Northern Chinese breakfast shops in LA
The last few weeks, Ive been loading up the chowpups and taking them to my favorite Northern Chinese-style breakfast joints in Monterey Park and San Gabriel to sample baozi, danbing, doujiang and such. I thought Id pass along some of the hits and misses that weve encountered.
First, for the benefit of those who dont have a copy of Carl Chus Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles (which has a terrific chapter on Northern Chinese breads and dumplings), Ill give a brief description of some of the items the we like to get (please dont think these basic descriptions condescending; Im simply trying to be helpful to as wide a group as possible). Second, Ill offer some of my opinions on some of the local places that serve these items and give a few recommendations.
Basically, Northern Chinese breakfasts are rustic, humble, boldly-flavored (when flavored at all), stick-to-your-ribs meals usually served in the Chinese equivalent of greasy spoons (greasy chopsticks?), in contrast to the refined Southern dim sum, with its delicate flavorings, luxurious ingredients and vast, palatial dining halls. This is the food of people who faced long winters and the all-to-real threat of starvation; more fuel than art. Thus the heavy use of preserved vegetables, and hardy winter crops like cabbage and onions. As such, its a bit of an acquired taste, and IMHO best appreciated early in the morning when theres a bit of a chill in the air. Heres a brief description of some of the thing I like to get at LAs Northern-style breakfast shops:
Shaobing: basically a small, flat, rectangle-shaped, flaky bread thats usually topped with sesame seeds. You can eat them as is, or open it like a pocket and stuff in youtiao, fried egg, leeks, or pretty much anything else you want. When I lived in Taiwan, Id sometimes give the local breakfast guy some ham and cheese and hed make me an Egg McShaobing. I thought I was a pioneer in low-end fusion cuisine; he thought I was crazy.
Crullers (youtiao): literally oil sticks, these are deep-fried sticks of dough that can be dunked in soy milk or placed in shaobing. Theyre crispy and taste basically of oil and little else. Ive never been a big fan, but they have admirers.
Soy Milk (doujiang): a drink made from ground soybeans and water. It comes either hot and salty in a bowl or cold and sweet in a large Styrofoam or plastic cup. You can dunk crullers (youtiao) in the salty kind (if youre into that sort of thing). Soy milks a bit of an acquired taste, but can really hit the spot. Several local places make their own soy milk in-house. Theres also a similar, latte-brown drink called mijiang which I believe is made from rice (and peanuts??? someone correct me if Im wrong), and is sometimes served half-and-half with hot soy milk.
Danbing: what you get when you cross an omelet with a tortilla. Egg and green onion topped with an uncooked tortilla then fried together, rolled up and sliced. Delicious with a little soy sauce.
Chive Turnover (jiucaihe): A fried, or deep-fried, half-moon-shaped turnover filled with chopped chives, egg bits, pressed bean curd and bean-thread noodles. Delicious, but youll taste it the rest of the day.
Steamed Buns (mantou, baozi): steamed wheat-flour buns. Mantou are plain buns (which are sometimes split and stuffed to make sandwich-like snacks), while baozi are pre-stuffed with a variety of sweet or savory fillings basically like giant dumplings. Some examples are:
*Roast Pork Buns (chashaobao): tender, slightly sweetened bun filled with roast pork in a sweet sauce.
*Vegetable Buns (caibao or sucaibao): filled with mixed vegetables and sometimes mushrooms, bean-thread noodles, pressed bean curd or gluten. Some use cabbage as the main veggie, other use a more pungent mix of greens.
*Chive Buns (jiucaibao): filled with chives, egg, pressed bean curd, and bean-thread noodles.
*Pork Buns (xianroubao): filled with seasoned ground pork.
*Pork & Cabbage Buns (cairoubao): filled with a meatloaf-like mixture of ground pork and cabbage.
*Chicken Bun (jibao or jiroubao): filled with chicken and sometimes mushrooms or other seasonings. There are a few different types of these buns, some with a slightly sweetened bun, others with un-boned chicken chunks, others with pretty much everything in the fridge (chicken, sausage, egg, etc.).
*Pork & Mushroom Bun (xianggu roubao or taiwan roubao): usually filled with soy sauce stewed pork and dried mushrooms.
*Preserved Vegetable Buns (xuecaibao or xuecai roubao): filled with a mixture of vegetables, including preserved snow cabbage, and sometimes ground pork. Another, similar bun is filled with preserved mustard and ground pork (meigancai roubao).
*Steam-Fried Buns (shengjianbao): filled with pork and/or sometimes veggies, fried till crisp on the bottom, then steamed till the tops are tender (I may have the order mixed up).
*Sweet Buns: filled with sweet things like pastes of red bean, lotus seed, taro, sesame or egg custard. I dont particularly care for them, but some people do.
There are a number of other breakfast items that I dont regularly eat (e.g., fantuan, huajuan, etc.). Feel free to add to the list. Most of these breakfast joints also serve a wide variety of noodles, dumplings and even stinky tofu at lunch (I instinctively checked the chowpups pants the first time I caught a whiff of the stinky tofu at the next table last weekend).
Here are a few of the places that Ive been hitting semi-regularly over the past few years. Again, feel free to add to this list.
Ding Pangzi: 115-117 N. Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park
Suitably grimy joint that has quite good danbing, really bad shaobing and big, pillowy buns. I quite like the Mushroom & Pork Bun (xianggu roubao) and the Preserved Mustard & Pork Bun (meigancai roubao). The Pork Bun (xianroubao) can also be good (if seemingly undercooked at times). I seem to recall quite liking their Chive Turnovers, but its been a few years since I had one there. The cold soy milk is served in bottles, so I don't know if they make their own (haven't ordered the hot in years). This place is difficult to find. Its in a strip mall off of Garfield near the Garvey intersection, across from the Hong Kong Supermarket and behind the Heavy Noodling restaurant. Its actually two restaurants side-by-side; the breakfast joint I go to is the one on the left. Packed on the weekends. Very nice staff. Menu only in Chinese, but plenty of bilingual folks there on the weekend.
Yi-Mei: 736 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park
Cozy (okay, cramped), little shop in the Dingho strip mall. Almost always packed. Very good shaobing, danbing, and doujiang (made in-house). My faves are the compact, hefty and juicy buns. The Preserved Snow Cabbage & Pork Bun (xuecai roubao) is terrifically pungent (admittedly, an acquired taste), and the Pork & Mushroom Bun (Taiwan roubao) has a great mixture of potent soy sauce, pork and mushroom flavors. The Pork & Cabbage Bun (cairoubao) is also quite good. The Vegetarian Bun (sucaibao) and Chive Bun (jiucaibao) are okay nothing special. The wife quite likes the Roast Pork Bun (chashaobao). The Chive Turnover (jiucaihe) and Steam-Fried Pork Buns (shengjianbao) are pretty disappointing. Menu only in Chinese, but shouldnt be a problem, IIRC the very nice lady at the counter has pretty good English. There is another Yi-Mei in the San Gabriel Superstore complex (608 E Valley Blvd. #G, San Gabriel), which is more spacious, but I havent been as impressed with their stuff.
Yung Ho Tou Chiang: 533 W. Valley Blvd. (New Ave.), San Gabriel
Another very grimy joint thats nonetheless quite popular. Excellent soy milk and shaobing (one pup licked every last sesame seed off his plate). The danbing is a little too eggy for my tastes (I prefer more of a balance between the dan and the bing), and the buns have always disappointed me gristly meat and little discernable flavor. The pups hungrily demolished the huge hubeidoupi (glutinous rice and ground meat in a fried bean-flour wrap); I thought it was okay. They have an extensive menu with English translations, though. Theres another branch at 1045 E. Valley Blvd. #A105, but Ive never been there.
These are my three favorites. If anyone can add to the list, add insight or correct mistakes, please do.
Thanks for that comprehensive report! This is one post I will definitely have to bookmark. So much useful and insightful information, written with wit and wisdom.
I am also fairly new to this type of food, and I completely agree that it is "best appreciated early in the morning when theres a bit of a chill in the air." It can be light, it can be hearty, but true to the definition of comfort food, it warms your body and your soul.
I have only been to the small little corner of Hong Kong Market in Rowlands Heights which offers this type of breakfast:
Hong Kong Supermarket
18414 Colima Rd, Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Phone: (626) 964-1688
But what you wrote about the other places can easily describe this place as well. Very tight, crowded with Chinese folk slurping hot soy milk and munching on "oil sticks." Not a lick of English is written or spoken (as I recall). Now I can't wait to go back (it has been a while for me, since I now live in Irvine).
As an appendix to your post, I offer this link which I found a while ago. It could be very useful, especially if you want to associate the names of the food to what it actually looks like.
Just a note: greasy spoon? (ok regional prejudice finally coming out, Thi) believe me some of the southern noodle joints serving thin broth with fatty camphor smoked duck over hopelessly thin rice noodles are 8 times as greasy.
I love jiucaihe, and youtiao with sweetened doujiang. sorry. In Beijing, I remember getting the steamed leftover dumplings (jiaozi) from the night before fried up quickly in the morning. Perfectly fine. Yes, egg dishes at lunch not breakfast, but youtiao and doujiang are great. Rustic? Doesn't have to be.
I do remember once in Ji'nan (Shandong province for those who don't know) having a hotel breakfast and being given the chinese one. A big bowl of local style zhou/congee/juk/xifan (rice porridge, served a little watery) and plates of stuff to mix in, mostly smoked fish and very strong pickles (shandong is the culinary center of the northern chinese/mandarin [huabei] style). It was actually quite good and I didn't mind at all until I saw a table of German tourists (province was German protectorate and sphere of influence for just under 20 years) sit down and get the local version of a European breakfast. My eyes popped out of my head, it was better than what I'd seen in Shanghai. Beautiful hard rolls, wiener art (tianjin has these too), assorted local fruit jams german-style apricot, plum, eggs, and chinese lajiang sausages. Coffee, tea (western style) - I don't know what the German equivalent of the raj was called but this was it.
Anyway, if I'm in a place serving northern breakfasts, and they happen to venture off the pure regional route and offer xiaolongbao, I'll take them. Jiaozi, of course. And those silver-thread buns, I like them with doujiang or tea.
And for sweet fillings don't forget the zao-ni, tr. as date paste, but actually a paste made out of a plant, genus Zizyphus, that they translate as a jujube (not the candy the real plant). There's red and black from two different plants (the black is actually made from a plum-shaped member of the persimmon family, heizao diospyros lotos).
I am definitely trying your places yclops. Yungho (yonghe whatever) doujiang on E Valley Rosemead/San Gabriel border across from 888 is the one I know. And I like it. I just wish the SGV wasn't quite as far from me. In the evening I don't mind, but the drive on a weekend morning is deadly.
well, i must comment because doujiang youtiao is religion for me. i have it every weekend.
i've been to all of the above except for Ding Pangzi. there's also another spot on san gabriel blvd but that's small potatoes compared to these.
the Yungho Jerome mentions is good. the Yi Mei in Rowland that's off the HongKong supermarket elmomonster mentions is comparable. but one advantage the yungho has are decent noodles.
the yi mei yclops talked about has good doujiang as mentioned but their main business is selling those buns, dumplings in bulk (frozen for the housewives) though the daikon cakes and the savory doujiang are pretty good. oh and those little condiment things on the table, one of them has soysauce with garlic. really great stuff for the daikon cakes. the drinks in the frig are pretty great too.
i personally don't like the yungho near new blvd. but my old roommate enjoyed it. but all the restaurants mentioned are pretty crowded on weekends and they all look like cafeterias. this stuff ain't exotic. but if you're the type of person who doesn't examine the best practices of a roach coach, then i'd give it a try. probably sounds confrontational, but i've only had one non-asian friend enjoy it. then again, she was a chowhound.
* side note, people ask if you want egg on your daikon cake. i always say no. but most people have it with. your call.
* another side note: this bread in a bread sandwich thing (shao bing you tiao) might confuse you. i don't even think about it, but my white friend said that was just weird. and now that i think about it, it IS kinda dry.
one thing i miss from beijing are the 24 hr doujiang youtiao places, so if anyone knows of any, pipe up please.
Interesting breakfast experience. Coincidentally, I had the opposite experience. Years ago, my first time in China (as a clueless tourist), I was tired of the Chinese hotel facsimiles of Western breakfasts and asked for a bowl of whatever it was that the Chinese guests were eating. I was served the watery porridge and pickles that you described (I didn't mind the Western breakfasts so much after that...it was years before I developed a taste for porridge).
There was one hard, knobbly little pickle that the waiter call "sea cucumber" -- for years I thought that's what sea cucumbers were -- but it turned out to be just a pickled veggie. I found a jar in the San Gabriel superstore a couple of weeks ago -- the jar is labelled "Zhenjiang Pickled Vegetables", while the veggie is listed as "Chinese Artichoke" (the characters are bao3 "precious" ta3 "tower/pagoda" cai4 "veggie"). Any idea what that vegetable is?
Anyway, I was amazed at the superstore's selection of pickles, preserved veggies and other condiments that were just begging to be tossed into a bowl of porridge. Terrific stuff (and my co-workers sure do appreciate the smell of fermented tofu in the morning...I think).
As for the trek to SGV. Yeah, it's a haul, but I've found that it's not bad on weekend mornings (I live on the Westside)...just 30 minutes or so (of course, I commute 2-3 hours/day on weekdays, so "not bad" may be relative). You'd think that some enterprising soul would set up a small Chinese breakfast stand or truck near UCLA; I'd have to imagine that it could pull in a brisk business.