J & J Restaurant in San Gabriel ~ xiaolongbaos before Din Tai Fung (review + pics)
Full review + photos here:
Long before Din Tai Fung invaded Los Angeles and brought the thick-skinned, soup-filled xiaolongbao to the masses (not to mention some unbelievably long wait-times for a casual Chinese restaurant), there were restaurants like J & J, which has been serving this dumpling as well as other homestyle Shanghainese fare for well over a decade.
Located in Prospect Plaza, one of the few old plazas on Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel, from the outside J & J is a pretty unremarkable restaurant - and without prior word of mouth one would probably never be aware of the yummy treasures tucked within.
Just like the exterior, the dining area is nothing more than functional. There's about a dozen tables (mostly two- and four-seaters), all of the well-weathered and scratched. Likewise for the off-white floor, which has suffered years of foot traffic damage but otherwise pretty clean.
Other indicators that is is a no-fuss, no-nonsense place: 1) The beverage fridge (which is *in* the dining floor) is being used as storage for vats of mystery sauces, boxes of noodles and plates of premade side dishes, 2) the tea, served not only in the most generic metal pot but also with a styrofoam cup! and 3) the quintessential "not-A" rating from the LA Public Health department (in J & J's case, a B - further research unveiled that it's a 82.)
After a quick look at the menu, whose lamination is practically falling off, I decided upon my meal - a three-course feast of comfort foods to keep my stomach and soul happy. Starting off this smorgasbord is Stir-Fried Nian Gao, Shanghainese Style.
For those not familiar, nian gao is a glutinous rice cake - eaten most frequently around celebration times such as Chinese New Years. Sometimes it will be prepared as a sweet dish, similar to Japanese mochi, other times it'll be used for something savory, such as the course above, where thick-sliced nian gaos are stir fried like chow mein with some greens, onion slices and meat slivers in oil & soy sauce. The taste is pretty much like any other stir fry, but nian gao's smooth, chewy texture makes this course extra fun to eat.
Next up is a snack I hold near and dear to my heart - scallion pancakes! I swear this is what Hot Pockets' marketing department was eating when they figured out their advertising slogan, "crispy crunchy tender flakey crust" because that's exactly what this is -- and without the artifical tasting and sometimes gross stuffing. Pan-fried to golden perfection, every bite of this multi-layered pie releases the sweet aromatic smells of scallions. Mmmm...
And for the finale, crabmeat & pork xiaolongbaos, eight beauties that I had no trouble finishing off one by one, and I daresay is comparable (if not better) than Din Tai Fung's version. Yes, there's only 8 compared to DTF's 10, but these are substantially larger (practically spilling over the spoon) a bit less pricey too.
Hiding beneath its thick but translucent skin is succulent blend of pork & crabmeat mixed with carrots, ginger and other veggies in a pool of meaty broth. Just a little soy sauce and a little vinegar and it's a one-way trip to yum!
And having dined solo this time, I had plenty of leftovers to take home -- enough for another two meals! True, the pancakes were no longer crispy-crunch-flakey upon reheating, but they're still tender, and having them soak up all the stir-fry grease made them delicious in their own right.
Spread out the bill and each meal is about $5 -- I'd take this over burger and fries anytime.
Pretax/tip total: $13.45
Total score: 31.5/40 (great place to swing by for casual comfort eats, either alone or with a small group of pals)
J & J Restaurant
301 W. Valley Blvd. #109 (in Prospect Plaza)
San Gabriel, CA 91776
What is the best day and time to go to J&J for the soup dumplings. I have heard of some of these places running out, or the dumplings are not as fresh depending on the time of day. We haven't had these since we were in Shanghai, and I would love to take the hubby and son, but would prefer to go at a time it is not too packed.
FWIW, there are three Yi-Mei joints. The Rowland Heights mentioned above, and two others in the SGV:
736 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park (adj. New Concept)
608 E Valley Blvd. #G, San Gabriel (adj. San Gabriel Superstore)
Their Pork & Mushroom Bun (taiwan roubao) and Preserved Snow Cabbage & Pork Bun (xuecai roubao), when fresh, are terrific, IMHO (tho', admittedly, an aquired taste).
I just got back from lunch at J&J with a friend who had never been there before. He was suitably impressed. We had both kinds of XLB - pork, and pork & crab - and having tried XLB in about 20 different places around town, J&J's remain by far my favorite.
We also had the panfried dumplings - which are excellent, among the best in town, and an order of gee tsai (a Shanghainese green vegetable) and bamboo shoot which was also excellent.
As for Din Tai Fung, I've been to the one here, in Taipei and in Shanghai. I think the Taipei shop is the best of the three (though not really any better than J&J - although I do very much like the miniature dumplings), and the Shanghai shop the worst of the three. There are far better places for XLB in Shanghai. What I like best at Din Tai Fung here are their green beans - which I think are one of the best, simple vegetable dishes in town; and I have an odd fondness for "appetizer."
Very nice report here and on the blog. It illustrates that deliciousness can be found in a myriad of packages. I think the whole point of being a 'hound is having a temperament that will sniff out the good stuff, whether it be on a "champagne and caviar budget" or a "beans and rice" budget, good food, from good ingredients, prepared with care and skill, is good food.
AquaW - I have to say your post had me puzzled.
"the thick-skinned, soup-filled xiaolongbao".
The thing to appreciate for the xlb at DTF is the fact that theirs is about as thin skinned as you can get without being too fragile to carry the meat payload. That refinement is part of what you paid for, plus the fact that the facilities isn't a dive.
Seems like there are plenty of posts in the past dissing or praising DTF. I think whether you like DTF or some other place depends on what you expect - the delicate version, or the rustic version.
Both I think are good. Nothing beats a hot juicy dumpling straight out of the steamer, as long as the skin doesn't disintegrate into a mush.
Yes, I agree DTF's xlb skin is thinner than most, but I was making a point that xlb, compared to other dumplings (say, shu mais and har gows at dim sum places), have a thicker skin due to its soup & meat payload.
I agree that there's lots of DTF praise/bash posts -- I personally like DTF, but wanted to give some exposure to the other places out there that serves xiaolongbaos (and have existed before DTF came to U.S.~ which seems to be getting the bulk of the credit for xlb's popularity).
Thanks for the clarification.
I think it's easier to do the thicker skin than thinner ones, so I tend to give it more credit - but I truly enjoy either versions.
Har gow at some dim sum places have skins thicker than the xlb at DTF. The 'rustic' har gow at SF chinatown is one example.
Just returned from Taiwan (both Taipei and Hsinchu) and discovered that there ARE such things as thick-skinned (read: doughy, spongy) xlb, same soupy filling as the thin-skinned version.
Haven't been to DTF-LA, but I went to one of their Taipei branches (the original, I believe) and have to say that the xlb there was incredible. Anyone been to both DTF-LA and any of their other locations to make a comparison?
I have just recently returned from Taiwan and China, and I'd have to say the xlb at the DTF in LA cannot compare to the ones in Taiwan or Shanghai for taste. Somehow I don't think its their fault... I suspect the recipe is the same, but using different pork might be the reason they are so drastically different. I've also tried JJ's xlb after reading all the rave reviews and I was disappointed. It's the pork!
I have found the meat (chicken, pork, etc) in Taiwan to be more flavorful and more sinewy in general. Less processing? More free-range? I was also told that it is customary to drain the blood in the animals so there is less of a "gamy" taste to the meat. Can anyone explain?
Also, fish is fantastic.
I've said it before and I'll say it again ... DTF is overrated for xlb.
There are many places throughout SGV to get as good and better xlb than at DTF.
JJ is one of them, and in fact, right next to J&J there is Mei Long Village and Dragon Mark, both of which make good xlb. A troika of xlb offerings!