Since the early 1990s, Valley Boulevard — known for its diverse range of Chinese eats — has been the main food artery of the San Gabriel Valley. The street itself stretches from Los Angeles to Pomona, but it's the nine miles from El Monte to Alhambra that gets all the culinary attention. According to David R. Chan, who has eaten at more than 6,500 Chinese restaurants, there are roughly 200 Chinese restaurants on Valley alone.
"The thing that stands out is that while the first authentic Chinese places started opening up in Monterey Park around 1975, Chinese restaurants on Valley Boulevard don't show up until 1983," Chan says. "No Chinese restaurants show up on Valley Boulevard in the city of San Gabriel until 1986."
Prior to the wave of Chinese restaurants, the area was mostly occupied by western European and Hispanic families. "It was a demographic mix during the mid-1960s until about the 1980s," says Lisa Scalia, owner of Melting Pot Food Tours.
Scalia spent her childhood in the San Gabriel Valley and remembers how different the area used to be. "For restaurants along Valley we had House of Pies, Holland House, Sambo's, Sir George's Smorgasbord, Ricky's Skyroom, Pizza Pub, China Doll, Bob's Big Boy, Norm's, The Other Ball, which was a topless bar, Petrillo's Pizza and Nam's Chinese," she recalls.
Few of these establishments remain — and the ones that do stand out in the sea of Chinese signs.
The turning point came in the early 1990s. In 1991, Chinese supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market opened on Valley Boulevard in the San Gabriel Square — a gigantic, two-level, open-air mall. "This marked the beginning of the city of San Gabriel as a culinary destination," Chan says. "99 Ranch Market anchored the plaza." Scalia notes that the square used to be a drive-in movie theater.
According to a spreadsheet Chan created (yes, he keeps close tabs on restaurant openings), the first Chinese restaurant that opened in the plaza was Great Food Cafe in 1991. With the exception of Sam Woo Seafood, which opened in 1992, few of the original tenants have stayed. But one thing has remained constant in the last two decades: the tenants are all focused on servicing the Chinese immigrant population.
Chan's data shows that 539 new Chinese restaurants opened on Valley Boulevard within a span of 31 years.
There's western Chinese food by Shaanxi Gourmet and Wuxi-style soup dumplings the size of a fist in the San Gabriel Plaza. There's Taiwanese stinky tofu at Lee's Garden and hot pot at Boiling Point. Beijing Tasty does Beijing roasted duck, as does Tasty Duck right down the street. Both Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression, the Sichuan powerhouses of Los Angeles, have made their mark on Valley. The competition, as one can imagine, is fierce.
Peppered along the street are Chinese herbal shops, acupuncture studios, the occasional foot massage parlor and quite a few places for high school kids to get their boba fix after school. You'll find tour buses chock full of tourists from China alongside wealthy Chinese kids with their Lamborghinis and polished Mustangs. Elderly Asian couples stroll down the boulevard with grocery bags in hand, and, occasionally, food-obsessed Instagrammers from the Westside can be spotted.
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Note that you won't find gaudy fonts or dragons plastered everywhere. You'll be hard-pressed to see a Chinese lantern or even an antique store. This isn't Chinatown. There isn't a historical society or museum to give it all context, and you'll find few actual residences on Valley Boulevard. Most of those who frequent the boulevard live in the suburbs surrounding the artery — middle-class families who have figured out how to assimilate into American society.
Unlike the Chinatowns of yesteryear, Valley Boulevard isn't a place to sustain struggling Chinese immigrants. The people who live in the area came here college-educated and with money. The boulevard was born not out of necessity but out of nostalgia for home, for community and, most important, for food.