From Formosa With Love
Chicken Garden is a nearly elegant, bare-bones sort of place with soft lights and framed calligraphy. Everybody seems to be nibbling off-the-menu Taiwanese hors d’oeuvres, things like smoked beef strips, or small fried fish with chewy tofu, or fried pork chops with a pepper-salt dip. But really, this is the place to go for chicken: pungent smoked chicken with skin brittle as spun sugar; cool, brined, “salted” chicken served with an intense ginger-oil dip; chicken with black dates; “burning wine chicken”; chicken stir-fried with pickled cabbage. The most popular dish seems to be “three-cup” chicken — a famous Taiwanese dish made by cooking the bird with a glass of soy sauce, a glass of sesame oil and a glass of wine — and it’s superb, served crackling in an earthen pot, powerfully flavored with ginger and what must be an entire head of garlic, slightly sweet, and impossible to stop eating until each little nub of chicken has been gnawed to the bone. 18406 Colima Road, Rowland Heights; (626) 913-0548. Open Fri.–Wed. 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Lu’s classic porridge-house cooking tends to be the sort of homey fare you might see at dinner at a Chinese friend’s house, but rarely in restaurants: whole tiny squid sautéed in dark soy sauce; ground pork simmered with a handful of winter pickles; briskly garlicked seaweed salad; cold, chopped mustard greens. And it’s easy to order — you get three items per person for the lunch special; at supper time, when the portions are three times the size, you order the dishes one by one to be shared family style. Go for fish, a pickle and a vegetable; try something you’ve never seen before. The women behind the counter are always helpful, eager to explain that the sliced pig’s belly with leeks is a better bet than the stewed pork stomach, to subtly guide you toward a plate that’s both balanced in flavor and nutritious. 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5883. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m. Lunch for two, $6–$7; dinner for two, $12–$15. Beer only. Lot parking. Cash only.
While there may be better noodle shops in L.A., the Mandarin Deli remains the standard by which such shops can be judged. The key to ordering noodle dishes here is to specify the handmade noodles, which means you’ll get wide, thick, square-cut noodles, something like fettuccine on steroids. They taste much better in rich pork stock or in a searing chile’d broth than the spaghetti-like noodles you’d normally get. So much for noodles. The real reason to come to Mandarin Deli just may be the fish dumplings, airy, steamy things filled with a loose, fragrant mousse of whitefish and chopped greens that could serve as a $19 specialty at any high-priced Pacific Rim restaurant in town, except these are better. 727 N. Broadway, No. 109, Chinatown; (213) 623-6054. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$15. No alcohol. Takeout. Validated lot parking. Cash only.
Nice Time Deli
If this splendid Taiwanese noodle shop served nothing but Chiu Chow–style goose-meat soup noodles — firm round pasta in a smoky goose broth, tender white slices of goose — it would still be worth the drive. It may be the single tastiest bowl of noodles in San Gabriel Square, the one-stop, two-story Chinatown that may be the best-smelling mall in America — no small deal. But there is also the Taiwanese fish-cake–pork-ball soup called check-a noodle, and oysters fried with egg, and squid sautéed with thin strands of Chinese celery. Pork biko, involving spicy shreds of pork tossed with black beans and pieces of succulent, profoundly bitter Chinese melon, is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before: strange, but oddly compelling, not unlike a straight shot of some unfamiliar Italian liqueur. 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 209, San Gabriel; (626) 288-0149. Lunch for two, food only, $5–$12. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
Shaumay is the best place in town for Taiwanese slush, first among Asian ices, an ultracold block of ice whirred against a sharp steel blade, a shower of fine, dry snow powder moistened with an expert squirt or two of condensed milk. Beneath the snow, plopped down on a plate like stew at a mess hall, are four sweet ladlefuls of stuff you choose from a semilavish display of 16 — what’s the opposite of toppings, again? On the plate, canned peaches run into chunks of boiled taro in syrup; soft-boiled peanuts settle against translucent, vaguely herbal lozenges of grass jelly or sticky heaps of sweet red beans. Little translucent BBs taste like congealed honey. Puffed grains in syrup taste a little like a bowl of Super Golden Crisps you’ve forgotten about for an hour or two. The sweets, most of which are nonfat, flavor the ice, add a compelling richness and melt on your tongue. 15 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 282-2262. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$15; slush, $1.50–$2. No alcohol. Parking in rear. Cash only.
Yung Ho Tou Chiang
Soy milk is a resolutely nonexotic substance, sweetish and bland; when it’s paired with dumplings, however, its flavor opens up, tempering the richness of simmered stuffings and the greasiness of fried ones. The traditional accompaniment to soy milk is a long, twisted, light-as-air cruller, and Yung Ho does them well. For another buck or so, you can get the cruller smeared with a salty paste of pounded meat and wrapped inside a cylinder of sticky rice, simulating the texture of a good sushi roll. Yung Ho also has a small specialty in “egg cakes,” thin wheat cakes with scrambled eggs cooked into them, flecked with green herbs and fried. Hubei doupi is a ketchup-smeared egg cake formed into a dome over a mound of rice that conceals a smaller mound of fried pork, representing a kind of trailer-park Taiwanese cooking, at least as tasty as chicken-fried steak. 533 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-9317. Open daily 7 a.m.–6 p.m. Breakfast for two, food only, $5–$10. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
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