A 5-Stop Eating Tour of LA's San Gabriel Valley for Under $40

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Spicy Lamb Toothpicks from Chengdu Taste [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you were to evaluate the quality of a given period of time in terms of the concentration and diversity of flavors that you can cram into it, the afternoon I spent cruising up and down Valley Boulevard in the 626 area code east of LA would rank high. In fact, it would count as some of the best time I've spent on this planet.

When my flight landed in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to meet up with Ed, I was a man on a mission. I knew little of the LA dining scene, but I was determined to make the absolute best of my 48 hours in the city. That meant very little sleep, a heck of a lot of driving, and research. I'm talking research before we hit the ground, but more importantly, that kind of delicious "research" that has to be carried out in the field.

We planned an itinerary of over 40 stops during those two days (and we managed to make it to every restaurant that wasn't closed, shut down, or otherwise preoccupied), but my favorite part of the trip was the bit we ad-libbed: an impromptu tour of the best bites in the San Gabriel Valley, one of the epicenters of LA's incredibly diverse Asian food scene.

We had the benefit of two expert guides: Zach Brooks, founder of Midtown Lunch (whose knowledge of the LA food scene is as seemingly bottomless as his appetite), and Phil Rosenthal (you may know him as the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, but you should know him as one of the world's leading food fanatics. Stay tuned for his upcoming food series).

Ed and I tasted a stunningly delicious whirlwind of flavors that spanned three countries and five distinct cuisines. It's a trip that anybody with a car, a couple of friends, a few hours to kill, and about $40 can pull off in an afternoon. I suggest you try it some time.

Boiled Fish in Spicy Soup and Lamb Toothpicks From Chengdu Taste

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I've spent the last couple decades scouring the globe for the best Sichuan food I can find. Up until now, the best Sichuan restaurant I'd been to—outside of Sichuan province itself—was Fuloon in Malden, MA. Chengdu Taste has squarely supplanted it. It's hard to pick a favorite dish—the ma la "numb-taste" wonton with pepper sauce? The mung bean jelly noodles with chili sauce?—but if I had to stick to one dish, I'd go with the boiled fish in green pepper sauce. The slices of meltingly tender white fish come in a rich broth flavored with fresh green chilies and buzzing, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns. Make sure to specify that you want the "fresh fish" and not just the "fish." Both are fresh, but the former request will land you a live fish that's killed, butchered, and simmered to order.

You have four more stops to go, but an order of the lamb toothpicks—miniature versions of the cumin-, Sichuan peppercorn-, and chili-rubbed lamb skewers you'll find on every street corner in Chengdu—should be the second thing you order if you're bold or hungry enough. They're the perfect salty-spicy snack to go with the beguilingly smoky-but-refreshing prune juice that you should also get on the side.

Beef Rolls From 101 Noodle Express

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Hop back in your car, crank up that AC, then take a quick drive west to reach 101 Noodle Express. Though the menu offers noodles, dumplings, steamed buns, and all manner of other dim sum and savory Chinese pastries, it's the beef roll—a pastry that originates from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong—that you want to order. Tender anise-scented shaved braised beef is paired with thin-sliced bits of crunchy beef tendon and handfuls of chopped cilantro, then rolled jelly roll-style into a roti-like fried flatbread. It sounds heavy, but the dish is improbably light and flaky, the heaviest element a little brush of hoisin sauce that binds it all together.

Hainan Chicken Rice From Savoy Kitchen

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Another short trip down the street and you'll end up at Savoy Kitchen. The decor and posted menu above the counter may lead you to believe that you've walked into an Italian diner, but ignore them: the real thing you came here for is the Hainanese Chicken Rice. I never really understood the appeal of this dish—cold simmered chicken and rice?—until I had it for the first time in Singapore last summer. And the version at Savoy is every bit as moist and tender. This is a dish that's really about texture and subtlety—poached poultry that's actually juicy, paired with chicken fat-slicked rice—though if you want to amp it up, the ginger-scallion oil, chili sauce, or thick soy sauce they serve on the side will bring some punchy flavor to the mix.

Shen Jian Bao From Kang Kang Food Court

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As we left Savoy, Zach asked us if we wanted to walk or drive to the next location. "Where is it?," I inquired. Zach pointed to the storefront across the street about a block away. Folks in LA sure are obsessed with driving, I guess, but we opted to walk.

It might be wise for you to do the same, because it's gonna be hard to show restraint once you have a plate of Kang Kang Food Court's sheng jian bao. They're xiao long bao's more substantial, slightly less soupy, more fried cousins, and the ones I had at Kang Kang were another of those best-I've-had-outside-of-its-native-land experiences. They weren't quite as juicy or crisp as the version from Yang's Fry Dumpling in Shanghai, but they're close (and a heck of a lot closer).

Of course, you can always make them yourself if you prefer.

Grilled Pork Banh Mi From Banh Mi My Tho

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Still have room for more? Good, because we're eating sandwiches for dessert. Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, to be exact. There are plenty of banh mi shops along the stretch, but according to Zach, the best is Banh Mi My Tho, a convenience store-sized shop by South 4th Street. I haven't tasted every banh mi in the neighborhood, but after trying these, I'm inclined to trust the man. Perfect Vietnamese baguettes, with that crisp-tender balance and just the right level of squishiness, house your choice of meats and pâté with cilantro, cucumbers, jalapeños, sweet mayonnaise, and brightly-flavored, extra-crunchy pickled carrots and daikon radish. The dac biet with mixed cold cuts is admirable, but the grilled marinated sweet pork was the real showstopper, and a fine way to round out the tour.