A Food Guide to the Alhambra, a suburb of eastern Los Angeles worth a visit T


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When you think of the Vietnamese American neighborhoods in Southern California, most people’s minds automatically jump to Westminster or “Little Saigon” in Orange County and overlook the bustling sister community that spans the suburbs of the Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Temple City, Arcadia, El Monte and Rosemead, aka the predominantly Asian, American-populated areas of the San Gabriel Valley, aka “the SGV”. When people say “the valley” in Los Angeles, they often mean the San Fernando Valley. But the SGV is completely different from this one. Being in the SGV is like taking a trip through a Southeast Asian American cuisine paradise.

When you walk down the main street towards the Alhambra, you could be anywhere in the small town, in the United States. There is the fire station, the big box store, the grocery chain, but you notice that some billboards and building signs are in Vietnamese and Spanish. There’s a tai chi training center, a handful of car dealerships, tearooms and dim sum spots, and more and more Asian restaurants, mixed with American food chains like Coldstone Creamery and Starbucks, as well. as Asian chains like 85 below for desserts and breads. Follow your nose to grilled meat, sauces and savory broths, travel a mile or so and you are at one of the understated epicenters of Southeast and East Asian cuisine. There are outdoor tables at the mall where people of all ages and races sit in front of steaming bowls of things like pho, even when it’s hot outside. The neighboring houses are modest and well maintained with topiaries straight out of Edward Scissorhands. You hear schoolchildren playing instruments, with jazz coming out of the windows.

The Alhambra is the most populous Asian-American point of the triangle at the intersection of the Alhambra, El Sereno, and southern Pasadena on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with over 50% of its residents being AAPI (according to Wikipedia, the 2010 census, and World population review with 2021 figures). The region is home to a very diverse BIPOC population of small business owners with South American, Indonesian and Korean restaurants. In Vietnam and also in the Alhambra, it is very common to have Vietnamese Chinese – those whose families are originally from China and adopted the Vietnamese language and culture after settling in the United States.

Khanh Tran, a writer who grew up in Vietnam and then spent his high school years in Arcadia, told me about his favorite banh mi shop in the Alhambra: Banh Mi My Tho (at 304 West Valley Boulevard). Khanh explains what makes a banh mi perfect for him. “The thing about Vietnamese food in Los Angeles is that the texture of the baguette has to be right – a little chewy and a little crunchy – and this place nailed the balance,” he said. . The banh mi at My Tho also costs less than $ 5. Ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk) is also “super strong,” said Khanh, a winning combination.

Vince Duque is a Filipino writer and filmmaker who grew up in the Alhambra, who told me about his food preferences. “I haven’t been in a while, but I think they now call it Saigon Eden (29 S Garfield Avenue), but it’s still the same – a little more kitsch,” he said. he declares. “I still call him by his old name, Pho 79. It feels genuine to me. There are so many Vietnamese with roots in the Alhambra, so there is a hometown spirit that I love. I feel like pho places like Silver Lake can be so hip. Pho 79 is just simple, no bullshit, and it feels like real LA, not all that Asian fusion to make everything super cool and white Californian American. With all the gentrification going on everywhere, this place still feels like home. You know how LA can feel like it’s not your hometown because most of the people are here to take advantage of LA? Well, Pho 79 feels like coming home. “

Howard Ho, a Chinese-American YouTuber and writer also grew up in the Alhambra and has confirmed that Saigon Eden aka Pho 79 was the hangout place growing up because it’s so close to the Alhambra High School. He said he learned to eat pho because of all the Vietnamese kids he was friends with in class. I ask Howard about the ‘hip’ factor that the Alhambra has gained over the past decade. “I think it got trendy because Asian food has gone from being kind of low rent to high quality food.”

Howard also likes Borneo Kalimantan cuisine at 19 South Garfield Avenue. It is an Indonesian and Singaporean restaurant. Tina Quach is a Chinese Vietnamese American filmmaker who grew up in the Alhambra. She also drives for Borneo. “Borneo is actually one of my top favorite restaurants because their laksa is so good.” Why? It’s all about the broth. “[It’s] very tasty, not too spicy with the heat, and the noodles are chewy like fresh ramen. Laksa is a curried coconut milk soup served over vermicelli noodles and chicken, shrimp or fish. Tina also loves Banh Mi Che Cali. She receives the spring rolls when she accompanies her mother. As for me, I love their simple stuff like satay meat kebabs and simple fried rice, both with just enough gravy and crispy. A lot of food here is very similar to Vietnamese food. My family was in a refugee camp in Indonesia and didn’t have access to great food like this so it’s wild to get a taste of it on the street of me in Alhambra.

Banh Mi Che Cali is a small chain. The Alhambra outpost is located at 647 W Valley Boulevard. Its name sums it up: you can get both banh mi and che (Vietnamese desserts). Vietnamese American actress Anastasia Nguyen likes to get bamboo shoots there with tofu. They have excellent banh cuon (tapioca and rice flour rolls with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, and sometimes with shrimp) and banh bao (steamed pork buns with an egg. soft-boiled).

If you go, make sure you get the che soi nuoc, fluffy flour balls stuffed with mung beans boiled in a sugar and ginger sauce and smothered in a creamy coconut sauce with nuggets of sesame salt. This is my favorite Vietnamese dessert. It even surprises with a very simple oversized white mochi ball look, but it’s so much more. The sweet and tangy liquid and the central combination of perfectly salted mung beans really make it.

Jiang Nan Spring is a “Shanghainese” restaurant at 910 East Main Street in Alhambra. Kelly Chang helps her parents translate and told me about her father’s cooking there. His father, chef Henry Chang, opened the restaurant two years ago, just over a year before the pandemic. Chang had another restaurant in Arcadia for 13 years before this one. Originally from Taiwan, he has specialized in Shanghainese and Taiwanese cuisine for over 45 years, starting at the age of 17. He has operated and owned various restaurants, all in Southern California. Kelly and Henry’s favorite dishes he cooks at Jiang Nan Spring include seaweed fried fish, dong po pork, and Shanghai-style back ribs. This earned them a place in the Michelin Guide.

“We didn’t expect to be mentioned there as a ‘find’, along with other Southern California restaurants. mostly during the pandemic, ”Kelly said of the editorial staff. “We are completely grateful and honored. We discovered it with our clients. It was a total surprise for us so we don’t know when or who discovered us. Like Howard Ho said, sometimes a non-Asian person will come and anoint something pre-existing and then people will flock to him.

Just a few blocks east Pho Superbowl, which has a full menu. I have been going there for a dozen years. It’s a real family business and the closest thing to tasting my parents’ homemade pho. My favorite dishes are the pork chop with rice, the “golden brisket” and well cooked pho flank, and the grilled meat pho with additional orders of sinew slices. They have pineapple shakes to top it off, and they also give you a hot mung bean / seaweed / tapioca dessert pudding lagniappe after your meal which makes everything perfect.

Joe Ho takes us across the street from Pho Superbowl, a few yards from the Alhambra / San Gabriel border. He’s a Vietnamese American who works in digital operations for the television industry. His favorite spot is called Golden Deli (at 815 West Las Tunas Drive) “Because they have a wide variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes from pho to bread to com tam to che, they cover all the bases. Consistent quality across the board, just a reliable place especially during the pandemic whenever I crave Vietnamese food that tastes like real Vietnamese food.

Around the corner, off Main Street, on the corner of Garfield and Elgin, is 7 sheets– not just any 7 sheets – drive-thru. This is a small chain, like a Vietnamese American Starbucks style establishment, offering Vietnamese coffee drinks (with thick sweetened condensed milk) and mung bean drinks. And then there are the standards like taro-milk, jasmine tea, Thai tea and others. The stars include the strawberry-hibiscus and what they call “Sunset Passion” (passion fruit juice), which comes with a salty plum. You can choose to add grass jelly, boba or “whipped sea cream” to any of your drinks. 7 Leaves was founded by Sonny Nguyen whose family fled Vietnam and was sponsored by a family and taken to nearby El Monte.

It’s family-owned businesses like these with humble beginnings that give the Alhambra its unassuming charm and durability – far, but not very long, from the LA restaurants that have garnered most attention for the upper class. Asian cuisine over the decades.

Thuc Doan Nguyen is an American-Vietnamese essayist and screenwriter with an Irish passport. You can find out more about her at consideratecontent.com.


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