San Gabriel Valley’s Evolving Food Scene

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This post was written by Independent Producer Erica Mu

Chinese food is one of those cuisines that most everyone knows, and yet hardly anyone really knows. Egg rolls? Yes, please. Orange chicken? Don’t mind if I do. Chow mein? Love it.

You might be rolling your eyes at the aforementioned offerings, but finding “real” Chinese food is much more complicated than one might imagine, even in Los Angeles, home to one of the most competitive and diverse Chinese restaurant industries in America.

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In the San Gabriel Valley (SGV), a cluster of suburbs east of Downtown LA, more than 200 Chinese restaurants line just one stretch of road. Over the past few decades, what started as a mere blip on the ethnic food radar has quietly evolved to become a self-contained parallel universe of food: boba milk tea reigns supreme over coffee; fluff-ice is the go-to instead of the ice cream sundae; rice porridge is preferred over oatmeal, and oily, fried bread sticks sell faster than donuts. The SGV even has its own vegetarian and vegan network of restaurants, thanks to its population of Chinese Buddhists.

In other words, Chinese food runs deep in the SGV. But according to some, there’s still room for improvement.

One of the most influential groups making an impression on Chinese restaurants in LA today is the throng of recently immigrated young people from Mainland China. Powered by nostalgia for the food they grew up with, an economic boom in their home country, and social media, these Millennials are making their appetites and preferences known through the local Chinese-language food review blog Chihuo. The blog has become so popular that despite being only a couple years old, it is far and away the most-followed restaurant review blog in all of Los Angeles. Already, they’re having an impact on the Chinese menus and restaurants in the region.

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On the other side of the Millennial coin are the children of immigrants who arrived in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, otherwise known as “ABC”s or American-born Chinese. This group is simultaneously coming of age in an era of the Food Network and social media, and they’re searching for food that speaks to their Chinese roots but with a fusion twist that captures their own colorful culinary backgrounds.

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It may seem as if these two worlds would collide in an all-out authenticity brawl, but food, especially Chinese food, proves to have a much more flexible nature. In this story, independent reporter and producer Erica Mu introduces us to some of the newest tastemakers in the realm of Chinese food in Los Angeles.

This story was edited by Casey Miner and produced with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project. For more information about Chihuo, click here. To learn more about Xian Wei, click here.

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All images by Gennia Cui.