There is no shortage of grand seafood houses in the vicinity of Rosemead’s Sea Harbour. After all, the San Gabriel Valley offers some of the country’s most sensational Chinese food. What sets Sea Harbour above respectable halls like Lunasia Chinese Cuisine and Mission 261 certainly isn’t the atmosphere. Located in an anonymous stucco building near an on-ramp to the 10 freeway, the L.A. branch of this chain has a corporate veneer you have to get past (the laminated full-color menu could have come from IHOP). But you forget about all that when the waiters march out with your dim sum order (no steam carts here). Chiu chow dumplings arrive as plump as happy monks, their white robes packed with a brunoise of root vegetables whose crispness plays off the steamed peanuts. The congee, or rice porridge, that’s traditionally served in the morning has none of the ladle-clinging gloppiness you’ve seen elsewhere; it’s a silky broth strewn with chives and shrimp. In the evenings there’s as much Bordeaux as tea on the tables, a declaration of ambition and a nod to the formal manner with which this type of restaurant flirts. The shrimp, netted from the tanks along one wall, are draped in ginger and green onions; culinary restraint underscores the pearly transparency of the steamed flesh. There’s nothing extraneous involved when the focus is this intense: Whole pigeon needs only anise-flavored salt. Wok seared with garlic and chilies, the Hong Kong-style Dungeness crab will have you debating whether to lick your fingers or dunk them into the proffered cleansing bowls.
The room iscluttered with colorful banners announcing specials, tourist-shop silk peppers, and New Year’s decorations (in Spanish) that could have come from the 99 Cents Only Store. Unprepossessing it is, but Hunanese cooking—magnificently direct, stoked on the region’s red chilies—has no better showcase. Cured meat is a staple in western China, and the fry-up of belly bacon with green onions and blistered, brittle-skinned pepper pods is potent stuff, each flavor powerful and distinct. Steamed fish head, another requisite from the region, is a stunner: A fermented bean paste nudges forward the piscine flavors of the carp, while soy sauce tempers the radiant heat. Ask for it spicy, and the chefs might peer from the kitchen just to see if you can handle it.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the knife-cut noodles being made at Kam Hong, an eight-table cube of glass near the intersection of New and Garvey avenues in Monterey Park. Beveled strips shear off as the cook, a blur of energy, runs a block of dense dough over a guillotine-sharp blade. They form a delicious tangle in the clear lamb soup, their firmness contrasting with the yielding meat, their earthiness underscoring that of the floppy mushrooms. A crackling pancake, made with a wheat dough that’s hand rolled behind the counter and wrapped around a pinch of braised pork and soft-cooked leeks, has the airiness of a great pupusa. At another restaurant this offering would be reason enough to go. Here it is outshined by courses like the Shanxi-style oat noodles. The same length as the seared pork they’re tossed with, the tiny crescents sputter over a Sterno flame in a sauce that is all underbrush and gaminess. As at every good noodle house, contented slurping provides the soundtrack.
The San Gabriel Valley is filled with magnificent Szechuan cooking. Entire coalitions of restaurants specialize in slippery dandan noodles and fried chicken cubes buried in diced chili peppers. Why, then, does no one blink an eye when they have to wait hours for a table at Chengdu Taste? Perhaps it’s because of the creeping heat of “water-boiled” fish with pickled green peppers that tantalizes rather than obliterates, or the poppable nubs of cumin-rubbed mutton individually skewered with toothpicks. Most likely, however, they’re waiting to experience the electricity of Szechuan chili oil in a bowl of innocuous-looking wontons. Your tongue will be numb for at least a minute—when feeling returns is when addiction sets in.
5. Mr. Chow
This Beverly Hills bijou runs the risk of appearing seriously mannered. The captains wear cream-colored smoking jackets; the waiters are dressed like Parisian garçons; a Keith Haring painting hangs on a back wall. Though Shanghai-born Michael Chow specializes in a Sino-European version of the light fare café society marches to, his restaurant (one of five) has flashes of brilliance. Sesame seeds add dimension to the richness of shrimp toast; squid ink gives broad strands of rice noodles the sheen of a pricey patent leather shoe. Just when matters are about to get arch, the kitchen sends out tender, thinly sliced veal tongue redolent of tea and cinnamon stick, as much a spice box as a perfect dish.
6. Duck House
At places like Beijing’s Quanjude, Peking duck takes days to prepare. At others in Chinatown and around local malls, you get the feeling that a fryer has helped the process along before the bird spends too much time dangling in the store window. Duck House, a slope-roofed structure on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, understands that we can want storied tradition, but placing an order an hour ahead is about all the advance planning we’re capable of. The duck is brought out with its lacquered hide separated from the moist flesh (a bland soup is made with the carcass), which you wrap in a rice-flour pancake and bolster with green onion, cucumber, and a dab of plummy Peking sauce. You’ll be forgiven if your eyes roll back in your head.
7. Tasty Garden
There’s something of the coffee shop about this minichain, which has three locations in Southern California. All are brightly lit; all are animated; heck, they even serve tea in diner mugs. The teens sipping red bean frappés could be latter-day bobby soxers. A waitress in a peach polo shirt plops down the platter of sizzling shrimp, sweet walnuts tossed over crunchy batter. But after your chopsticks deliver the first bite, it’s clear you’re not at Norms. The offerings are culled from a retro repertoire—those standards we’re all familiar with—but they are crafted with such attention to detail, they seem reinvented. Chicken and corn soup is thick with ribbons of whisked-in egg; orange beef, instead of being the ubiquitous greasy version, bears just enough oil to be sharpened by tangy, slightly crisped orange zest.
Located in Alhambra right off Valley Boulevard, Szechuan Impression serves a selection of Sichuan dishes intended to be particularly nostalgia-inducing for ex-pats of Chengdu, the largest city in China’s Sichuan province. The interior is sleek and comfortable, decorated with colorful square paintings of Chinese figures and dishware that might remind you of a much cheaper Heath Ceramics alternative. Much like Chengdu Taste—a neighboring Sichuan restaurant which boasts an equal reputation for long waits—the cooking at Szechuan Impression balances spiciness with subtlety, showcasing a cuisine that tantalizes the tongue while foreheads perspire and lips numb. QianJiao “Leg-crossingly Yum” Beef is an opaque beef soup bobbing with slices of tender brisket and tripe. Hand-made wontons at Szechuan Impression will make you realize why these tender dumplings became such a crowd favorite in the first place.
Your nerves shattered from negotiating the stamp-size parking lot, you enter through the take-out section. The breadth of Cantonese cooking spreads before you, from canisters of tufted shrimp har gow to sides of suckling pig. This is a regional restaurant. The char siu bao, white as snowballs, burst with barbecue pork, while the turnip cake, barely set and solid, is shot through with daikon. The cooking of Guangdong, as we refer to the province now, was for many Angelenos the point of entry to Chinese cuisine, and when the platter of beef with oyster sauce is rushed from the kitchen, well, it’s like coming home.