Dining on a budget: Hop Li Seafood in Arcadia

By Evelyn Barge, Staff Writer

Once I was a chronically picky eater, but now my taste buds have taken a turn for the adventurous.

I call it the San Gabriel Valley Effect. There’s so much delicious food – particularly ethnic cuisine – packed into our Valley that I just had to branch out from my boring meat-and-potatoes-eating ways.

The evolution has led to some of the best meals of my life, and I recently added Hop Li Seafood Restaurant in Arcadia to my list of favorites.

Hop Li is actually a chain of eateries with additional locations in Chinatown, Westwood and West Los Angeles, but the Arcadia restaurant is the only one with late-night hours. Open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day, it’s perfect for sating my frequent nighttime hunger.

The menu at Hop Li is expansive, so on a recent visit, my companion and I decided to sample a couple different specialties.

Our first choice was the deep-fried squab ($11.75) – something I’d tried to order at other Chinese restaurants in the past, but it had sadly always been out of stock.

It was an exciting find, but probably my least favorite part of the entire meal. The squab, which is a young domestic pigeon, was prepared simply with little added flavors or garnish. As you might expect with a pigeon, there’s not a whole lot of meat to be had. But where there was meat, it was gamy and fairly tender.

I also found the whole squab difficult to carve up and eat, which is more a mark of my inexperience than anything else. Next time, I think I’ll order the minced squab with bamboo shoots and lettuce to save myself the trouble.

The highlight of the meal was a plate of squid with garlic and black bean sauce ($5.99). It figures that a seafood restaurant would excel at serving up creatures of the deep, and Hop Li was right on the money. The sauce was a perfect, savory match to the firm texture of the squid.

An order of sliced chicken with straw mushrooms ($4.50) rounded out our more exotic selections, and the flavor combination on this dish was perhaps the best of all three.

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Overall, we barely scratched the surface of what’s available on the Hop Li menu. I also had my eye on a variety of hot pots (they take about 30 minutes to prepare) and the more unusual seafood items – frog, jellyfish and abalone – that were tempting the curious side of my palate.

While some of these rarer dishes will send your bill into triple figures, most items on the menu fall squarely within the $7.95 to $12.99 range. Lunchtime and late-night diners get even sweeter deals with a special menu that features plates as low as $4.50.

Hop Li Seafood is a world away from the food I was raised on – Italian on one side with a heavy dose of Southern cooking on the other – and that’s just another reason why I know I’ll be going back for seconds.

Hop Li Seafood Restaurant, 855 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 445-3188

www.hoplirestaurant.com