California is perfect for so many reasons. Yes, we may have The Terminator as our governor, but I can give you two reasons why you shouldn’t let that deter you from this state that’s so rich in agriculture, biotechnology, aerospace-defense, and of course tourism. It’s a pretty cool state, if you ask me: San Francisco has the most rigid green building ordinances found anywhere in the nation, Californians are progressive, most often vote Liberal, and our produce is unbeatable. Aside from these aspects, we also have the obvious perk of climate.
I lived in Santa Barbara for three years, which if you’ve ever been, or seen the dated soap opera, you would know that it’s practically paradise. It’s almost unreal how beautiful the town is, with houses right up to the shoreline and palm trees spotting every street. Back in college, after a rough exam or a boring lecture, the best release was to hop in my car, roll down all the windows, put on some reggae and drive along the coast– the Pacific Coast Highway is a shot of tranquility. Also, the state boasts massive Redwoods, the coast is minutes from my house, the reward of hiking is met with spectacular views, hot springs abound, and we even have snow and deserts!
So you may think that I’ve now switched from the food galley to the tourism board. Nope!! I was just building the anticipation. As much as I love coming home to all these things, it’s really the diverse cuisine that pulls me back (and the probability of a tan!). And to be more specific, the two things that keep me coming back for more are the Chinese and Mexican food. There are at least seven Chinatowns in Southern California. Can you imagine the variety that can be found within these enclaves? My dad lives in Pasadena, just a few minutes from two of my favorite Chinatowns. Since you already now how Asian-fanatic I am, try to imagine the joy I get knowing I have multiple choices when it comes to eating. Should we go to a) Alhambra b) San Gabriel c) Little Taipei or d) the official LA Chinatown. The official Chinatown is kind of boring in my mind. It’s pretty much like going to Canal St. and Lafayette in Manhattan where the Chinese that hang out there are doing business mainly for the tourists. The other Chinatowns, such as in Alhambra and San Gabriel are not really called “Chinatown” by the Chinese communities, and have a more sincere feel to them.
Yesterday my father again arrived, list in hand, with eating options. But I went with choice a) Alhambra. It may possibly posses the best dim sum in southern California, and rival those in Asia. You may think I’m exaggerating, again..but I swear I can back up my claims. I spent three weeks in Hong Kong at the beginning of this year. I originally went there to work in a kitchen, but ended up eating my way around Asia for three months instead. And in Hong Kong, guess what my main focus was? Dim sum of course! A few times I was successful in getting my newfound hostel-begotten friends to sample this raucous affair with me. Most were intimidated, or uninterested by the whole ritual. So I would often search out yum cha by myself. Dim sum is more of a shared meal; the more the merrier. It’s a late morning Chinese version of brunch, tapas style. The more people at the table is in direct correlation to the varieties of food that can be sampled. But I didn’t care if I had to brave the scene alone, and I ordered as if there were three other people at my table. I quickly learned the semi-ceremonial commencement ritual of the meal which consisted of washing the chopsticks, the tea cup, spoon and bowl; I noticed I was receiving nods of approval from elderly table neighbors. I learned the most important words, aside from please and thank you: hargow, shumei, char siu bao (shrimp dumpling, pork and shrimp dumplings, and steamed pork bun). If you’re at a restaurant that pushes around carts, you can point to any of the containers that look delicious, and within seconds you will have a steaming container of savory goodness on your table.
Yesterday, however, the dim sum restaurant that we went to was a tranquil version of the raucous restaurants in Hong Kong. In China, people walk around searching out the carts with their desired dumplings, or shout out their wishes to passing waiters, and tea pots tinkle away with the constant refilling of hot water. At Triumphal Palace, in Alhambra, we sat down at a large table in relatively serene surroundings. We ordered off the menu enough food to feed an army (I prefer carts for their athletic feats they inspire). And though the challenge of scrounging and searching for the right woman with the right wares was eliminated (for me, half the fun), I have to admit that this was some of the highest quality dim sum I’ve had. Everything was awe inspiring. The duck was warm and moist with the thinnest, crispiest skin. The shumei were meaty yet delicate and bursting with flavor. Neither the shrimp nor pork was muted; they took turns in the spotlight, letting each flavor dance along the tongue before bowing out to the next. I would put this dim sum experience right up there with my top experiences in Hong Kong…possibly even rivaling them.
My convincing second reason for loving the west coast ensues. After we visited the Norton Simon museum and walked around some gardens, we went and saw Religulous. I know this has nothing to do with food, but I like recommending things, so I’m going to say that this movie should not be missed. And after adequately working my stomach muscles throughout the movie, we were ready to eat again! We are a family of iron stomachs. I think Seoyoung and I are such good friends because she too has a stomach of steel. We can eat anything and everything…and often too much of the aforementioned. But we (meaning I) were eager to have Mexican. We had fajitas, margaritas, carnitas…and shrimp. I wish that could have ended in an -as! I try to partake in as much Mexican food as possible while I am home. I’ll visit my favorite taqueria, check out the Latino shops in my neighborhood for dinner inspiration and insist on at least one dinner in a pinata adorned environment.
I guess both cuisines are like comfort food to me. Growing up in southern California and being surrounded by large ethnic communities really geared my palate towards big, bold flavors. I love both cuisines for their punchy spices, their adoration for pork product, and the bevy of chilis and accompaniments that enhance every dish. California is a gem for food lovers. Manhattan is exciting for me because of its concentration of restaurants (and especially the fine ones), but my hometown is so close to many major diasporas who consider food an epicenter to life. I too find the meaning of life in dumplings and carnitas…and California should be considered a destination not to be missed if you value these things as well! So come to California, roll down your windows and tune your ipod to some Bob (either Bob will do), enjoy the sun and ocean, mountains and desert, and most importantly the cuisine.
Triumphal Palace at 500 W. Main St. A, Alhambra, CA 91801. Try beef chow fun, shanghai dumplings, shumei, baked pork buns, pork ribs in garlic sauce, and hargow. Order freely, as everything is delicious. This restaurant isn’t as cheap as some dim sum palaces, but in no way will break the bank. On average, twenty dollars per person will equate to a lavish meal.
La Fiesta Grande Restaurant y Cantina, 624 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91106. Order the carnitas, shrimp with garlic, beef fajitas or chili rellenos. Also, there is a large assortment of tequilas and margaritas (goblets starting at $7). And the chips are warm and the salsas fresh. Ask for a side of salsa verde while you’re at it.