Los Angeles has some of the best Chinese food outside of China. Because of the sheer diversity of Chinese immigrants in the region, you can sample the vastness of Chinese cuisine — from the fiery spices of Chengdu to the imperial cuisine of Beijing — without ever having to leave the Southland. Most of the star restaurants are situated in the far east corner of the county, specifically in the San Gabriel Valley. There are approximately 600 to 800 Chinese restaurants in the area, 200 on Valley Boulevard alone.
It’s difficult to pinpoint specific characteristics of Chinese food since the cuisine varies vastly depending on region. The north has a heavy use of black vinegar and flour. The south is a champion of rice dishes. Coastal cities love seafood. Inland provinces use land animals and a good amount of vegetation in their dishes. More humid areas such as Hunan and Sichuan see an emphasis on spices, and colder, drier areas such as Xinjiang use lamb and yak in their dishes.
Truly, if you invest the time, you can eat through all of China. Here’s our list of favorites:
10. Shaanxi Gourmet
You need to know what to order when you’re in Shaanxi Gourmet. Here’s a tip: All the recommended dishes on the wall are fair game. The restaurant pays homage to Xi'an, which is the capital of Shaanxi and the metropolis most commonly associated with the terracotta warriors. Noodles are made from scratch by hand on a daily basis; the biang biang noodles are a classic. The Chinese character for biang is the largest in terms of stroke numbers, with 58, and the word is an onomatopoeia for the sound the noodles make when they're being slapped on the counter during the cooking process. Xi'an cuisine takes advantage of pork and lamb, with liberal use of garlic and spices. Beer, naturally, is an ideal pairing; yes they have some on tap. The best entree is the yangrou paomo, which is crumbled bread served in rich, lamb-based soup. The bread absorbs everything it touches and has a texture akin to gnocchi. In Xi'an, you break the bread yourself, but Shaanxi Gourmet has it all pre-prepared. It’s served with a side of cilantro, chilies and pickled garlic. 8518 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 288-9886.
9. Beijing Pie House
Meat pies from Beijing are the original crack pies. The Chinese name for them is xianbing and they’re pan-seared pockets of crispy dough stuffed with meat, aromas and fragrant juices. It’s fantastically casual in here. Folks like to order piles upon piles of meat pies and stuff themselves until they can’t anymore. There's something about the interior of these discs that keeps people coming back; the flavors are sharp and addictive. 846 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-3818.
8. Earthen Restaurant
Earthen is a Shandong specialist. The Northeast province is known as the epicenter for soy and vinegar production. There’s a variety of noodles, rice dishes and dumplings. Green onion pancakes, if you’re a fan, are great here, too. The crowd favorite is the Shandong chicken, which is boiled, then deep-fried and served room-temperature in a wonderful dressing of black vinegar, chili and soy sauce. Diced cucumbers are tucked in underneath for texture and it’s all topped with a heap of cilantro and scallions.1639 S. Azusa Ave., Hacienda Heights.
7. Silk Road Garden
Silk Road Garden’s menu is entirely halal, and both the chef and the owner hail from Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China located on the western edge of the country. Popular dishes include the appropriately named Big Plate Chicken, seasoned with dates, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns, and long hand-pulled noodles drenched in cumin and meat sauce. In Chinese culture, noodles are a sign of longevity and these, which seem impossibly long, are ideal for those in pursuit of long life. The thick Xinjiang yogurt — topped with sesame seeds, honey and raisins — is made in-house and provides a welcome contrast to heavy flavors. 18920 E. Gale Ave., Rowland Heights; (626) 999-6165.
Lunasia is dim sum done right. Located in Alhambra, it represents a new class of dim sum, minus the crazy pushcarts and unreliable service. Dim sum here is made to order and comes out fresh. Service is thoroughly bilingual. Go with the classics here: har gow, shu mai, BBQ pork buns and pork ribs. Lunasia is generous with the portion sizes. Call it ambitious, but a single har gow is served stuffed with four to five pieces of shrimp — truly a mark of a skilled dim sum chef. And if you have a hankering for sweets, try the snow taro buns. 500 W. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 308-3222.
5. Tasty Duck
A Peking duck dinner is an affair by itself and you’ll most definitely have to round up a group for this. Think crisp, maltose-glazed duck skin and meat layered on a paper-thin wheat pancake. Add a dollop of sweet bean sauce and a sprinkling of thin cucumber slices and piquant spring onions for garnish. This is the ritual of the Peking duck, China's esteemed national dish. It isn’t cheap, either. A single platter can go for up to $30, but Tasty Duck makes it worth your time and money. The Peking duck here is served with 12 individual wrappers and the skin is separated from the meat and fried to a crisp with no fat attached. We recommend pairing it with eel sticky rice. 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 572-3885.
4. Szechuan Impression
Szechuan Impression forgoes old-school Sichuanese dishes and puts an emphasis on dishes are that currently trending and popular in Sichuan. Owners Kelly Xiao and Lynn Liu are seasonally minded as well, so don’t expect the menu to be stagnant; it will change depending on ingredient availability. Ingredients are selected daily by Liu and spices are snuck in from Hanyuan County in Sichuan, where the best peppercorns in the world are picked and harvested. We recommend the garlic pork — a chewy mix of cold pork belly tossed with chili oil — and the Leshan cross-legged beef soup. Leshan is the city where the soup originates; it's made of beef flanks and tripe paired with a chili sauce for dipping on the side. 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 283-4622.
Read more: Behind the Scenes at Szechuan Impression
3. Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung is a Los Angeles classic. Soup-infused dumplings, known as xiao long bao, are its trademark creation. Xiao long means “small steaming basket” and bao means “bun.” Din Tai Fung has its roots in Taiwan but the xiao long bao is irrefutably from the Jiangnan region of China. They’ve developed quite a cult following worldwide. The classic selection here is the pork with crab, and no, contrary to some beliefs, the soup isn't actually injected inside. The pork mixture is a combination of ground meat and fat. When the dumpling is steamed, all that fat turns into soup. 171 Caruso Ave., Glendale; (818) 551-5561. Also 1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 574-7068; and 1088 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 446-8588.
2. Dai Ho Kitchen
Here you can get small-batch Chinese noodles made fresh to order with one caveat: It's open for only 2½ hours a day. The two Chinese characters in the restaurant name, pronounced “da” and “he,” translate to “big” and “gather,” respectively. Dai Ho makes a mean beef noodle soup, but the sesame sauce dry noodles, or dan dan mian, are perhaps the best in town. The noodles are best when eaten immediately and the owner, May, will make it a point to tell you that. 9148 Las Tunas Drive, Temple City; (626) 291-2295.
1. Chengdu Taste
Chengdu Taste opened in 2013, shepherding in a wave of high-end Sichuan restaurants. The restaurant is a champion for old-style Sichuanese dishes steeped in tradition. There’s an emphasis on freshwater fish and land animals such as lamb and pork. We’re a fan of the water-boiled fish and toothpick lamb. The former is served in a bath of chili oil, layered on top of bean sprouts and cabbage. The latter is bite-sized pieces of meat fried three times and skewered on toothpicks. Most dishes are inundated with spices imported directly from Sichuan. The beauty of Chengdu Taste is that you can taste the subtleties in the ingredients; dishes aren’t just mouthfuls of heat. Taste is manned by Tony Xu, who owned a restaurant in China and then worked at Panda Restaurant Group in Los Angeles before opening up his flagship restaurant. 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 588-2284.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.