There's a little restaurant in an area of South El Monte that's mostly full of warehouses and factories and the occasional dive bar. It's called Focus, and it's decorated with Christmas lights and picture frames still holding the placeholder photos. It's small and quiet, even though many of the diners arrive carrying 24-packs of canned beer and proceed to order so many meats on sticks that the server gives up on plating them, instead just carrying them out by hand in bunches. It's homey and friendly.
Focus is also one of the relatively rare restaurants around here that specializes in the cuisine of Northeastern China, the area that starts in Beijing and moves up above North Korea to meet Russia. The menu is mostly made up of those grilled, be-sticked meats, but don't forget to order some vegetables. Maybe it's because of their relative scarcity in Northern China, but produce is treated beautifully in this culinary tradition. At Focus, you absolutely must order the cabbage. It's just cabbage, cooked in a little oil and dressed primarily with whole fennel and coriander seeds and a bit of peppercorn. You'll crave it again the next day, even though it's just chopped-up cabbage.
The same goes for the cumin beef, a simple stir-fried dish full of — you'll never guess — whole cumin seeds. That spice is used in abundance in Northern China. As an Angeleno you'll get confused and wonder where the tortillas are, as this is perfect taco filling. Good thing there are plain dumplings to use as carbs here.
There are two dishes in particular at Focus that seem like real finds. The first is kao leng mian, which in China is often a street snack. Imagine a whole noodle sheet, laid on a griddle. It's doused with sauce and herbs, and a sausage is placed in the middle. The noodle softens as it cooks, and it's then folded and chopped into slices. The version at Focus is made with regular hot dogs, which is less appealing to me, but I get why it's beloved, with the chewy noodles and the soppy sauce mix.
The second is “fried milk.” It's in the appetizer section, but if you have the conventional American need for sweet after savory (I sure do), wait to order it until after you've eaten all your meats and cabbages. These deep-fried chunks look like fried tofu, but they're actually a mix of dairy products and sugar, set with cornstarch and then thrown in the fryer. Imagine custard but less eggy and sweeter. They're a real crowd pleaser but still a bit of a brain teaser. Don't think too hard, just enjoy.
2541 Rosemead Blvd., South El Monte. (424) 378-8888.