When I moved to LA, I haven't lived in Southern California in years, and the local food climate had become much richer and more multi-faceted during that time, I knew I needed to get reacquainted.
So, one weekend, I took this Taiwanese food-focused Delicious Dumplings tour in the San Gabriel Valley town of Arcadia. Shadowing immigration patterns, ethnic food epicenters have evolved across Southern California and one of the best known is the corridor of Chinese and Taiwanese-dominated towns in San Gabriel Valley. Arcadia is one of the lesser-known food towns so I was curious how it would pan out. Within a few bites, it became abundantly clear how much I was about to learn. We only covered a handful of restaurants in a few blocks, but ate our way through a cyclone of Taiwanese culture, history, and food.
Our host for the day was Arcadia-native, Michael Lin, who I’m convinced should consider a career as an ambassador of Arcadia because he’s such a champion of the city. He's one enthusiastic food lover and his ability to speak Chinese, English, and some Taiwanese and his extensive knowledge of the food culture made for a very informative tour. I was busy eating my way through dish after dish of food, but took a few snaps and notes along the way to share with you.
Before the recap though, I wanted to share a concept key to the tour: a food texture known as “Q.” Taiwanese doughs strive for a texture that is chewy, dense, and firm yet resistant enough to bounce – think a marshmallow or a good-quality gummi worm -- and it's known as "Q." Michael had us experience "Q" texture firsthand with a chewy hot dog-filled croissant from JJ Bakery. It’s an idea that translates into any sort of dough from breads to noodles and, of course, dumplings, and, since the tour was about dumplings, we got plenty of chances to taste “Q.”
Our first stop was at the world-renowned dumpling house Din Tai Fung, which is best known for its Taiwanese-style soup dumplings. The flagship Taipei store has been around for over 40 years and has earned the distinction as one of the best restaurants in the world by The New York Times. The Arcadia location is clearly a favorite with the locals -- so popular, in fact, that they've opened a second location right next door to handle overflow.
As our food was prepared, Michael briefed us on a few tea customs, encouraging us to pour for our tablemates, to never let their cups get empty, and to tap our index and middle finger twice as a shorthand for "thank you" when someone poured for us. As soon as he finished, a wave of food arrived and it didn't stop.
As is common with Taiwanese restaurants, we started the meal with a cold plate, here it was cucumber marinated in sesame and chili oil. As soon as we had passed that around, we were encouraged to dig into the Shanghai Rice Cakes (a stir fried noodle dish that was full of Q) and Pork Chop Fried Rice (a full breaded pork chop sitting across fried rice). While both were tasty, I focused on the dumplings since that's what we were there for.
It'd be blasphemous to visit Din Tai Fung without trying their signature item, the juicy pork dumpling. If you haven't had a juicy aka soup dumpling before, it can take some getting used to because there's some technique involved to eating it. The restaurant's chopstick wrappers have cheat sheet instructions, but, in brief, it comes down to piercing the dumpling, dumping the juice in your soup spoon, then slurping it up in one bite. The dumpling was everything it'd been marketed to be, with a savory pork flavored-broth and a delicate, chewy wrapper.
Our last dumpling of the morning was sweet and taro-filled. The majority of my encounters with taro root have been in the form of chips or served up as part of a plate lunch in Hawaii. The dumpling was a nice change of pace because the "Q" of the skin contrasted to the filling and the taro flavor really shined since there were only a few ingredients in the dish.
Our next stop was a few feet away at SinBala, a hole-in-the-wall shop known for its Taiwanese-style sausages. Like Din Tai Fung, the place is constantly crowded so you might want to consider takeout should you check it out.
We had an assortment of snappy, juicy, sweet Taiwanese-style sausages with a variety of accompaniments -- slivered garlic, thick black pepper sauce, and some sweet pineapple. While the sausages were tasty, I was actually into the other dishes, like the fried daikon cakes, even more. My favorites of the lot were the spicy wonton, with scallions, chiles, and sesame oil (pictured above) and the popcorn chicken, which I was too busy eating to remember to photograph. The popcorn chicken is a night-market specialty and I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been making my own version of it for holiday parties to great success. I promise to share my version of it with you next week.
After a brief stroll -- to help us prepare for the next snack stop, more than anything else -- and oodles more information from Michael on the nuances of Taiwanese food, culture, and history, we wandered into an arcade. It was unlike any other arcade I've ever been in because it housed claw crane games exclusively, and, in addition to your standard stuffed toys, it had high-end items like a PlayStation, a few iPods, and even a Louis Vuitton bag. After gawking at the enthused adults who were determined to snag a luxe prize, we walked a few more feet and found ourselves in a bubble tea bar, Tea Bar Starry, the sister restaurant to Tea Bar Jungle in nearby Rowland Heights.
Bubble tea, also known as pearl or boba tea is a specialty tea made with tapioca balls. My first run in with it was almost a decade ago when I would have it as a regular study break snack in college. Over the years, it's clear the tea culture has developed because there were all sorts of add-ins to be had from milk and pudding to tapioca and aloe. Michael ordered us a Green Tea Aloe Vera, which was a sort-of grown up with a milk pudding green tea with pieces of aloe vera -- it's safe to say it reignited my love for bubble tea.
The tea -- which was not too sweet and full of tea flavor -- was a favorite of the group but I was most taken by the peanut butter and condensed milk toast. If you could imagine Texas toast with crunchy peanut butter and condensed milk, you're pretty much there. It was odd yet delicious and reminded me of an after-school snack my siblings and I would have whipped up had we had the imagination.
It was back to JJ Bakery to check out their full selection of pastries and breads. Some of my favorites were the pineapple bread with buttermilk, the watermelon sponge cake, and a sort-of char siu bao with the unfortunately-named, pork floss on top. Admittedly, it was a bit of a hit and miss experience as a few other items -- particularly, a sushi roll filled with pork floss -- was too muddled with flavors and really wasn't to my liking.
Our day finished up with Taiwanese-style shaved ice at Bin Bin Konjac. It was layers of shaved ice with mango ice cream, clear konjac jellies, condensed milk, and some fresh Taiwanese-style mango. While the Taiwanese shaved ice wasn’t as great as others I’ve had, it was topped with some fabulous South East Asian mango, which tends to be sweeter and less stringy than other varieties. It was certainly a sweet note to end the meal on.
From there, I rolled myself home to digest all the food and culture I had consumed. It was hours of food, education, and fun and was, all in all, a perfect food adventure. The tour got me excited about further exploring the local food pockets of Southern California and I left feeing I had definitely found a sixth taste. Now all I have left to plan is how to make my next food outing as successful as this one was.
WORTH CHECKING OUT
Din Tai Fung 1108 South Baldwin Avenue Arcadia, CA 91007
SinBala 651 West Duarte Road #F Arcadia, CA 91007
Tea Bar Starry 1108 S Baldwin Ave Arcadia, CA 91007
J.J. Bakery 1130 South Baldwin Ave Arcadia, CA 91007
Bin Bin Konjac 651 W Duarte Road, Ste. E Arcadia, CA 91007
Fine Print: I’m all about transparency so just to make things clear, this is not a sponsored post but Six Taste invited me to attend a media day and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it with you.