Charming Garden is a clean, bright place, spare of ornament, with fresh tablecloths and formal service. It is also the most serious Hunan-style restaurant in Southern California. And smoked pomfret, bronzed and gleaming, at this splendid Monterey Park restaurant may be the most beautiful plate of food in the San Gabriel Valley — it looks like a patinated Han-dynasty fish sculpture displayed on a handsome plate. The large fish, which the restaurant flies in from Taiwan, smells almost too strongly of smoke, but the rich, pale, slightly oily meat is unexpectedly delicate and worth every cent of the jillion dollars per pound the restaurant charges for it. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-4508. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$13; dinner for two, food only, $15–$30 (higher with seafood). Beer and wine. Takeout. Underground parking. AE, MC, V.
A basic Taiwanese deli of the type made popular here by the Mandarin Deli chain, Dumpling Master — which sounds like the title of a Hong Kong martial-arts movie where the hero regretfully lays down his skein of noodle dough in order to avenge the death of his sister, father, lover, etc. — buzzes with customers slurping down giant bowls of beef noodles, platters of bean curd with minced pork and chile, and hubcapsful of the restaurant’s famous creamy corn soup. A specialty of the place is deep-fried pork chops, brown and crunchy and slightly sweet, coated with a salt crust just spicy enough to tingle. Potherb, home-preserved mustard greens of sorts, can be had stir-fried with shredded bits of said pork or, better, with fresh, sweet soybeans. If you remember to specify handmade noodles, you‘ll get thick, wheaty, dense things the thickness of fan belts, fresh enough to soak up an intense pork broth and still retain their texture. Essentially, though — this being Dumpling Master and everything — you may as well have some of those doughy boiled pork dumplings, crisp on the outside, spurtingly juicy within. 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-8689. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $10–$16. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Heavy Noodling specializes in the sort of strands 100 generations of Chinese chefs have regarded with horror: thick, clumsy noodles that run somewhere between spaetzle and pappardelle, self-consciously rustic things that taste mainly of themselves, whether fried with mixed seafood and lots of garlic or immersed with tendon in a deep, anise-scented beef broth; dipped in vinegar or painted with a patented smoky house chile oil. Hand-cut in the style of Shanxi province, the noodles are irregular and kind of lumpy, which enhances their ability to pick up sauce. They have that good, dense pasta bite you find sometimes in farmhouses outside Modena, but rarely in Chinese noodle houses. 153 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 307-9583. Open seven days for breakfast and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $8–$14. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. Cash only.
Lake Spring’s “noisette of pork pump” may or may not have been a whole, anise-scented pork hock. (When I asked a waitress what it was, she smiled mysteriously and gestured toward her shapely outstretched calf.) The pork had been simmered in soy sauce and rock sugar for hours, until it was so soft a probing chopstick easily penetrated the whole sweet mass of delicious, melting fat; at the core was a fist of the tenderest imaginable meat, the sort of thing all pork might taste like if the President‘s Council on Fitness had never been convened. I kept fantasizing about Wolfgang Puck discovering the thing and importing the recipe to Chinois, where roomfuls of cholesterol-conscious Westsiders would chow down on what is essentially pounds and pounds of braised hog lard: Pump up the volume! 219 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-3571. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and dinner 5–9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15–$30. No alcohol. MC, V.
Everybody at Luk Yue seems to start with golden wedges of fried stuffed bean curd dunked in bowls of soy-based sauce and eaten while they’re still hot enough to blister your tongue. There‘s also excellent Cantonese barbecue: soy-sauce chicken, pork hock, crispy roast duck, served both straight up and over rice. “Assorted barbecue rice” comes in a superheated clay pot and is flavored with the juices of roasted sausages, pork hock and Chinese slab bacon, which moisten the rice into sort of a Chinese risotto. The spare-ribs-with-black-bean-sauce-and-rice clay pot, powerfully scented with ginger, is even better, the kind of rank, utterly delicious Cantonese soul food that never makes it further than the staff meal at Chinese restaurants swankier than this. 123 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-2888. Open daily 7 a.m.–3 a.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7–$12. No alcohol. Guarded lot parking. Cash only.
It is hard to imagine a simpler meal than a dinner at the Venice Room, or a meal more satisfying than grill-it-yourself meat, garlic bread, a baked potato and a pony of bar scotch. Seasoned veterans hover over their steaks, slashing and battering them with knives and long metal prongs, lavishing them with garlic salt, cayenne and bulk-packaged Cajun seasoning, drizzling them with oil, massaging cracked pepper and dehydrated onion flakes into the meat’s bruised flanks. French bread crisps on the cooler edge of the grill, and almost everybody seems to improvise some sort of grilled garlic bread with garlic powder and butter. Baked potatoes, already pretty much cooked through, steam in their foil on the edge of the grill, except for the lone, butter-spurting, charred spud that somebody (okay, me) has decided to convert into a mickey. 2428 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (323) 722-3075. Open Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–2 a.m., Sun. till midnight. Dinner for two, food only, $18. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
Victoria Seafood is a small box of a place, in the heart of Chinese Monterey Park, with big glass fish tanks wedged into every cranny: tanks filled with geoduck clams, hundreds of them lolling out of their undersize shells; tanks with dozens of mossy hard-shell crabs, bound and gagged; tanks with big, thick-lipped fish that stare dolefully out into the room like Edward G. Robinson. Later, great platters come piled high with the excellent Chinese squid, dipped in a thin batter of spicy salt, fried to an exquisite crunchiness and served with a garnish of sliced chiles softened in oil. The Cantonese dried-scallop soup is thick, peppery, crowded with shredded root vegetables and crunchy tree-ear fungus, and speckled with chewy bits of dried scallops, which add a sort of pleasant postcoital pungency to the broth. 143 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-5921. Open daily 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $24–$30; much more with live seafood. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.