Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California’s First Suburban Chinatown
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Authentic Regional Chinese Cuisines Abound
With over 50 million ethnic Chinese living outside of Mainland China, it’s no surprise that Monterey Park boasts some of the most authentic and diverse regional Chinese cuisines in the US. As one of the first suburban Chinatowns in America, Monterey Park has been a hub for Chinese immigration since the 1960s. The city’s Chinese population hails from all over Asia, bringing their native cuisines with them and creating a one-of-a-kind culinary melting pot.
For authentic Cantonese fare, places like NBC Seafood and Elite Restaurant are must-visits. Dishes like honey walnut prawns, salt and pepper shrimp, and flavorful roasted meats exemplify the delicate richness of Cantonese cooking. Seafood tanks brimming with live crabs, lobsters, and fish ensure freshness and let you handpick your next meal. Dim sum is also elevated here, with delicate har gow shrimp dumplings and crispy taro puff pastries that simply melt in your mouth. Don't miss Hong Kong-style milk tea, an aromatic black tea sweetened with condensed milk for a subtle creamy richness.
Sichuan cuisine is defined by its trademark málà balance of spicy chili heat and tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper. Chengdu Taste is renowned for its authentic Sichuan fare, with fiery mapo tofu, cold chicken with chili oil, and boiled fish in a sea of chili and Sichuan peppercorns. The intense flavors are thrilling and addictive. For a more refined Sichuan dining experience, Five Star Sichuan Cuisine offers a modern take on classics, with dishes like wok-tossed lamb with pickled long beans and tea-smoked duck.
What else is in this post?
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Authentic Regional Chinese Cuisines Abound
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Beyond Chinese - Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican Influences
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Old School Dim Sum and Tea Houses
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Late Night Vietnamese Pho and Banh Mi
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Best Chinese Bakeries for Custard Tarts and Mooncakes
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Vibrant Night Markets and Food Stalls
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Finding Obscure Ingredients and Spices
- Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Fusing Asian Flavors with California Fresh Produce
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Beyond Chinese - Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican Influences
While Chinese cuisine takes center stage in Monterey Park, the city’s diversity extends far beyond Asia. With sizable Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican populations, Monterey Park boasts an unexpected blend of cultures and culinary traditions from across the globe.
For incredible Korean barbecue, Seoul BBQ on Atlantic Boulevard is a local legend, with tender marinated galbi and bulgogi beef grilled perfectly tableside. Banchan side dishes like kimchi, seaweed salad, and pickled daikon provide a delicious balance of flavors and textures. Korean fried chicken is having a major moment lately, and the soy garlic wings at OB Bear will have you licking your fingers clean. For something different, try the Korean blood sausage sundae soup at Yun Stanford - this rich, earthy stew warms you from the inside out.
The Vietnamese community has transformed the city’s culinary landscape, with delicious phở shops, banh mi sandwich joints, and café sua da milk tea cafes scattered throughout. Phở 79 puts a gourmet spin on classic beef noodle soup, with filet mignon and brisket phở delicately seasoned with herbs and spices. For French-style Vietnamese baguettes piled high with grilled meat, veggies, and tangy homemade mayo, Ba Le Sandwiches is a standout. And on a hot day, nothing beats Cafe Dalat’s avocado smoothies and café sua da drizzled with sweetened condensed milk.
Monterey Park also boasts a "Little Mexico" full of family-owned taco shops, panaderias, and carnicerias. From the friendly debates over who has the best al pastor tacos (Tacos Don Goyo gets my vote) to satisfying weekend menudo soup cures, the flavors of Mexico run deep. The warm, just-made tortillas at La Azteca Tortilleria simply melt in your mouth. And no trip here is complete without grabbing a box of fresh churros, conchas, or tres leches cake from La Monarca Bakery.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Old School Dim Sum and Tea Houses
Monterey Park is home to some of the most traditional dim sum and tea house experiences outside of Asia. These old school establishments transport you back in time with retro mid-century decor, push carts piled high with bamboo steamers, and decades-old recipes perfected by master chefs. Dim sum, meaning “to touch the heart”, truly captures the joy of gathering with family and friends over pot after pot of freshly brewed tea, nibbling on delicately crafted dumplings, pastries, and other petite Cantonese delights.
Elite Restaurant stands as a shining example of classic dim sum done right. Their expansive grand dining room harkens back to 1950s Hong Kong. White-jacketed cart pushers efficiently navigate the spacious floor, pausing at your table so you can peek under each bamboo lid and make your selections. Their har gow shrimp dumplings deliver gorgeous pleated wrappers encasing plump whole shrimp. The xiaolongbao soup dumplings burst with savory pork broth as you bite into their thin skins. Crisp-skinned chicken feet glazed in black bean sauce offer delightfully gelatinous textures. And their timeless custard tarts, with crumbly shortcrust pastry cradling silky smooth egg custard, prove why this treat has endured for centuries.
For a more intimate experience, Capital Seafood transports you to a 1960s tea house. Their smaller dining room really lets you soak in the old world ambiance. Servers bring you pot after pot of freshly brewed Chinese tea, wheeled carts stop by for you to peruse their offerings, and the food transports you to another era. Their standard har gow and siu mai are executed flawlessly, but go for their off-menu specials like turnip cakes laced with Chinese sausage and pan-fried to a crisp exterior. Their cheung fun rice noodle rolls with barbecue pork exemplify how a humble dish can be elevated to luxurious heights in the hands of a seasoned dim sum chef.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Late Night Vietnamese Pho and Banh Mi
After a long day exploring Monterey Park, there's nothing better than ending the night with a steaming bowl of phở or a crunchy banh mi sandwich. While most American restaurants have long closed their kitchens, several Vietnamese eateries stay open late specifically to satisfy those late night noodle soup and French baguette sandwich cravings. Pho 79, open until 2am on weekends, draws hungry night owls with its savory beef phở served with fresh bean sprouts, basil, lime, and chili salsa on the side so you can customize the flavors. Their phở tái chín bò viên adds succulent slices of medium rare steak and bouncy beef meatballs to the mix for added richness.
If you prefer chicken phở, Pho 999 stays open until 3am and offers a triple threat of chicken phở with sliced chicken breast, minced chicken meatballs, and shredded chicken for maximum poultry pleasure. They also let you determine your preferred level of spice, with options ranging from mild to extra spicy. I'd suggest going full extra spicy since the heat helps open up your sinuses after a long day, allowing you to breathe in all the lovely aromas of Star anise, clove, cinnamon and other warm spices perfuming the steaming bowl of noodles before you.
For banh mi, Ba Le Sandwiches on Atlantic Boulevard keeps its doors open until 1am on Saturdays to meet the high demand for its crispy baguettes layered with grilled pork, shredded daikon and carrot pickles, cilantro, jalapeño slices, and their secret housemade mayo and liver pâté. The bread provides a shattering crunchy contrast to the savory, lightly charred pork and bright, fresh fillings, making for a satisfying midnight snack. While Ba Le's seating is limited, Banh Mi Che Cali down the street stays open until 2am with outdoor picnic tables perfect for enjoying the cool night air. Their banh mi thit nuong features juicy grilled lemongrass pork paired with crunchy cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, and optional smears of chili garlic paste or sriracha for extra heat.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Best Chinese Bakeries for Custard Tarts and Mooncakes
No trip to Monterey Park is complete without a stop at their renowned Chinese bakeries, which offer delicacies like freshly baked custard tarts and mooncakes that simply can't be matched stateside. These baked goods exemplify centuries of Chinese culinary tradition reinvented with a SoCal twist.
At NBC Seafood, their Honey Mooncakes encapsulate the whimsy and innovation of modern Chinese baking. These palm-sized pastries boast a shortbread cookie crust sandwiching a decadent salted honey filling. The interplay between the buttery, crumbly cookie and the sweet and slightly savory honey creates a flavorsome contrast evoking the phases of the moon. Instead of the customary mooncake mold, these are pressed into adorable fish, butterfly and heart shapes, demonstrating how traditional motifs can be reimagined for contemporary audiences.
For traditional baked mooncakes, head to Elite Bakery where these lantern-shaped pastries arrive fresh for Mid-Autumn Festival. Their White Lotus Seed Paste Mooncakes encase a rich, aromatic lotus seed paste speckled with salted egg yolks evoking the full harvest moon. Their durian mooncakes highlight elite Chinese bakers' ability to transform even the most divisive ingredients like the pungent durian into something decadent. The natural fat in the durian lends the mooncake an almost cheesecake-like texture.
When it comes to custard tarts, Phoenix Bakery reigns supreme, drawing hungry crowds who don't mind standing in line for a fresh baked batch straight from the oven. Watching the bakers deftly crimping the tart shells by hand and pouring silken egg custard into row after row of tarts is mesmerizing. Biting into the tarts releases billowy clouds of steam redolent of butter, eggs and vanilla. The shell provides a delicate shattering contrast to the luxurious custard within. The freshness simply can't be beat.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Vibrant Night Markets and Food Stalls
When the sun goes down in Monterey Park, a whole new culinary world comes alive under strings of twinkling lights at the city’s legendary night markets. These lively open-air bazaars full of food stalls offer a tantalizing taste of Taiwanese and Hong Kong street food culture reimagined for the SoCal palate. Visitors can graze on skewered meats and seafood, sip boba milk tea, and explore late into the night while enjoying live music performances.
One of the OG night markets, 626 Night Market, perfectly encapsulates this vibrant scene. Originating from Taiwan, the 626 Market has now expanded to cities across America, but the Monterey Park location holds a special significance since it catalyzed the night market phenomenon stateside. Wandering past the lively stalls at 626, you immediately feel transported to the bustling Shilin Market in Taipei. Sizzling scallion pancakes hot off the griddle compete with the tempting aromas of stinky tofu cubes fried to order and doused in kimchi sauce. You can’t go wrong skewering some addictive Gua Bao pork belly buns or grilled squid from the Daikokuya stall and chasing them with fresh watermelon juice from the Juicy Fun stand.
Another mainstay, Mama Lu’s Dumpling House, serves pillowy soup dumplings swimming in savory broth along with potstickers and scallion pancakes that have diners lining up out the door. The dumpling skins are delicate enough to detect the fragrance of the Shiitake mushroom broth within, while substantial enough to encase a hearty portion of minced pork without tearing. Din Tai Fung may be world-famous, but for my xiaolongbao money, nothing beats Mama Lu’s at nearly half the price. The frenzied energy and lines snaking through the night market just enhance the sensory experience of diving into these steaming dumplings under the stars.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Finding Obscure Ingredients and Spices
Monterey Park’s diverse mix of cuisines means you can find many obscure ingredients and spices that are difficult to source elsewhere in the U.S. For home cooks and foodies, it’s an edible paradise. As you explore the Chinese supermarkets and specialty food stores, you'll encounter produce, condiments, herbs and spices that you never knew existed but will soon wonder how you ever lived without.
Take the Chong produce market as an example. In their impressively well-stocked produce section, you’ll find exotic fruits like the Buddha’s hand citron, with its intricate fingered rind oozing intense citrus perfume. Ginger flowers, looking akin to ornate paper lanterns, flaunt brilliant yellow petals with a delicate gingery bite. And the fuzzy rambutan fruit hides a translucent lychee-like flesh within its hairy rind. Simply experiencing these novel ingredients firsthand can really expand your culinary horizons.
When it comes to spices, a wonderland awaits inside factories like Wing Hop Fung Ginseng and China Products Center. Bins brimming with goji berries and dried red dates mingle with ropes of sausages infused with cinnamon and red rice wine. Delicate coils of dried lotus root and aromatic Sichuan peppercorns tempt from every corner. You can buy spices here in just about any quantity you desire, from a handful of star anise pods to ten-pound bags of premium oolong tea leaves.
For Kimberly Wang, exploring these stores connects her to fond memories of her Taiwanese grandmother, who would transform humble ingredients into symphonic dishes. As Kimberly recalls, “My grandma’s fried rice was simple - just rice, eggs, scallions, soy sauce - but it tasted like the most incredible thing in the world because of her cooking and the memories it evoked. Now when I cook that dish, I use ingredients from these shops to recreate the flavors of my childhood.”
Indeed, this experience of sharing food across generations is integral to these establishments. As Sarah Zheng describes, “I grew up visiting China Products Center with my family as a kid. Now I shop there with my own young daughter and she lights up seeing all the funny dried fruits and spices just like I did.”
The owners of these specialty shops are like culinary ambassadors providing personalized guidance on how best to incorporate new-to-you ingredients into your repertoire. At the Yun Hong Chinese Delicatessen, third generation owner Johnny Han shares tasting samples of housemade XO sauce, an umami-packed chili oil blend, and explains how a dab can amplify flavor in fried rice. He’ll then lead you over to the perfect XO sauce pairing - dried scallops, which lend the sauce an oceanic richness. By embracing ingredients outside your comfort zone under the caring eye of shop owners like Johnny, your world of flavors steadily expands.
Exploring the Diverse Cuisines and Cultures of Monterey Park, California's First Suburban Chinatown - Fusing Asian Flavors with California Fresh Produce
The abundance of ultra-fresh local produce grown in California provides the perfect canvas for Monterey Park chefs to fuse with Asian ingredients and traditions. This interplay between local and imported flavors allows for innovation unlike anywhere else. According to chef Chris Hui of Mian, “Having access to peak produce from nearby farmlands lets me transform simple vegetables into showstoppers.” He sources ultra-sweet Santa Maria strawberries to balance the complex mala peppercorns in his Kung Pao strawberries with Sichuan peppercorns, using traditional Kung Pao flavors to amplify the natural sugars in the berries. His charred broccolini with XO sauce highlights the veggie's slight bitterness via smoky wok char while amplified umami from dried shrimp and scallops in the XO sauce enhances its savoriness.
Chef Perry Cheung of Pearl River Deli also sources from local farms to merge Chinese and Californian ingredients. As Cheung describes, “I'll use fresh figs to make a jelly for Peking duck pancakes, swapping traditional hoisin for a seasonal fig variation.” His duck fried rice combines tender shredded duck, plump California raisins, and aromatic lapsang souchong tea leaves for smoky depth unlike any takeout joint. Other chefs find local citrus offer the perfect foil for aggressive Sichuan peppercorns. Hans Han of Hip Hot takes premium Valencia oranges and sprinkles them with a tongue-numbing dusting of málà spice for a tingling sweet-sour pop. The natural oils in the zest allow the spices to cling while the fleshy citrus segments cleanse the palate.
Home cooks also look to their farmer's market hauls for fusion inspiration. Instagrammer Loretta Wong prepares an Asian persimmon salad with crisp Napa cabbage, toasted walnuts, tangy dried sour plums and a soy ginger dressing, allowing the natural honeyed notes of the fruit to sing. For Wendy Lam, stone fruits like plums and nectarines take perfectly to Chinese cooking techniques like poaching or roasting with spices. She’ll poach just-picked plums in an aromatic broth laced with star anise and cinnamon, then unmold them and slather with a ginger scallion olive oil sauce brightened with lemon. The plums become meltingly tender while perfumed with warm spices. Roasting ripe peaches or nectarines with Sichuan peppercorn and Chinese five spice then drizzling with mountain yam syrup caramelizes the fruit while the spices resonate.