Despite the obvious wealth of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, it’s always worth it to take a moment to appreciate what is truly an incredible landmark in the world’s culinary sphere. There is, maybe, one other area outside of China that serves Chinese food as wonderfully diverse and authentic — for lack of a better word — as what's available here in the SGV: Flushing, New York. That’s it.
Consider Yunnan Restaurant in Monterey Park, which serves food from China’s Yunnan province. Yunnan Restaurant has had something like eight different names over the years, including Yun Chuan Garden and Yunkun Garden, and has received relatively little press – there was a nice little article on this blog by Jim Thurman, another small slideshow by Serious Eats. There are only about a dozen other restaurants in the entire United States that serve food from Yunnan. Five of those are in the San Gabriel Valley, and three of those five — Yunnan Restaurant, Yunnan Garden in Rowland Heights and Yunnan Garden in San Gabriel — are run by the same family.
It’s fitting that Yunnan Restaurant is placed in a small, enclosed strip mall in Monterey Park, as most of the Valley’s Chinese mom-and-pop shops are in similarly tiny strip malls, with similarly extraordinary food, and Monterey Park was also the first true Asian-American suburb. In the mid-1960s, when immigration restrictions were finally lifted, enough Chinese settled in Los Angeles to expand beyond what remains of L.A.’s Chinatown and form the beginnings of what is now the San Gabriel Valley. Since then, L.A.’s Chinese-Americans have continued to move eastward, forming eateries like Yunnan Restaurant – we’re even starting to see marvelous Chinese food as far east as Rowland Heights and Rancho Cucamonga.
In Yunnan Restaurant’s little strip mall, there’s Qing Dao Bread Food, one of the Valley’s several great Shandong restaurants. Across the street there’s Dean Sin World and Mama’s Lu, both of which are owned by the same family, both of which offer beautifully sculpted xiao long bao soup dumplings that are some of the best in America.
It’s easy, then, to think of Yunnan Restaurant as a monument to L.A.’s terrific Chinese scene: It’s unique, cheap, housed in an appropriate strip mall, and serves food from such an obscure cuisine that you won’t even get proper foodie cred if you Instagram your meal.
The restaurant itself is nearly always full at meal times, filled with Chinese families yelling at each other in various dialects and sharing food on large circular tables with a constantly revolving Lazy Susan. And the food, by the way, really is spectacular. Yunnan has the fortune of diversity – it’s directly south of Sichuan and its awesomely spicy food, east of Myanmar and its bitter and savory flavors, and north of Vietnam and Laos. It's also home to Kunming, one of the world’s most celebrated food cities to those who have been fortunate enough to visit.
Because of how common Sichuan food has become in the SGV, and how familiar Sichuan-style food is in Northern Yunnan, most of the Yunnan restaurants in L.A. serve a lot of the familiar Sichuan dishes that have rightfully earned popularity: dan dan noodles, spicy wontons, mapo tofu, boiled fish, spicy cold chicken. The restaurant’s former name – Yun Chuan – is actually a nod to both Yunnan and Sichuan.
It’s probably worth it to avoid some of that – a few of the Sichuan dishes, including the dan dan noodles, are a tier below what you’d find elsewhere. The spicy boiled fish (shui zhu yu) is legitimately good here, though, easily comparable to the highly-touted versions at Sichuan mainstays Chengdu Taste and Chung King.
The cold chicken, dressed with a healthy dose of chili oil, garlic, Sichuan pepper and soy sauce, is maybe the best in L.A. There’s also some obscure Sichuan dishes here, like the “sour white pork” (suan ni bai rou), a boiled pork dish with puréed garlic in a sour sauce, that are worth sampling.
But you’re here for Yunnan dishes. It’s common in China to enter a restaurant and grab two or three small cold dishes to start your meal, and Yunnan Restaurant has some of L.A.’s best cold dish offerings: tempting slices of pig’s ear garnished with cilantro, aromatic roasted peanuts with dried fish, tossed salty seaweed, sliced beef, hunks of some kind of marinated meat that only a trained eye could really identify.
The house special is the so-called Crossing-the-Bridge noodles, one of the more popular noodle soups in Yunnan. The broth is purposefully simple and a little bland, a bit like the chicken pho you find in neighboring Vietnam, but is meant to be dressed up with all the little garnishes you’ll find on your table.
There are plenty more noodles, most of them street dishes you’d find in both Yunnan and Sichuan, but maybe the best one is the spicy cold mung bean noodle called liang fen (??), which are as good as what you’d find at Chengdu Taste.
For those who enjoy the little ovals of pounded rice cakes called nian gao – the sort of-noodle that forms the basis of stir fried Shanghai dish – you can find one of Yunnan’s takes on it here: rice cakes stir fried a pickled mustard green bitter enough to remind you of Burmese fermented tea leaves.
The chef here also does a nice version of stir-fried shredded potatoes (chao tudou si), a dish you can find around much of China. Any given Chinese cook can do this a bit differently – in Beijing, they almost eat them with green peppers or scallions – but the potatoes here are an interesting blend of sweet and spicy, with such a strong aroma of sugar that you may think of Krispy Kreme. If you tell the chef beforehand, you can also get Yunnan’s delicious version of a latke, gan bian tu dou si (????? ), a sort of giant hash brown the size of a plate and the thickness of a thin-crust pizza.
And if you like bacon – and you probably do – much of this area of China also loves cured, smoked ham called yun tui ( ??) and the version here, stir-fried with green onion and chili, is as good as the one you can find at Hunan Mao in San Gabriel.
Some of the challenge is actually getting the food. As in China, you may need to yell to get service. But that’s what you get here: a little glimpse of Yunnan, in Monterey Park.
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Note: You can also find Yunnan food at the following locations.
168 Garden: 1530 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-7688.
Yunnan Garden: 545 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 308-1896.
Yunnan Garden: 1229 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights; (626) 330-8145.
Yun Noodle House: 1220 S. Golden West Ave., Ste E, Arcadia; (626) 446-1668.