that are essentially unsweetened doughnuts, and a bowl of sweet peanut rice milk for dipping, a nourishing elixir that is as delicious as it sounds. Next might be crispy fried turnip cakes embedded inside egg omelets like prehistoric fossils, or a particularly colorful version of fan tuan made with purple-hued jasmine rice wrapped around egg, tangy mustard green pickles, fluffy stands of fried pork floss and another stick of you tiao for good measure. If you happen to arrive after breakfast, order the shao bing, flaky little flatbread sandwiches stuffed with sweet braised meat and pickled items. —GS
423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-8689, facebook.com/HugeTreePastry.
Pine & Crane
Pine & Crane has become the go-to restaurant for diners who want the pleasures of great Taiwanese cooking without a trek to the San Gabriel Valley. At least that’s the dominant narrative; people who love Pine & Crane know that it’s much more than simple convenience that brings them to this sunny Silver Lake dining room. Yes, there’s the option to get your scallion pancakes, mapo tofu and dan dan noodles without battling the 10 freeway, and the beef noodle soup is as warming and comforting as any version in town. But the real draw here is the super-fresh veggies sourced from owner Vivian Ku’s family farm. Take a look in the cold case next to the counter, where you’ll find dishes such as wood ear mushroom salad flecked with sweet red pepper, or grassy, fresh pea shoots scented with garlic. There’s a lovely selection of loose leaf teas for those who care about such things, and delicious passion fruit iced tea for those who don’t. —BR
1521 Griffith Park Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 668-1128, pineandcrane.com.