Welcome to the 626. SGV. San Gabriel Valley. An expansive mass of nondescript southern California suburbia that could have been just that, and yet has garnered international fame. Well, at least for a certain kind of person looking for a certain kind of thing.
Let’s start with what the San Gabriel Valley is not. It’s not the Valley (that would be the San Fernando Valley to the north). It’s not Chinatown. LA does have a Chinatown, though its role is a little different from that of other Chinatowns across the country. San Gabriel Valley plays a specific role for greater LA, and has a larger than life presence in Asian American culture and in the cultural fabric of food in America.
San Gabriel Valley is, in a simplified sense, the Asian suburbs of LA. Geographically, it is a valley just east of the city. A cluster of suburban towns that has seen quite a transformation over the past couple of generations, demographically, and landscape-wise, as it filled up with an influx of mostly Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants and eventually with new money injecting new constructions into the local housing market. Over the generations, SGV has become a mecca for food lovers, and representative of the east Asian diaspora, even people (like me) who didn’t grow up there.
There’s a certain familiarity to the suburban sprawl. A certain sense of welcoming with the bilingual signage coexisting with Spanish street and city names. Strip malls and large grocery stores catering to an immigrant community and becoming a culture in itself. A quotidian lifestyle that feels special for those who didn’t grow up in an Asian community. Like many immigrant enclaves before it, a haven in a foreign place.
Growing up in the very different northern suburbs of LA, I spent countless Saturdays with my family making pilgrimages down to SGV like rural homesteaders going into town for goods. After an hour and change of traffic, it became a day trip, at least one meal, something sweet, a hefty grocery haul, a bakery stop or two, a round of ready made foods, and takeout meals pieced together from a few favorite restaurants to last a few extra days. We’d come with empty stomaches and leave with a car full of goods to cover off on a couple weeks before the next trip.
There was a while where these trips felt like a chore, being carted around by your parents on a weekend as a teenager isn’t the most fun itinerary. But deep down I always appreciated these trips, I always recognized and cherished the meaning behind these trips, the shared (thought at times testy) moments, the familiarity that comes with routine, to the point where I would notice when one place closed and a new one opened in its place, to the point where I felt my perspective transitioning from child to adult taking in the evolving landscape of the San Gabriel Valley.
My sense of geography was warped from these trips. After traveling over 50 miles to get there, what’s another 10 miles to get from Monterey Park to Arcadia? At that point everything was ”on the way,” every additional stop was a minor detour in the grand tour of the region. Once I moved down to LA, and drove myself, I realized how spread out things actually are. I had been so distracted by the overstimulation of, well, things (!) that simply didn’t exist in the boring genre of suburbia that I grew up in, that I forgot we are still in the suburbs and the ample parking meant things are not particularly close. But old habits die hard, and even if the hour drive turned into 15 minutes (25 with traffic), I still operated with the mindset of “well since you already drove all the way out here, what’s another detour?”
But if I let my realism overpower my nostalgia, even though I love to go in with no plans and all vibes, I have to endorse the more intentional practice of picking a neighborhood for your SGV foray.
So what do you even do here? Eat and buy things that are largely food adjacent. You fit as many meals and snacks into one day and leave with a trunk of treats that’ll last you at least a week. No trip to SGV is complete without a trip to 99 Ranch (and yes, my norcal friends, it is definitely called 99 Ranch). And if you’re doing it right, you’ll also have breads, desserts, frozen goods, sides, snacks and more.
In my humble opinion, in my years of experience, here’s the formula for a solid day or half day in SGV:
And the good thing is that this formula could work within any given neighborhood. So take your pick:
The Lazy Choice: Monterey Park
We get it, you got places to go. You don’t have time to deal with the incremental traffic to trek deeper in to the valley. You can’t be bothered to go north of the 10. You gotta make it back in time for dinner in Arts District. Monterey Park is the place to go. You can get there in 20 minutes flat on a Sunday morning from the east side of LA, and the drive back shouldn’t be much over 30 even with traffic.
You’re starting off with a solid choice that won’t weigh you down or cost you much. Make a beeline to Huge Tree Pastry, a no-frills Taiwanese breakfast joint. Get a fantuan and doujiang (soymilk) or mijiang (peanut rice milk) and be on your way. Or, if you’re really hungry and have a decent sized group, go all out with dim sum and Cantonese banquet fare at NBC Seafood.
Head across the street to Atlantic Times Square (lol) and do a quick DAISO run, pick up some kiddie snacks from Aji Ichiban, and hit up Phoenix for some Hong Kong style deli and dessert picks.
Take your pic Sunmerry for imported Taiwanese style breads, Kee Wah Bakery for Cantonese style, Jim’s Bakery for no frills Chinese bakery classics.
Ok this one is a bit of a modern choice but go to Big Softee, a new-ish soft serve ice cream spot with flavors inspired by Asian American diaspora; or go for the no-brainer choice of Beard Papa for cream puffs.
Obviously you’re going to 99 Ranch. Is this the best 99 Ranch? No. Is it the most reliable 99 Ranch? Nope. But is it conveniently right there with medium level of chaos for weekend parking? Yes. Beggars can’t be choosers and this one checks off the minimum boxes so do your shopping there and then head over to Wing Hop Fung for specialty goods.
For something quick there’s Daikokuya for ramen and Mandarin Noodle House for Chinese noodles and small dishes. On a “cold” Southern California day you can never go wrong with Boiling Point.
pick up frozen dumplings and other carbs at Mama Lu’s (big fan of ordering some scallion pancakes and sneaking bites on the drive home), P P pop for Taiwanese snacks, Yunnan Restaurant for tomorrow’s lunch.
DRINKS FOR THE ROAD
You can’t go wrong here, Sunright and Half & Half are both right there, so just pick whichever has a shorter line.
99 ranch philosophy: start with produce, opt for whatever the aunties are hovering over. then hit the meat and seafood section, be ready to order clearly and concisely. then grab the dried goods, sauces, canned, refrigerated and snack foods. peep the deli section. and end with the frozen section.
The Classic Choice: San Gabriel and Alhambra
Ah so you like the classics. Fair enough. San Gabriel Square is an iconic destination of my childhood. As soon as we turned into the chaotic parking lot, the wings of the wide commercial plaza filling your field of vision, we’re here. San Gabriel is very established and very frequented by out of town visitors. Alhambra caters a bit more to the local LA crowd and newer developed, the commercial scene constantly evolving. San Gabriel and Alhambra is pretty much made up of a series of plazas and strip malls, concentrated with endless restaurants, grocery stores, boba shops, bakeries and more. Each with it’s own parking lot. Each with specific establishments that draw you in. It’s suburban philosophy amplified to a nearly urban scale. If you don’t know better, they all look about the same. But if you get to know the streets (Main Street, Las Tunas, Valley Blvd), you’ll never run out of options.
Choose your own adventure. Kick it off with a bang with morning dim sum crowds at Five Star Seafood Restaurant (the obligatory dim sum restaurant atop San Gabriel Square which always has a line on weekend mornings (is it even a weekend if you don’t have someone shouting numbers at you in Cantonese?), it isn’t the best so I suspect the popularity comes in part with the allure of not having to park twice. Other dum sum options along Valley Blvd include Top Island and Newport Seafood.
Happy Harbor is a popular option for Cantonese food (congee, noodles, set meals) and the aptly named Congee is also a popular spot. Or, for more low key options, get some Shanghai style no frills soup dumplings, rice cakes and noodles at J&J Restaurant, or Taiwanese congee and accoutrements at Lu’s Garden, or pan fried shenjianbao at Kang Kang Food Court, or noodles at 101 Noodle Express and northern Chinese fare at You Kitchen. Yung Ho is a knock off version of the breakfast chain in Taiwan (Huge Tree is better though) and Lee’s Garden has a bunch of Taiwanese “small eats.” Or if you’re craving Malaysian, there’s Ipoh Kopitiam which has breakfasty and lunchy fare. And of course Lee’s Sandwiches for Vietnamese sandwiches. For a casual food hall option, the new(ish) Blossom Food Hall is worth checking out.
If you’re starting on Main in Alhambra, the popular choice would be dim sum at Lunasia (a personal favorite, even though they don’t do push carts).
When it comes to running errands, you’re in good hands. There’s a DAISO inside San Gabriel Square, the shining light in an otherwise pretty defunct department store type structure reminiscent of a different era. Don’t forget to stop by Champion for Taiwanese prepared and frozen foods (but if it’s a holiday you may have to pre-order to get the goods like zongzi or niangao). Across the way there’s Takashima for Japanese cosmetics. Alhambra Place has got nothing on San Gabriel Square but they do have a Miniso (and a Sephora while you’re at it). Main Street is mostly food options and your typical suburban American chain stores.
You don’t have to go far to get your bread fix. There’s Kee Wah, a longstanding Hong Kong style bakery right by San Gabriel Plaza that feels as nostalgic as you want it to be. Yo Yo Bakery is in the plaza across the street, over the years the location has hosted several Asian bakeries but they’re all pretty reliable for breads and cakes. There’s an always crowded 85C in Alhambra right on Main. Oh My Pan is more new school Taiwanese style, that is not a chain but very well loved by locals. Little Swan has a location in SF as well, and serves up breads and a wide selection of cakes that are great to pick up for a last minute celebration. And then not quite Asian bakery genre but Fortune Bakery is a longtime mom & pop establishment that specializes in cakes and cookies that look straight out of the 90s.
Sadly, my family’s go-to dessert break Taiwanese chain Blackball is no longer, but in its place is now Motto Tea, which has boba but also souffle pancakes for more of a sit down dessert moment. Further east there’s Melo Melo coconut desserts for frozen and quite portable dessert option. Alhambra has some more, shall we say, diverse options with Afters Ice Cream, coffee at Fresh Roast, and Sweet Honey for Hong Kong style desserts. By the Mission, there’s Love to Go Coffee + Tea and it’s also worth shouting out Factory Tea Bar as a boba stop that is worth sitting at for a bit.
The mainstream choice is the 99 Ranch at San Gabriel Square (tbh I genuinely don’t know if it’s actually better than other locations or if I’m just emotionally attached to it), for a slightly less chaotic option go to 168 Market (two locations) or Shun Fat (less useful tbh). For a very chaotic old school local favorite option, Hawaii Supermarket (fair warning, the air is potent with durian fumes in there). If you head up to Las Tunas, there’s Mitsuwa (kind of small, but worth a stop for Japanese groceries). In Alhambra there’s a 99 Ranch on Main (doesn’t hit the same as the always popping SGS location though) and the more curated and calm HK Good Fortune Life Mart (which replaced an organic Chinese Taiwanese grocery Lohas RIP). Calimart is pretty big and kind of underutilized (idk it feels dingier than it needs to be considering it’s not even that old), but also a more low key option off Valley.
Prepare to have decision paralysis. Go with your cravings, or go with whatever is geographically closest. The good thing is that you don’t have to worry about not having anything to eat!
The rationale here is stuff that freezes or refrigerates well for a few days, and things that reheat well or can be eaten room temp. Go to Phoenix Dessert Bar to pick up Hong Kong desserts (mango + coconut puddings & mochis are always a solid choice; or red bean or sesame soups for winter) and refrigerated deli fare. Get BBQ cuts (ie charsiu, roast pork, roast duck) from Sam Woo BBQ. Or some chicken rice from the specialty restaurant Savoy Kitchen. Sihai for Chinese breakfast pastries. Jollibee because, duh (try not eating this on the drive home though). Sichuan Impression and Chengdu Taste are also solid choices for grabbing dishes that can be reheated the next day.
DRINKS FOR THE ROAD
Options, options. Pick whatever is closest. Wushiland is the place of choice in San Gabriel Square, Chi Cha San Chen is also nearby in a plaza on Valley (but pre-order, they tend to be backed up). Also on Valley is the Taiwan exports Xing Fu Tang (brown sugar boba) and Yifang (fruit teas). There’s the aforementioned Factory Tea Bar by the Mission, and then the ever so popular Bopomofo. There’s Bobacraft in Alhambra (which also has wheel cakes). And then of course there are Half & Half and Sunright outposts in San Gabriel and Alhambra as reliable staples.
The Local Choice: Arcadia and Temple City
Oh so you decided to take the 210. Good choice. Arcadia and Temple City. Deep enough to be one with the true locals. Noticeably less crowded, save for the Arcadia Mall which is a destination in itself. I’ll always have a soft spot for Arcadia and Temple City. It feels homey in a way, less congested, though you know a place is good when there’s a small crowd outside. Arcadia was home to the first Din Tai Fung in America. Back before it took over the world, back when it was still a Mandarin-only no frills strip mall restaurant that no one knew about unless they lived in the neighborhood (or were Taiwanese, it’s in our blood – I have a picture of my family outside the nondescript storefront back in 2004). These days, Temple City is still a little sleepy, Arcadia has become a hub, but so long as you avoid the Arcadia Mall parking structure you’re pretty ok.
When I tell you to start off strong, you start off strong. Brace yourself and go to the Arcadia Mall in the morning before things get too crazy. Put your name down on the waiting list for Din Tai Fung. Maybe do some shopping while you wait. And eat those soup dumplings because you know that’s something that is only good fresh. Don’t feel like waiting? Ok fine, if you’re in Arcadia just go to 101 Noodle Express for, well, noodles. Or May Mei for no frills Cantonese rice. Or Garden Cafe for Hong Kong style set meals. In Temple City go to Ahgoo’s and order the think scallion bread the moment you’re seated. Or go to Greenzone for organic pan-Asian fare lunchy set meals. Or Golden Deli for pho.
I mean most of what you could possibly want or need is in the Arcadia Mall. But there are other strip malls like the one on Las Tunas and Rosemead that have plenty of things from DAISO to bakeries. It’s deeper into Arcadia but Yoshan Tea Shop is worth a quick drop in for tea. Or if you want an activity that isn’t shopping or eating (gasp) go take a spin around the Arboretum.
When it comes to breads and cakes you have solid options. There are two locations of longstanding local chain JJ Bakery, both with not only breads and abundantly decorated cakes but also with Taiwanese deli fare. There are also two Sunmerry locations as a more recent Taiwanese export. And Duke Bakery (quite popular but not my fave) and an outpost of Kee Wah.
The correct answer here is Meet Fresh in Temple City. No matter what the season, grass jelly hits right. In a pinch Sin Bala also has shaved ice (great for picking up prepared foods too). And there’s 85C for a casual bakery moment. And Mochinut for the Japanese style mochi donuts and Beard Papa for cream puffs.
Pretty simple here, there’s a pretty good 99 Ranch in Arcadia. And then also an H Mart.
Ok so the main affair: there are a lot of good dinner options here worth carving out some time to sit down and dine. In the Arcadia Mall there’s a Haidilao and Meizhou Dongpo. A family favorite is Chang’s Garden, a mainstay family-style restaurant which has occupied the corner of a strip mall for years. Further in there’s a Momo Paradise (Japanese shabu shabu chain). In the realm of Japanese exports there’s also Menya Hanabi and Ajisen Ramen for more casual noodle shops.
In Temple City, beyond my number 1 choice of the aforementioned Ahgoo’s Kitchen, there’s the fancy Bistro Na’s and an outpost of Baekjeong sharing a parking lot with Sunmerry and Meet Fresh. There’s also Banana Bay as a popular Thai option in the next strip mall next to TJ Max. If it’s summer, and a weekend, and you’re feeling patient, there’s always 626 Night Market.
The strip mall by S Baldwin and Duarte is great for picking up prepared foods and take out: Sin Bala and Cozy Cafe have lots of Taiwanese foods (ie Taiwanese sausage, sticky rice, marinated cold cuts) and there’s a Phoenix for Hong Kong food. Chang’s Garden is good for take out meals that reheat well, and Ahgoo’s scallion bread is almost just as good if you pop it in the toaster. Beyond the bakeries Sihai also has good breakfast pastries, and Kang Kang Food Court has some good snacky foods too. Greenzone has pretty good frozen dumplings (a bit pricier than other spots though) and Summer Rolls is good for takeout contemporary Vietnamese food if you want to skip dinner and eat when you’re home.
DRINKS FOR THE ROAD
Lots of random local boba shops, but the reliable bet is still Sunright and Half & Half. Sin Bala also has an extensive drink menu, if you’re already there. Meet Fresh has drinks that are more portable. And there’s also a Sharetea.
The Low Key Choice: Rosemead and El Monte
You’re a true local if you pick this one. This is the original San Gabriel Valley. And I won’t lie, it feels old. It’s a little more mixed between Chinese, Vietnamese and central American (Guatemalan, Salvadorian etc) populations, which is reflected in the businesses. Lots of mom & pop. Sure you still got your 99 Ranch, but it feels like you wandered into true suburbs here. I’ll admit I rarely venture out, but if you truly don’t want to deal with crowds, this is the move.
Get your dim sum fix at Sea Harbor Seafood Restaurant or Longo Seafood Restaurant. Get some Taiwanese street food at Monja Taiker (order the red grain pork). Or, opt for Vietnamese food. You have options: there’s Viet Huong in El Monte, Golden Delight and Banh Xeo Quan in Rosemead. And plenty of options of banh mi’s from Lee’s Sandwich to Banh Mi My Tho to Mr. Baguette.
SHOP + BAKERY
Definitely different options here compared to other neighborhoods, as it skews more Mexican these days. There’s a Chinese Vietnamese bakery Phu’s Bakery and a Mexican bakery NaVis Bakery. And plenty of donut options: SK Donut, Olympic Donut.
Fujiwara Tofu Cafe is Japanese sports car themed (strange) but serves up sweet tofu pudding and boba desserts. Or, go to Sweet Heart Dessert House for Hong Kong style.
There’s (gasp) no 99 Ranch here, but there is a Shun Fat and other local spots like Great Wall Supermarket, and a specialty seafood store Seafood Paradise Market. In El Monte there’s popular Mexican grocery stores like Northgate Market.
Hear me out, Chinese Islamic food. China Islamic Restaurant (lmao the name) is a unique and very solid choice. In Rosemead, a classic choice for Chinese food would be Ji Rong Peking Duck. If you’re feeling Japanese food there’s an outpost of Shin Sen Gumi. And for Indonesian food there’s Medan Kitchen. If you’re in El Monte, you could also get tacos at King Taco or pupusas at El Salvadoreño.
Pick up some salted duck at Nanjing Duck and some dumplings at Tasty Dumpling Kitchen. And of course for Hong Kong bbq meats hit up Sam Woo BBQ.
DRINKS FOR THE ROAD
Not as many mainstream options in this area. Neighbors Tea House is a popular spot with some less traditional drinks that still fall within the general boba genre. There’s also a Sharetea in Rosemead.
The Bougie Choice: South Pas and San Marino
Ok this one is going to be a little different, you still get the essence of an SGV field trip but there are some things outside of the typical SGV itinerary that you just can’t not hit if you’re here. San Marino is the bougie part of SGV. Demographically this is new money Asian. It might as well be the part of Pasadena that identifies as Asian. The streets are wide here, the houses new, the gardens landscaped.
Honestly there are not a lot of food options here, it’s a lot of suburban fare in South Pas and most of San Marino is not commercial. So what you’re gonna do is find something delicious and decadent in San Gabriel (or Alhambra), and then shoot back up. You could also pair this with a Pasadena itinerary, but for the sake of continuity, get some dim sum and then come back.
Forget errands, you’re going to Huntington Library Gardens to walk off your meal. It’s beautiful. It’s worth the drive out alone.
After frolicking the gardens, sit down for some pretty desserts at Go Cakes. Trust me, this is a better option than tea in the gardens.
GROCERIES + MORE
You could very well just call it after dessert, but you’re already out here, so it’s time to either go down to San Gabriel for 99 Ranch, or drive a bit further east to Arcadia. Either way, once there you can run your errands, grab your groceries, pick your choice of dinner meals and get boba for the road.
On your way out, swing by South Pas and hit up France Patisserie for French Japanese pastries.