View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Gourmet Island: Light and Fresh, Modern Cantonese Cuisine.”
On assignment in the San Gabriel Valley, a New York–based reporter once decided to investigate the local Chinese food scene by checking out the restaurants within a block or two of the corner of Valley and Garfield, an intersection that seemed almost perversely chosen at the time for its lack of interesting food. The writer, GQ's Alan Richman, plowed through a dozen places, ordering things like kung pao chicken in Hong Kong–style cafés, and decided that the Chinese cooking was better in New York's Chinatown than it was in Los Angeles. It was what passed for grumpy contrarianism at the time — the Why New York Is Better Than L.A. piece was one of his annual staples, a series that also compared museum restaurants, steak houses and chains with outlets in both cities.
But if he had happened into the then-nonexistent Gourmet Island, a newish Chiu Chow restaurant within his chosen radius, I suspect that even Richman would have been thrown into not a feeding frenzy exactly but something not far from it, goaded by a quick, intercut procession of flat, crisp Chinese omelets fried with fresh oysters; golden, almost obscenely crisp calamari fried with a dusting of pepper salt; shaved Chinese broccoli sauced with a bit of thickened stock and sprinkled with pungent bits of dried fish; and a wet handful of pea tendrils sautéed with garlic, which manages to taste like the first breath of California spring.
Gourmet Island may not be the most impressive Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley — some people don't even consider it the best restaurant on its block. But its take on modern Cantonese cuisine, inspired by the cooking of the highly itinerant Chiu Chow people from the countryside around the Southern Chinese city of Shantou, leans toward lightness; a tendency to shallow-cook in broth instead of oil; extreme freshness; and a love for the salty, umami-rich flavors of dried seafood. The style elevates the flavors of even simple preparations, so that a basic stir-fry of shrimp and asparagus takes on the presence of a much richer dish. One of the best dishes here, a dark, supple casserole of oxtail simmered down with chunks of lotus root, may produce a sauce dense enough to flavor an entire bowl of rice with just a few drops, but the overall impression is of a light, dancing sweetness, and I would guess that the chef uses a fraction of the oil that might have been used in a similar dish from Shanghai.
Do I resent my family digging into what I know to be the last order of Hakka baked chicken, a bamboo vessel whose tent of foil peels back like the top of a massive Jiffy Pop to reveal charred scallions, glistening slivers of organic hen and a puff of wine-scented steam you can smell from halfway across the room? I know better, but I do. It is my favorite of the several chicken dishes here.
Many of the restaurants in the neighborhood still tend to push non-Chinese diners toward the menu's safer dishes: the crisply fried, candy-color sweet 'n' sour whatever — and I do wonder what might be listed on the small, dun-colored cards that seem to be the menus of choice for AARP-age customers — but Gourmet Island's specialties are nothing if not accessible, illustrated in backlit displays over the open kitchen, promoted by the waiters and shown in glowing Kodachrome on the photo menu. You point; you order. Easy.
Practically everybody in the dining room is picking at enormous, shiny platters of fried rice with thin slices of prime rib that cook when they hit the overheated metal; the others are eating eel fried rice or the wonderful roasted clay-pot rice paved with shards of cured pork and Chinese sausage. Almost as many people end up with the big barbecue platter: crackling, bubbling slabs of roast pork arranged between piles of oiled jellyfish and Chiu Chow pressed-pork-leg terrine. There is turnip pastry, what Singaporeans call carrot cake, which is fried with spicy, shellfish-intensive XO sauce; as well as all the simmered goose intestine you can handle.
Gourmet Island is the land of endless promotions: If you spend $25, you are awarded either a simmered chicken or a baked clay-pot rice; discounted menus show up at breakfast, lunchtime and toward midnight; dessert or soup tends to be free, except when it isn't; and the usual Hong Kong–style refreshments of lemon tea, milk tea, herbed sugarcane juice cost just a dollar apiece.
“It's not on special, but I'll take a Tsingtao,'' I say.
“Beer!'' the waiter says. “Two-for-one all night!''
“In that case, I'll take two,'' I say. “Or four.''
GOURMET ISLAND: 203 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 282-2668. Open daily, 8 a.m.-mid. MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout and deli. $4.99 lunch specials. Small dishes, $4.99-$7.99; larger dishes, $5.99-$12.99. Recommended dishes: squid with pepper salt; turnip pastry with XO sauce; preserved meat with clay-pot rice; baked chicken Hakka-style; fried rice with prime rib; sautéed Chinese broccoli with dried fish.