In the wet dark of a late San Gabriel night, when 10,000 chairs balance upright legs atop 3,000 Chinese restaurant tables, when the sweet smells of burnt soy and toasted garlic fade into floor soap and rotting fish, when the giant parking lots empty of their cars, Mon Land Hot Pot City appears almost magical in its secret back alley, flashing colored lights reflected in the washed-down pavement, the distant sounds of laughter, of crashing plates, of music floating across the silent acres of asphalt. Across the street from one massive Chinese mall and backing into another, Mon Land is a forgotten scrap of Asia, a tiny, brightly lit patio scrunched onto a narrow strip of land that the surveyors forgot to inscribe onto their plats.
Mon Land is yet another of the Northern-style hot-pot restaurants that have been proliferating in the San Gabriel Valley — waterfalls and paintings of yurts; bifurcated stainless-steel kettles of both mild and spicy broth bubbling in the center of circular tables; big extended families up late, rinsing bits of meat in soup, drinking cold beer, wolfing down lamb dumplings and crisp onion pancakes and pan-fried dumplings stuffed with leeks. The tiny parking lot is usually filled with absurdly expensive cars.
It must be said that at least one food-obsessed Chinese friend finds the food at Mon Land less than credible, the broth intentionally murky so as to camouflage inferior-quality herbs, the dining room crowded with the mainland Chinese equivalent of hillbillies. And it is true that the somewhat pricier Little Sheep restaurants (one of which is in the new Hilton complex across the street) offer a somewhat more elegant hot pot, zinged with great handfuls of fresh chiles instead of sloshes of chile oil, flavored with a higher grade of medicinal herbs, most likely tuned to a level of “heatiness” exactly appropriate for the season rather than cranked up to Mon Land’s standard-issue 11. Even Mon Land’s milder, subtler soup is a frothing, curried brew.
If you’ve been to one of the Northern-style hot-pot restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, you pretty much know the drill. You are brought a hot pot and a sheet listing everything you might want to put into it. You check off the ingredients you would like, and a minute or so later the broths are bubbling in the middle of the table, you are bathed in spicy steam, and platters appear piled high with delicate curls of lamb, beef or squid, armadas of shrimp balls and slabs of chunked bean curd, slender shrimp dumplings, profusions of herbs, transparent rice noodles, mushrooms of every description, and fresh Chinese greens.
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Are ton hao, pungently herbal chrysanthemum leaves, necessary? Very much so: They add a certain presence, an authority, to the broth. Do the oval lozenges of egg “tofu” absorb the mild curry in a pleasing way? They do. Is an entire platterful of cilantro a little overpowering as a vegetable? It is — you probably want to go with the spinach, the pea tendrils or the sliced napa cabbage instead. Is the recently live fish, by far the most costly entry on the menu, worth the expense? Not really — the slabs of fish are either too raw or they overcook in an instant, and the fish soup you make from the bones is probably too mild to stand up in the assertive company of the chile-powered potion.
Swishing the meat through the broth, fishing out bits of tofu or boiled mushrooms, gulping cold Tsingtao, gossiping — there may be no more pleasant way to pass an evening.
Mon Land is perfumed with lots of things, cumin probably among them, but including garlic, fermented shrimp and diesel exhaust — the odor is distinctly Third World, a sinuous, living stink quite unlike anything you might ordinarily find in Los Angeles, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants within a few minutes’ drive of this place, Mon Land may be the one restaurant that feels the most like Asia.
Mon Land Hot Pot City, 251 W. Bencamp St. (accessed from Abbot Street), San Gabriel; (626) 289-4889. Open daily 11 a.m.–mid. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$25. Also at 18902 E. Gale Ave., Rowland Heights.