Photo by Anne FishbeinTHE BEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN? WHO KNOWS? AND reasonable minds may disagree on which restaurant offers the best value per dollar spent. But Lu's Garden is hands down the fastest restaurant in Los Angeles County, a Taiwanese porridge café where your food magically appears at the table about 30 seconds before you do, a place where it is not unusual for patrons to eat lunch, pay and leave in less time — and for less money — than it takes most people just to pick up a drive-thru Big Mac. You can have your fast food; I'll take Lu's every time.
Five or six years ago, there were dozens of Taiwanese porridge restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, places specializing in a bland rice gruel spiked with soft chunks of boiled sweet potato. A few cents got you a big container of the stuff. Another buck or two bought a few grams of minced beef, stewed tofu or Chinese pickles from a big steam table up front. Rice porridge fortified with sweet potatoes, a cheap stew that can technically keep a human alive, was the invariable ration of wartime Taiwan, and the porridge fad, which spread across both the San Gabriel Valley and Taiwan itself, may have been more or less the equivalent of the craze for swing music and martinis.
At first glance, Lu's Garden is a fairly forbidding place. At noontime, the line extends out the door; at midnight, the bare, low-ceilinged dining room resonates with more dialects of Chinese than are taught in the East Asian languages department at Harvard. And unless you have actually spent a bit of time in Asia, this is a style of eating you probably haven't experienced before: People behind you will grumble if you haven't ordered your meal a couple of seconds after you've reached the head of the line, and when you get to your table, it might take a while to figure out what to do with the mounds of braised fresh soybeans, the coils of pig intestines, the heaps of tiny whole anchovies that you may have chosen in your panic. (Hint: Spoon bits of them onto the hot porridge, and scoop it up with the implement of your choice.)
Actually, Lu's classic porridge-house cooking is similar to the food you may have eaten at places like Mandarin Deli; there is a wide assortment of simmered things — dried tofu, hog parts, sautéed chicken, plus an assortment of Chinese salads — but fortified by the gruel rather than by the more usual noodles and dumplings. This tends to be the sort of homey fare you might see at dinner at a Chinese friend's house, but rarely in restaurants: whole tiny squid sautéed in dark soy sauce; ground pork simmered with a handful of winter pickles; briskly garlicked seaweed salad; cold, chopped mustard greens. And it's easy to order — you get three items per person for the lunch special; at supper time, when the portions are three times the size, you order the dishes one by one to be shared family style. Go for fish, a pickle and a vegetable; try something you've never seen before.
The women behind the counter are always helpful, eager to explain that the sliced pig's belly with leeks is a better bet than the stewed pork stomach, to subtly guide you toward a plate that's both balanced in flavor and nutritious. There are no translation problems at Lu's: If you want the fried belt fish (and you should — the crisp, salty, oily lengths of the imported fish are worth every one of the bones you are going to have to pick out of your teeth), just point at it.
Lu's is not the sort of restaurant for people who are phobic about food touching on a plate. In fact, creating ideal combinations of meats and vegetables on the porridge is rather the point of the exercise, the sweet grease leaking out of a sliced Chinese sausage providing ideal counterpoint to the sweet tartness of pickled mustard greens; the smoky heat of cold, sliced tripe slicked with chile oil contrasting just so with bland, juicy slabs of broth-simmered steamed tofu.
Dessert, served with the check almost before you realize that you've finished eating, is the inevitable sliced orange. But you knew that.
534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5883. Open daily 11:30 a.m.1 a.m. Lunch for two, $6$7; dinner for two, $12$15. Beer only. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: pickled mustard greens; fried belt fish; sautéed squid.