Leeks with eel jam? Duck soup? Yangzhou crabmeat spring roll casserole? Braised pork knuckle with soy sauce? If you have followed San Gabriel Chinese restaurants over the last 15 years, you have probably noticed the symbiosis with the parallel scene a dozen miles east in Rowland Heights, restaurants disappearing in one location and popping up in a minimall in the latter, culinary twinning, chefs bouncing east and west in an abalone-based game of ping-pong diplomacy.
The Hsi Lai complex, above next-door Hacienda Heights, is a majestic Buddhist temple reinvented as the Chinese equivalent of a politically connected suburban megachurch, whose slogan is “The Dharma Coming West.’’ Monterey Park was originally marketed in Taipei as the Chinese Beverly Hills, which probably makes Rowland Heights a little like the Chinese Rancho Palos Verdes — a bit richer, a bit less homogenous, a bit farther removed from the urban fabric of the city, a bit more Chinese.
Modest San Gabriel restaurants open grand branches in the Rowland Heights/Hacienda Heights area. The Chinese supermarkets are bigger, the malls shinier, and the SAT prep centers even more ubiquitous. If there is a teahouse, a barbecue shop or a breakfast place you like in Monterey Park, you are likely to also find it to the east, and restaurant-chasing could easily become a blood sport.
The Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles at Malan, for example, an outlet of a mainland noodleshop chain that became an obsession during its brief reign in Monterey Park, can now be found only in Hacienda Heights, which may be a long way to drive for a bowl of beef soup with big, round noodles made to order, or thin noodles tossed with black-bean sauce, or triangular noodles fried with beef and vegetables — except when nothing else will do.
And then there is Green Village, the Shanghai restaurant that oscillates between the two Chinese areas like a charged particle in a physics experiment, a place that has bounced between Temple City and Rowland Heights, San Gabriel and Rowland Heights, San Gabriel and Rowland Heights, San Gabriel and Rowland Heights, before the Rowland Heights place caught fire and closed for a while, then the restored but faded splendor of the Rowland Heights place again. There are basketball teams that have spent less time on the road than this restaurant. There are also probably Chinese cities that could fit comfortably into the Diamond Plaza mall in which the restaurant resides, stumbling distance from both the local Ten Ren and a divey Taiwanese beer bar. What Green Village does well, it does very, very well.
So while every Shanghai-style restaurant in town may serve a version of Green Village’s fried fish with seaweed at this point, you might as well steel yourself for a journey on the Pomona Freeway, because this is the only version that matters, steamy filets dipped in a seaweed-flecked batter and fried crisp, served like a basket of crunchy fish crullers. This is where you find the epic braised pork knuckles you may have heard about, quivering masses of pig braised in a glossy brown sauce with Chinese greens, and great lion’s head meatballs, and fried spareribs that might as well be candy-coated crack.
Almost everything you will end up ordering at Green Village is on the list of greatest hits tucked into one of those plastic stand-up things on every table, so that where at all of the restaurant’s other iterations you had to guess where the fantastic mince of cold bean curd with wild greens might be hiding in the Chinese-only section of the menu, it’s listed now as one of the top dozen or so dishes presented for your consideration. (The wild green is listed by its Latin name, which neither you nor the servers are likely to recognize, but you can point.) The deeply flavored house-special duck soup comes in an enormous tureen containing at least half a bird. The central creature in the dish of braised crab may be less plump than some you’ve had, especially in the summer, but the crustacean’s essence is concentrated in the handful of oval rice cakes braised underneath it, and the last time friends thought I’d snuck more than my fair share, I was lucky to escape without a sharpened chopstick stabbed through my wrist.
Green Village: 1390 Fullerton Road, Rowland Heights, (626) 810-5698. Mon-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch specials. Dinner for two, $25-$45. Recommended dishes: wine chicken, cold minced bean curd with greens, fried fish with hair seaweed, steamed pork on sticky rice, Shanghai crab with rice cake, braised pork knuckle.
Malan: 2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights, (626) 369-3602. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$18. Recommended dishes: noodle in brown sauce, beef noodle soup.