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Should I drive my students 400 miles for Chinese food?

Our school, located in Oakland, spends one week each spring offering mini-courses outside of the usual curricular offerings. I've put together courses on chocolate, Hollywood, Minor League Baseball, and artisan food producers of the Bay Area, among other topics. This spring I hope to offer Chinese Food 101. The goal of the course is to help the students avoid ordering sweet and sour pork and chicken chow mein for the rest of their lives. I'd like to introduce the kids (grades 9-12) to a range of Chinese regional cuisines. I have not yet decided if it will be a full day course (allowing us to visit 10 restaurants) or a half day course (which would limit us to 5). Regardless, I'd love your suggestions for the best exemplars of Cantonese, Szechuan, Mandarin, Hakka, Hunan, Shanghainese, Manchurian cooking, etc. to be found locally. Additionally, I'd love guest speakers who could talk to the kids about a given cuisine, perhaps joining us for the relevant meal. Bay Area suggestions should be made on this thread:

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

I'm also considering dragging the kids down to LA for a night, but only if it would mean a significant improvement in quality or the possibility of trying something that is simply unavailable in the Bay Area. If there are places in Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rowland Heights, etc. that you feel meet these either of these criteria, please let me know.

Thanks!

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  1. Well, there are certainly things you'll experience in the San Gabriel Valley that's not available in the Bay Area. Just the whole Asian suburb issue can be a whole semester on sociology, ethnic studies, politics, etc. But I think driving for two days round trip for one night is not worth it.

    1 Reply
    1. re: PeterL

      I was hoping to get more than one night out of it. Depart early and hit one place at the early dinner hour, hit something else late. Then do early lunch before driving back. Would that be worth it?

    2. I'm Taiwanese and grew up in Silicon Valley, about 45 minutes south of where you are now. The San Gabriel Valley is definitely a focal point for great Chinese food in Southern California. However, there's very little down here that you can't find in SanFran's Chinatown or amongst the Chinese centers in Silicon Valley. I would advise against making the *six* hour drive. You won't notice a significant return on investment.

      On the other hand, there are some amazing Vietnamese restaurants/eateries squirreled away in Little Saigon (Westminster & Garden Grove) offering items you won't find up North. Having the largest concentration of Vietnamese ex-pats in the US down here makes for awesome eating. Furthermore, SGV boasts an under-appreciated offering of fine Filipino restaurants, a cuisine I never encountered up North. The Torrance area has a number of Japanese eateries that put SanFran's paltry Japantown to shame. If you really want to give your kids a trans-Asian dining experience, driving down certainly isn't a bad idea.

      - Chubbypanda

      http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

      4 Replies
      1. re: Chubbypanda

        Also the Thai and Korean in LA blows SF choices out of the water

        1. re: Ernie

          Thai, yes. Korean, you've got some real contenders in North Silicon Valley.

          - Chubbypanda

          http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

        2. re: Chubbypanda

          I thought about doing a wider range of Asian cuisines, but decided to go for depth rather than breadth. I'd be totally down with doing a week of Thai or a week of Korean at some point. Of course if I did Thai, I'd want to take them to Vegas!

          1. re: lexdevil

            SGV is certainly one of the best area in the nation to sample all facets of Chinese cuisine. The streets are thick with the enticing aromas of food. I have a friend who is stridently against living anywhere else but the SGV because he doesn't think there's anyplace that can equal the kind of food he gets to eat there (well except China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan).

            I took another friend from NY to SGV and he became dizzy with excitement just by the drive around Monterey Park.

            But that said, I don't know how it compares to what you have in SF.

            The resident expert (and Jeopardy champ) on SGV and Chinese cuisine on this board is Jerome. Hopefully he'll chime in soon!

            I am in agreement with everyone else about Vietnamese food.

            Little Saigon in Westminster is just about the mecca of Vietnamese food in California (dare I say the U.S.)? And we're lucky for it!

            http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

        3. I agree about the korean but not on the thai, where do you go?

          in SF I mainly went to khun phoa.

          1 Reply
          1. re: xdrixn

            Thai Town and there is a place in Alhambra called Green Papaya that is excellent

          2. Is there Islamic Chinese in SF? What about Chiu Chow or HK cafe style places?

            2 Replies
            1. re: Ernie

              Plenty of HK cafe style places. Chiu Chow is mostly via Southeast Asia offered up by Chinese families fromm Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, though there is one spot in Milpitas that is more along the lines of Chiu Chow-Hong Kong seafood. In SF proper, Old Mandarin Islamic holds the fort and there are about six or seven other Islamic chinese places scattered around the bay.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Yes, there's now more Islamic Chinese food in the Bay Area than down here in L.A. these days.

            2. I think it is worth the drive.

              In my opinion, the SGV for Chinese food, in terms of both depth and breadth, is without peer this side of the Western Hemisphere.

              Not only will your class get to explore the wide range of Chinese offerings, but you can literally see the progression of different types of cuisines and cooking styles.

              For example, you can witness the old-school traditional 80s HK-style diners (like SUNDAY CAFE) to the new nouveau HK diners inspired by even more Western influences (such as RED ANT or CHINA BISTRO).

              Likewise, you can sample traditional dim sum houses like OCEAN STAR to the more trendy order off-the-menu places like NEW CONCEPT that offer things like abalone sashimi, while also sampling places that seem to straddle the fence between traditional and new, like SEA HARBOUR.

              You can also witness the cross-breeding of Chinese cuisine with other Asian cultures, most notably SE Asia -- e.g. CHAU'S KITCHEN (Vietnamese/Chinese) or DUMPLING HOUSE (Korean/Chinese).

              And, if you want dumplings, you can go from the dainty (at DING TA FUNG) to the well-manicured (at DUMPLING 10053 or MEI LONG VILLAGE) to the rustic (LUSCIOUS DUMPLINGS or DUMPLING HOUSE).

              Same goes with Northern-style Beijing noodles. Hand-pulled? Try MALAN NOODLES. Knife-cut? Go to HEAVY NOODLING.

              I could go on, but you get the idea ...

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit

                SGV is awesome, I agree. I love it.

                Having said that, as Condiment posted below, all the cuisines you described above are readily available in the SanFran Bay Area (where I grew up). The SanFran Bay Area has a much larger Chinese population than SGV. It's just more dispersed throughout, so the restaurants aren't as centralized as in SGV.

                The SGV experience is both wonderful and unique. Sort of like visiting the biggest Chinese food court in the States. You could probably literally eat yourself to death there. But worth the drive, expense of the trip, lodging, etc? Not so much. Not when you can sample the same cuisines up North for a lot less effort.

                - Chubbypanda

                http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

              2. The San Gabriel Valley is unique in the breadth and quality of regional Chinese cooking in this country, but the Bay Area has enough diversity to sustain any survey class - if you are comfortable going to Milpitas, Richmond, Fremont, Cupertino and other unlovable suburbs.

                1. I'll echo the same sentiments as others. I don't think it's worth the drive from SF to LA just for the food. I grew up and lived in the Bay Area until my college years, and lived in LA/OC since, and I can't say that the food is remarkably better in either location.

                  There are a lot of great Chinese restaurants in both areas, and it's just a matter of finding them. Having browsed through the SF board extensively over the past month, there seem to be lots of new Chinese restaurants in the Millbrae area that may be worth checking out if you haven't visited any of them yet.

                  There might be more of the new-style dim sum restaurants in SoCal where you order off the menus instead of selecting items off the roaming carts, but I think there are a few places like this that have opened up in the Bay Area now.

                  1. I had to re-read your post, initially I was confused because you mention a 1-week course and later in the post the possibility of a day or a 1/2-day dining in SGV. As a former 7th-9th grade science teacher, frequent consumer of SGV regional Chinese and occasional consumer of Bay Area Chinese food, I'd stay in the Bay Area for a day of dining with students. One can only eat so much in a day of dining! If you were up to it, and could work out the logistics, a week (5-day work week) trip to the SGV could be a trip that the students would never forget, one that they would tell their grandkids about!

                    1. The food is probably better in the SGV, but I don't think it's worth the six hour drive. After such a long drive, it would be difficult to focus on the quality of the food. Even a fast food hamburger would look good.

                      1. While I'd agree that the Chinese offerings in the SGV are superior to the SF Bay Area, they're not so much better to justify the time and expense of such a long trip...you're talking about a total of 12 hours or more with a busful of adolescents!

                        1. Folks you got to be kidding me. These are high school students probably with fast food tastes. There is a wide variety of Chinese regional cuisine available in the bay area that would probably eclipse what we have to offer here in the LA area in quality and quantity. You said this was Chinese Food 101 not a gourmet tasting class. If I'm correct the purpose of the course is to understand the differences of the different regional Chinese cuisines.

                          Poster would do well to post this question on the SF Bay area boards.

                          1 Reply
                          1. No, they posted on the California board not the San Francisco bay area board...that's why there haven't been any responses.

                            4 Replies
                              1. re: Gary Soup

                                Gee thanks. That wasn't the link that sel sent.

                              2. re: monku

                                He did post on the SF Board AND the CA and LA Boards, but in my too much Thai food stupor I gave the CA link instead of the SF link so here it is!

                                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                1. re: sel

                                  Thanks again...I didn't think it was necessary for me to browse through all the boards to find out.

                              3. If the plan is to go to 5 or 10 Chinese restaurants in half a day or a full day its got to be basically "tasting" and not eating full meals.

                                Nothing wrong with sweet & sour pork, I see plenty of Chinese people eating it at Sam Woo in Monterey Park.

                                1. Bay Area Chinese food is obviously very good, but Los Angeles area Chinese is incrementally better. Similarly, there are a wide variety of regional cuisines in the Bay Area, but the variety in Los Angeles is incrementally wider. Based on the food alone, I think this would justify bringing a bunch of food fanatics down from the Bay Area, but I question doing this with a group of school age kids. It might be worthwhile, however, if in addition you want to show how the San Gabriel valley is effectively one gigantic Chinatown, as opposed to San Francisco, which besides the few blocks in Chinatown and the Richmond district, has its Chinese influence concentrated in a few shopping centers, rather than whole communities.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: Chandavkl

                                    That's the point everyone seems to be missing. Its Chinese Food 101...an introduction to the different regional cuisines? Its not a matter of whats the best of the best or where it is... its a matter of the differences.(PERIOD)

                                    1. re: Chandavkl

                                      As a Bay Area Taiwanese boy, I gotta defend the home turf. I disagree with your assertions. Bay Area Chinese food is comparable to, if not better than, SGV. (^_^)

                                      Been in SoCal seven years, but no messing with the roots. (^o^)

                                      - Chubbypanda

                                      http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

                                      1. re: Chubbypanda

                                        I've eaten at probably 2,000 Chinese restaurants in the L.A. area and 500 in the Bay Area (obviously over many years). I'd be totally happy if I were confined to eating in the Bay Area. But while through the 1970s, SF was way ahead, then in the early 80s New York was the best, since the 1990s, L.A. is the Chinese food capital of the USA. (But nothing here compares to Vancouver.)

                                        1. re: Chandavkl

                                          Flip it around and you've a mirror of my experiences. Plus, the fiancee's family is from Vancouver so I'm familiar with that area as well. ... We're like exact polar opposites. The question is, which one of us the the evil twin. =D

                                          BTW, I think Richmond, just a little south of Vancouver, is fast becoming the new Chinese food capital of British Columbia.

                                          - Chubbypanda

                                          http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

                                    2. Definitely Chinese Food 101, with the focus on learning about the variety of regional cuisines available. The students are from Berkeley/Oakland and are not complete Philistines. They're well read and interested in food. I envisioned the course as one for kids with limited experience with Chinese food, with the goal of teaching them enough to allow them to recognize the regional focus of the Chinese restaurants at which they find themselves and have some familiarity with the ingredients, cooking techniques, and specialties associated with the different regional cuisines. I also planned to give them a little bit from The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters. Ultimately, I want to give the kids the confidence to go off menu.

                                      As I've discussed the course w/ some of my students, I've been a little surprised by the reaction. Interest seems widespread, but the greatest enthusiasm is among the Chinese kids. Some have made it clear that they really don't know much and would like to learn more, but I think a good number are simply looking forward to eating well. It's going to be interesting putting something together that can be educational for a group of kids with such a wide range in experience with the subject. I may have those who've done their time in Chinese School take on the Chinese characters part of the course (makes a lot more sense than having me do it!).

                                      Based on the discussion above, it seems that I could teach a better course if we spent the entire week in Southern California, but that just doing a 48 hour turn around wouldn't enhance it all that much. Given that the money I'd have to spend on hotels would eat into our dining dollars, I'm guessing it's better to stick with the local Bay Area options. I am still, however, open to being persuaded otherwise. The kids and I enjoy road trips. I don't think it's crazy to say, "We're driving 400 miles to eat at the best/only fill in the blank in the US."

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: lexdevil

                                        Hurray!

                                        Think of the benefite of going local as doubly educational. Your kids will learn about different regional cuisines and also the locations of really good Chinese eats closer to home. It'll help build deeper and more abiding interest if you take them places they can go back to on their own or with their families. You should also be able to work out discounts if you talk to the restaurant owners ahead of time and let them know what your class will be doing. That way you might even be able to have a chef or owner/manager come out while the kids are eating and give them a mini-lecture about the cuisine, it's history, or the restaurant's history. Tie it all together with brief survey of the Chinese diaspora, and I think you'll have a winning course.

                                        - Chubbypanda

                                        http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

                                        1. re: lexdevil

                                          I'm fascinated to hear that the greatest enthusiasm is among the Chinese kids. I was a Chinese-American kid (back in the day) and relied heavily on my parents to do the choosing. They explained very little and now I find, while I'm a food enthusiast, the area I'm lacking knowledge most is in Chinese cuisine. There. I admit it. This sounds like a fantastic experience for your students! Good for them!

                                        2. SF Chinese = Cantonese
                                          LA Chinese = Mandarin

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: Normal Garciaparra

                                            But we're talking Silicon Valley (SanFran Bay Area) vs. San Gabriel Valley. This is not clash of the cities, it's clash of the suburbs. =b

                                            - Chubbypanda

                                            http://epicurious-wanderer.blogspot.com/

                                            1. re: Normal Garciaparra

                                              "SF Chinese = Cantonese
                                              LA Chinese = Mandarin"

                                              _________________________________________________

                                              Not correct.

                                              It's not even a correct oversimplification.

                                              1. re: Normal Garciaparra

                                                This generalization is inaccurate. There are countless Cantonese restaurants in L.A. Many of them are at least as good, if not better, than similar restaurants in the SF Bay Area. Moreover, there are many non-Cantonese regional restaurants in the SGV. Calling them "Mandarin" would be akin to lumping Italian, Mediterranean, Greek, and Spanish restaurants together. They have their similarities, but they have a lot of differences.

                                              2. Just in the area of garfield and garvey (an intersection in monterey park) you can get a wide variety.
                                                right on garvey are cafe eight - guilin style dishes, including guilin mifen, rice noodles, thicker and softer than cantonese noodles, different condiments - more peanuts, their own type of green hot sauce, etc.
                                                across the street is heavy noodling, daoshao main - hand cut noodles, as well as mao erduo - shanxi style orecchiete. they have typcial shanxi (taiyuan) type food.
                                                one block up the street on the east side one can find best szechwan that has tea and camphor smoked duck, kidney and frog dishes, "water-boiled" (shui zhu) dishes, as well as sizzling rice, etc.
                                                in the same mall is giang-nan that has a wide variety of excellent huaiyang dishes - jiangsu and zhejiang specialties. ALl of these have been discussed here extensively.
                                                across the street is yun-gui, technically yunnan and guizhou food but mostly yunnan and sichuan dishes, including the famous steam-pot chicken (qiguo ji) and the "crossing the bridge" noodles.
                                                One mile or so west of garfield is atlantic where you have little sheep, which is a nice place for a variety of hotpots from different regions. in the mall behind it is a place it seems only i like - deerfield garden which has good beijing snacks - potstickers, shuaiyangrou lamb hot pot, etc. There was a place called jasmine in the mall which specialized in chengdu snacks, esp dandan noodles.

                                                between a mile and 2 miles east of garvey and garfield you can find China Islamic of the great scallion bread with sesame and all kinds of interesting dishes, many featuring lamb. It's really henan huimin food.

                                                At new and valley you can find 101 noodle express with great shandong style dumplings (shrimp and pumpkin, wild vegetable and pork), its beef wrapped in a northern chinese crepe I guess (it's made on a griddle with batter), and the only place in this country i know of which makes Dezhou PaJi - a type of braised chicken made in Dezhou, Shandong province.

                                                giang-nan mentioned above has the soup dumplings, xiaolongbao plus a great example of REAL yangzhou fried rice - so light you can use it instead of steamed rice

                                                Nearby is homestyle, a small place specializing in northeast food from near shenyang - corn bao, corn bao filled with pork and preserved cabbage - a bigger place with similar food that could accomodate your larger party is Shen Yang a few miles east. they also have, on occasion, ba-si desserts - usually with sweet potato - chunks are breaded and deep fried then cooked in a honey mixture, brought to the table with an ice water bowl, dipped in the bowl which causes the sugar to harden and chill - so they're crunchy on cold on the outside, soft, warm and melting on the inside.

                                                There is a place on atlantic - mandarin deli - which seems to be unlike the other mandarin delis in that is serves Shaanxi food. I haven't been - more at
                                                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                                Also, if you have transportation - consider a trip to MaLan hand pulled noodles in hacienda heights - pulled to order, fun for the kids, nice selection, it's a chain in china purporting to serve food in the style of Lanzhou, gansu province. They do have an Uyghur style spicy chicken which is tasty.
                                                AND nearby, is the HsiLai temple which has a cafeteria for lunch, $5 a person or so - which can be combined with a tour. Vegetarian buddhist food. for a larger selection, go to happy family, not far from Garvey and Garfield - actually at Atlantic and garfield.

                                                remembering, in the mall across from 101 noodle express, where there is a banh mi store, mr baguette, is another place specializing in taiwanese varieties of Zongzi - the lotus-leaf wrapped sticky rice packets. In the same mall is a bakery with some chinese sweets.

                                                The parking lot of the Hawaii market not too far has a juice vendor, fresh squeezed or expressed juices to order.

                                                There is some decent hotel near Garfield and Garvey - the lincoln or something like that. A large group could probably get a decent cut rate there. for addresses for the places mentioned -
                                                go to
                                                http://www.lapublichealth.org/rating
                                                and put the name or part of the name into the engine. you'll get the address.

                                                incidentally - there is a restaurant in pasadena (not too far) that claims to serve Tibetan food, and one on the westside, on the way to the airport, that does as well (tibetan and nepalese

                                                )

                                                Hope this helps to get the ball rolling - kids will also like fosselman's for ice cream in the area - old and has developed flavors for the changing demographic, taro and lychee for example.

                                                Also, near the target area, is MPV restaurant. Granted Cantonese/HK, but I think it's fun just for the seafood tanks around the restaurant. Some are better than many aquariums/aria

                                                cheers

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: Jerome

                                                  Damn...just when I was reconciled to staying in the Bay Area! I haven't been to Monterey Park in years, and now I'm jonesing to drive down for the weekend. I took my students to the State Speech and Debate Championship in Alhambra in around 1987. Our hotel was overbooked, so they bounced us to something at the corner of Garfield and Garvey. I was annoyed about the move until I took the kids for dinner across the street. Never dreamed that something with a name as prosaic as chicken in brown sauce could be so good. That and a glutinous rice in lotus leaf dish made me look on the overbooking as a blessing.

                                                  Now I'm going to have to think a bit more. Perhaps I should teach Chinese Food of the SGV next year...

                                                  1. re: Jerome

                                                    About time Jerome! ;-) I was wondering when you were going to comment! And wow did you! I'm printing this out and putting a copy in my glove compartment.

                                                    Thanks!

                                                    http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

                                                    1. ... click ... click ... click

                                                      Topic Bookmarked.

                                                      I used to live in Pasadena and would go to Monterey Park and Alhambra for some late night chow, but now that I'm a bit more culinarily adventurous, I think it's high time I return to the San Gabriel Valley for some authentic eats.