This Gem of a Chinese Restaurant Is Hidden in Plain Sight

When people talk about the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, the same names come up time and again: Sea Harbour in Rosemead, Chengdu Taste, Lunasia, King Hua and Szechuan Impression in Alhambra, Newport Seafood and Mian in San Gabriel, and Din Tai Fung in various mall locations. (Or if you’re Yelp, then it’s Americanized restaurants such as Sea Dragon, Yang Chow and Wah’s Golden Hen.)

But what if we throw another contender into the mix: Embassy Kitchen in San Gabriel, located directly in front of the Embassy Billiards pool hall, whence it derives its name.

Given its location, this is equivalent to bowling alley dining, in a sense. And it's been around for 20 years, making it senior to all the other top non-Yelp contenders except Newport Seafood, which opened in San Gabriel a year earlier in 1996. Embassy Kitchen started as a small adjunct restaurant to the billiard parlor around 1997, even using the Embassy Billiards moniker. It then moved to the large restaurant space in front of the pool hall around 1999.

Like other top Chinese restaurants Sea Harbour, Lunasia and King Hua, as well as most all of the other banquet-sized Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, Embassy Kitchen serves Hong Kong–style cuisine. But Embassy Kitchen diverges from these other restaurants in many ways. There are no tanks full of live seafood, nor is the dining room huge, loud or boisterous. There is not a gaudy menu with so many choices that it could be made into a movie, and the restaurant gladly takes reservations.

But what really distinguishes Embassy Kitchen from the pack is the food selection. Yes, you will find Cantonese favorites such as rock cod in corn sauce, walnut shrimp, fish maw crab meat soup, e-fu noodles and steamed chicken with ginger and scallions. But what you also find at Embassy Kitchen are two extremes not typically seen at most Hong Kong–style restaurants in Los Angeles — complex dishes that require ordering in advance, and wonderful home-style dishes. Most of these dishes are obscured on the Embassy Kitchen menu, as they are only found on Chinese-language paper inserts on the inside cover of the permanent menu. On the other hand, that might not make much of a difference, since non-Chinese faces are rare at this restaurant. There is no nefarious intent in relegating these dishes to a Chinese-language supplement — the owners indicate that they just weren’t sure how to accurately describe these dishes in English.

Perhaps the best exemplar of the complex advance-order dishes is the boneless chicken stuffed with shrimp paste. The chicken skin is light and crispy and the shrimp paste provides a savory contrast.

Then there are the tilapia rolls with whole carcass, one of the most visually interesting dishes you will find at a Los Angeles–area Chinese restaurant, though from a taste point of view the re-stuffed fish (where the bones are removed and the fish is filled back up with fish and ground pork) might be a better choice.

One of the special items that does not necessarily require an advance order is the "eight treasures" stuffed duck.

Other signature dishes include the chicken stuffed with sticky rice (a traditional Cantonese dish still popular in the San Francisco area but difficult to find in Los Angeles) and the fried rice with whole Dungeness crab or lobster. Note that all of these dishes are large and cost around $50, and hence are more suited to large parties. Indeed, Embassy Kitchen has a larger quotient of large-size tables compared with most other Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles.

At the other end of the spectrum are the many uncommon home-style dishes on Embassy Kitchen’s menu. However, be aware that these dishes are not inexpensive, as there are few items on the Embassy Kitchen menu that are less than $15, and many are $20 or more. But these dishes contain expensive ingredients. For example, our party was stumped by the steamed egg with tofu and seafood topping, so we had to ask what was in it. The answer: “shrimp roe.” Such ingredients also explain the higher price point.

Try the steamed eggplant with dried scallop and ground pork; the clear rice noodles with cabbage, egg and dried scallops; stir-fried beef; and French-style beef stew (which comes with noodles at lunchtime but not at dinner).

When the kitchen is in top form, this is the closest thing to artisan Chinese cooking that you will find in Los Angeles.

218 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 286-8148.

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