After being away from Los Angeles for two months this summer, I’m realizing more and more that I haven’t been exaggerating my insistence that L.A. has the best dining scene.
When I went to New York City, I heard raves about how amazing the food is by New Yorkers. And then when I went to Asheville, people who’ve lived to Asheville sang about their restaurant scene.
I’ve been to NYC many times, so I already know how great the food landscape is there. But a lot of the food that I can afford in NYC are served in a claustrophobic corridor or out of food carts. Sure, the food is great, but the whole dining experience isn’t very comfortable. As for Asheville, I was right to be ambivalent; I’ve found restaurants in Asheville to be more misses that hits, and rather monotone. But perhaps I’m too hasty to judge. Perhaps I’ve just been scarred by my experience with “Asian” food at a certain Doc Chey’s:
I don’t care what the menu says, Doc Chey’s. This is not udon. Neither is it Asian.
Now before you throw sticks and stones at me, this is a purely subjective view. I’m realizing that my conclusion is based on my own bias: I tend to judge a city’s dining scene by its quality and purity of Asian food. I’m not a purist—I find Asian fusion dishes interesting and American Chinese food disgusting yet tasty—but I just don’t think I can stay long-term at any place that doesn’t offer a wide depth of “authentic” Asian cuisine.
What can I say? I’m an Asian spoiled by the insurmountable amount of cheap, delicious Asian grub in and around Los Angeles. That’s because Southern California is home to the largest Korean, Thai, Taiwanese and Vietnamese communities outside of their mother countries. I love that I can walk my neighborhood and walk pass buckets of napa cabbage ready to be fermented into kimchi:
Let me illustrate. A couple months back, a group of food-loving Asian Americans decided to bring the nostalgic Taiwanese night market here in Southern California. Such a brilliant plan: Asians love to eat! They love to shop! They love prowling around at night eating and shopping! Why not recreate that night market to support local businesses and provide tons of yummy iconic snacks to people hungry for a taste of their heritage?
They called the project 626 Night Market (“626” is the area code for San Gabriel Valley, where the largest Taiwanese population resides).
I thought it was a genius idea. And so, apparently, did the rest of the Chinese population around L.A. I knew going into the first event, that it was going to be crowded.
But golly. It’s one thing to see cold numeral figures on a page. It’s another thing to see those numbers materialize in a sea of faces and bodies squeezed into a single block. And most of them were Chinese, so this was just a fraction of the East Asian population living around Los Angeles!
I went to 626 Night Market with my bestie Marilyn and her boyfriend Wes. Marilyn and I had to park almost a mile away because every parking spot in downtown Pasadena was filled.
It was madness. Just imagine: traffic honking and clogging in every block. Sidewalks loaded with people, 95 percent of them Asians, all walking towards where the emanating fragrance of grilled pork, but not being able to see anything other than the back of the person’s head in front of you.
You reach the entrance of the night market but don’t realize it because all you see are people’s heads. You only realize you’ve entered 626 Night Market when you look up into the sky and see Chinese lanterns. But now, you are stuck in the midst of the tightening crowd, because people have stopped walking and started swarming around vendors.
Some people are eating, chewing furiously, brandishing grilling sticks and chopsticks that you have to dodge constantly. You stare at them and give them the evil eye, because they probably scored the last chicken cutlet or curry fish ball. Also, your stomach is growling but you can’t even see the vendor signs because of the freaking crowd.
You shove. You squeeze. You bump. You wade. You dig your way through body after body, holding tight onto your friend’s hand because you know you’ll lose them if you don’t.
Ah ha!! You’ve reached a vendor! Finally! You see food! But eh…hello? Hello? HELLO?! Aiyo, why is the vendor ignoring me? And then you realize there’s another massive line for every stall. You try to trace the end of the line, but then you give up as you get devoured by the crowd again.
You seek another vendor. Perhaps there’s a less popular stall. Please, I’ll just take any vendor, so long as he or she serves food.
Same thing. Endless lines. Overcooked and undercooked food as the vendors scramble to feed the crowd. It’s torture!!!! There’s all these wonderful aromas and there are people eating and poking their darn sticks around, but you have to wait an hour to even get a taste!!! Waaaah!!
Time to give up. You want to leave. Problem is: Where the heck am I? To which direction do I go? And how do I get through all these sweaty, hungry bodies stomping in front of me?
So that was my entire thrilling experience at 626 Night Market’s first event in April. It took us about 40 minutes to finally burst out of the crowd, gasping for fresh air. By then we were mad and starving or madly starving or starving mad—whatever, we just wanted food— and after being tantalized by aromas of Taiwanese snacks, we wanted Chinese food!
We drove away from that mob scene and went to JTYH Restaurant in Rosemead instead, about a 40-minute drive away from Los Angeles.
Like every other great Chinese restaurant in this area, it’s in an obscure part of town and looking just as obscure and dour. Nobody knows what “JTYH” stands for. Apparently the building complex was called JTYH, but still doesn’t explain what it means.
It’s a simple little eatery that will squeeze in maybe about 20 diners. We found this place because we read Jonathan Gold’s review on LA Weekly. Eh…what is that lady in the pink shirt doing…
JTYH is known for their noodles, or more specifically, their Shanxi-style knife-cut noodles. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you’ll want to avoid this place because the sight of their steamy, slippery belt-like noodles will spin you into a manic carb-binge.
We obviously had to order their famous noodles. We got the lamb knife-cut noodles:
Slithering, chewy wheat-based noodles, braised and stir-fried in the juices of lamb broth, lamb meat, egg, cabbage, and woodear mushroom.
Oh man. There’s just something about the chew factor of knife-cut noodles, a kind of simple rusticity that makes you feel like you’re eating something handmade with care and love. The sauce drips from the starchy strands with savory lamb broth and the acid tang of good vinegar.
We of course had to order a round of dumplings as well.
I can’t visit a Chinese restaurant without having dumplings. They are just my favorite food in the world. This plate here is fish dumplings.
With liberal amounts of scallions inside. I usually order pork dumplings, so the fish dumplings were novel to me.
We also definitely needed something crispy to round out all the chewiness, so we got crispy green onion pancake as well, or 葱油饼.
I think this was one of the flakiest green onion pancake I’ve ever tried!
It was amazing—layer after layer of paper-thin, green-speckled dough, encased in a crisp, flaky envelope. I’m planning to make this at home one day. Apparently it’s not too hard, though I doubt I’ll ever make it as good as JTYH’s.
And now, my favorite dish of the night:
Cat’s ears! Not really made from cats’ ears, of course. It’s just called that because the dough is snipped and formed into a triangular shape, just like the perked ears of a cat’s.
In Taiwan, there’s an expression for a certain chew that fills your gums and heart with delight: “Q.” When the Taiwanese eat something that is chewy with that sort of awesome sticky quality, they’ll say, “How Q!” That is just how I would describe these cat’s-ears noodles.
I think they were stir-fried with slivered cabbage in some kind of soy sauce and vinegar mixture, and then topped with a thin, velvety omelet hugging wood-ear mushrooms, dried lily bulbs and shredded pork. Gaaah!!! So delicious! I loved it so much that I ordered another dish to take home.
So. Apparently 626 Night Market is holding another night event on July 28th. This time, they scored a larger venue at the Centennial Square in front of Pasadena’s City Hall.
Um. Yeah. I’m not going. Let’s give it a year and wait for the buzz to fizzle out. In the meantime, I’m going to stick to our numerous wonderful Chinese restaurants in San Gabriel Valley.
Question of the Day: Ever been to an Asian night market?