Dining on a budget: Hunan Chilli King in San Gabriel

By Emma Gallegos

By now, I’ve memorized the tics of the best restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. 

Sure, the best restaurants don’t have to be tucked away in unassuming strip malls with the kind of signage that necessitates illegal U-turns. The best food doesn’t have to be enjoyed over the strains of someone with Mariah Carey’s phrasing and penchant for swelling strings, if not her range. I’m sure the best chefs don’t necessarily request that the dining room decor resemble a garage sale.

But when I find myself at a restaurant like Hunan Chilli King in San Gabriel with menu items scrawled in magic marker on fluorescent posters, I’ve started to feel like I’m in good hands. (I thought I’d made it out of the woods because there was a satellite TV beaming from China instead of music, but by the time I got my food, live-recorded footage featuring one of Ms. Carey’s acolytes was rolling.) 

And I was in good hands. This was my first experience with cuisine from the Hunan province, which is the most famous for bringing the heat – if you don’t count Sichuan. 

All you true believers out there may be disappointed to discover that I didn’t try the dish the restaurant is known for. The Hunan steamed fish head was $16.99. True believers would call this a steal but it didn’t quite make the cut for a budget dining column. 

 

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Instead, I tried the pork in a Hunan brown sauce for about half the price ($8.99) – tender pork in a brown sauce with thin celery stalks, red peppers and almost translucent peppers that brought the heat. The vegetables were sauteed just long enough to absorb the chili and garlic but were still crispy. 

The waitress suggested “on choy” with a garlic and bean curd sauce ($7.99), a cooling vegetable that’s somewhere between spinach and bok choy. It took the edge off of the pork, though at a certain point nothing could really combat the heat.  

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I tied it all together with a heaping bowl of fried rice ($6.99). I’ve been so abused by fried rice at terrible Chinese restaurants. The rice here was delicate – flavorful, not too greasy or soggy with soy sauce or dried. It was a deep brown, almost charcoal color, laced with bits of egg.

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The restaurant was bustling at lunchtime with groups of twenty- and thirty-somethings, but service was swift and efficient. I did laugh that I had to ask for water at a restaurant with stuffed plush chili peppers hanging from the walls. 

Maybe I didn’t try the restaurant’s delicacy but I left the table impressed: tingling lips, ruddy face. I’ve heard that the sting of spicy food can release endorphins, which seems about right since I felt something akin to a runner’s high before I descended into an MSG daze. The daze and the restaurant’s “B” rating are the only facts that might have besmirched my experience. Then again, why does a “B” rating seem to be another one of those tics of the best food in the Valley?

By the time I paid for food, tax and tip, my meal came to $30. Going to a Chinese restaurant alone is foolish, but the meal I ordered would have served three easily. Next time, I plan on bringing my own twenty- and thirty-something friends in tow.

Hunan Chilli King is at 534 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel.

Dining on a budget: Walnut Tree Chinese in Walnut

By Claudia S. Palma

Walnut Tree Chinese Restaurant in Walnut offers your typical Chinese dishes.

But on my recent trip to this little spot, hidden in an industrial strip off Valley Boulevard, my visit was not very typical.

With my past experiences with Chinese food establishments, I know it’s a hit and miss to get good quality food.

In Walnut Tree’s case, it was a total miss. Not even some re-cooking the next day with more spices helped these dishes much.

I knew I had to try staples like fried rice, some type of noodles and orange chicken to get a good comparison with other Chinese restaurants.

I ordered a small plain fried rice for $1, vegetable pan-fried noodles for $8.50 and orange chicken ( $5.50 for lunch and $6.95 for dinner). 

I also wanted to try some spicy dishes like garlic shrimp at $9.95 and steak with black pepper at $9.95.

The fried rice was definitely plain, no vegetables or egg, and it also had no flavor.

The pan-fried noodles were not much better. The noodles that were not in the sauce were hard and chewy. Covering them all in sauce only helped slightly.

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The orange chicken was OK – it was nothing special either. It wasn’t spicy like the menu said it would be, but the pieces of chicken were slightly bigger than other orange chicken I’ve had.

The pieces of meat in the steak with black pepper were also bigger than usual but this “spicy” dish was also dissapointing in the heat factor.

The only dish that had some heat to it was the garlic shrimp. This dish did have a nice amount of shrimp and vegetables and the spicy sauce was decent enough. 

The garlic shrimp was the only dish I finished.  

I even tried re-frying the rice, noodles and steak the next day and added some more spices, but it was no use, these dishes were hopeless.

I’ve read from other online user reviews that this location has changed owners many times, changing the quality of the food.

Maybe they should try changing their menu or chefs, not just owners.

If you want to take your chances at Walnut Tree, they offer daily lunch and dinner specials starting at $4.50.

The combos include the soup of the day, egg roll, fried wonton, and fried or steamed rice. For dinner, the combo changes the fried wonton for fried shrimp.

Walnut Tree is at 382-A S. Lemon Ave. in Walnut, (909) 595-6026. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, closed on Sunday. 

Dining on a budget: 1+1 Dumpling House in WC

By Evelyn Barge

Maybe it’s the dreary weather. Maybe it’s the even-drearier economy.

Whatever the reason, I can’t stop these comfort-food cravings for dumplings. Thus, I decided to extend my search for the perfect Chinese dumpling in the San Gabriel Valley.

The quest brought me to 1+1 Dumpling House, one of the many Asian restaurants packed into Hong Kong Plaza. The plaza – and its endless supply of options – comes about as close to my idea of supreme cuisine heaven as it gets.

I’d heard rumors that 1+1 was a less-expensive, nearly-as-good alternative to Arcadia’s beloved Din Tai Fung. And as I sat down to dine at the West Covina dumpling house on a recent weekday, I hoped I would find evidence to substantiate the claims.

Right off the bat, I noticed the reasonable prices that set 1+1 apart. The menu is much more wallet-friendly than Din Tai Fung, where I can easily blow $30-plus, even dining solo.

I ordered the juicy pork steam dumplings (eight pieces, $5.95) and the juicy pork and crab steam dumplings (eight pieces, $6.95).

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Curious to get a broader sampling, I quickly tacked on an order for a green onion pancake ($2.95). To my delight, the server said the restaurant is currently offering a special: Get a free green onion pancake with any order over $10. And orders over $20 receive a free order of juicy pork dumplings.

Now, that’s my kind of recession special.

My visit fell during a very quiet, post-lunch hour lull, so it wasn’t long before the food arrived at my table, still steaming and – literally – too hot to handle.

I got a bit of a confidence boost when the server didn’t automatically assume I would want to eat with a fork. (Although my chopsticks skills are pitiful, I prefer to get the full experience when eating cultural cuisine.)

First, I dug into the green onion pancake, which was warm and doughy. It had a mild flavor, lighter on the sodium than I’ve come to expect from this kind of dish. (For this, my heart gave thanks.) The serving was quite large, so I stopped halfway through the pie-sized slices to save room for the main event: dumplings!

My first bite of juicy pork dumpling was so hot, I almost burned my tongue and could barely taste the flavors. You might say I get a bit over-zealous when it comes to dumplings.

Tapping into my scarce reserves of patience, I nibbled a tiny hole in the skin of the next dumpling and watched the steam rush out, before I popped the rest straight into my mouth.

The flavor was delightfully tangy, a humbling mix of meat, spices and soupy goodness. And while I still prefer a bit more of the liquid in my dumplings (a la the Gold Standard of Din Tai Fung), I liked the simplicity of the 1+1 approach.

I couldn’t taste any tremendous difference between the pork-only and the pork-and-crab dumplings, which made me wonder why I’d paid an extra buck for the latter. But both rounds of dumplings were delicious and hearty.

1+1 Dumpling House is located at 1017 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, (626) 338-6868.

Dining on a budget: Dumpling 10053 in El Monte

By Evelyn Barge

Forget chicken soup. When I’ve got the aches or blues, Chinese dumplings are what my soul craves.

Trying out new dumpling houses in the San Gabriel Valley has become a favorite pastime of mine. That’s why I was excited to visit Dumpling 10053 in El Monte to check out their offerings.

As it turns out, the mysterious number in the second part of the name is actually a helpful forget-me-not. 10053 is the restaurant’s street address on Valley Boulevard.

Dumpling 10053 has a wonderfully expansive menu. There are nearly 60 separate menu items, which is a lot compared to other dumpling houses in the area that limit their menus to a few specific things.

I knew a couple things I just had to try, before I even set foot through the door.

First up was the steamed dumpling with pumpkin and shrimp ($6.50). I actually first read about this particular specialty in Los Angeles Magazine’s food issue, so I knew it would be stellar - and it was. I love pumpkin-flavored anything, but even my dining companion, who is usually not so inclined, said this was his favorite dish.

My hands-down favorite was the pork, crab and sea cucumber boiled dumplings ($6.95). To paraphrase Red Lobster, the seafood lover is definitely in me, and these savory morsels satisfied my every craving.

Our final order of dumplings were boiled and stuffed with fluffy rock cod ($7.50). These dumplings were remarkably light and airy, the perfect complement to balance out our meal.

Moving on to other parts of the menu, we also ordered a newly available item that our waitress recommended, the homemade cuttlefish ball soup for two ($6.50). It was a simple yet tasty concoction with a hearty serving of fish balls floating in a clear broth.

The green onion pancakes ($3.75) were also delightful and had more flavor than some I’ve sampled in other restaurants, including at a very famous dumpling house in New York City’s Chinatown. (Not to upset fans of Joe’s Shanghai, because I was blown away by the powerful soup dumplings I devoured while visiting the Big Apple.)

 

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Since we were on a roll, my dinner partner and I decided to order a few items to go: shrimp fried rice ($6.25) and crispy fried pork intestines ($4.95), which were saved for a midnight snack.

The wait staff at Dumpling 10053 is refreshingly helpful. During our recent weekend visit, the waitress engaged us as we made our meal selections and she was quick to offer up recommendations and answer questions.

Although we splurged and ordered a veritable dumpling house feast, every single menu item at Dumpling 10053 is reasonably priced under $10. Here, a lunchtime or solo diner could easily get away with a bill totaling $10-$15.

That’s the beauty of dumplings, where each steaming platter arrives with 10 pieces that you can have all to yourself or, if forced to, share with others.

Just don’t be surprised when, instead of lousy chicken broth, your wandering appetite desires dumplings. They are the ultimate comfort food.

Dumpling 10053 is located at 10053 Valley Blvd. #2 in El Monte. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. Call (626) 350-0188 for more information.

Dining on a budget: Town Sent in Covina

By Eric Terrazas

You can never go wrong with a tasty Chinese food dish.

As a lifelong fan of Chinese food, I have visited several different eateries over the years. One of my favorite Chinese food places is Town Sent, located in Covina.

When I visit Town Sent, I always order the orange chicken lunch special, which costs $5.45.

Town Sent serves the best orange chicken I have ever tasted. The scrumptious chicken is covered with a sweet orange sauce. I especially like to mix the chicken with the steamed rice. All in all, it makes for a very delicious meal.

 

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A few years ago, I took my parents and my sister to Town Sent, and they all came away impressed with the fare Town Sent had to offer.

Lunch hours are set from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. Town Sent offers three groups of lunch specials. 

For $5.45, you can also order the Chinese Broccoli with chicken or beef, kung pao chicken or beef, sweet and sour pork or chicken, eggplant with garlic sauce, or bean curd with brown sauce.

Meals offered for $5.96 include chop suey chicken, beef or barbecue pork, mushroom with chicken or beef, squid or fish fillet with black bean sauce, shrimp with lobster sauce, or crispy fried pork chops with pepper spicy salt.

If you are willing to spend a little more, you can order one of several $6.98 specials. Those choices include steam whole fish, scrambled egg with assorted seafood, or clams with black bean sauce.

All lunch specials are served with steamed rice and the soup of the day. The soup is not included with a to-go order.

I also recommend the sweet and sour chicken special. Town Sent’s take on that dish is also delicious. Several fried rice dishes and noodle meals are also offered.

If you have room for dessert, you can order the almond Jell-O for $1.50.

Town Sent is at 1069 W. San Bernardino Road in Covina. For information, call (626) 915-8982.

Dining on a budget: Starlight Express in Monrovia

By Lafayette C. Hight, Jr., Staff Writer

MONROVIA – I’ve been to Starlight Express on several occasions and one of the things I like most about this establishment is that the food seems like it just came out of the wok.

Which is a difficult thing for some of the “express” -styled Chinese restaurants that offer a dozen or so dishes for lunch and dinner served either under heat lamps or over boiling water.

The teriyaki chicken is always tender and juicy. And most importantly, it’s not overly-sweet like it’s been doused in a ton of sugar. I have to admit, whether I’m going to order it or not, I usually try a sample of it.

I also really love their vegetable egg rolls. My only complaint is that I wish they were bigger – more toward the hot dog side of things, rather than the vienna sausage end of the scale. 

But on my last visit I decided to try something new: Black pepper chicken and broccoli beef with steamed rice and chow mein.

The spices used in the chicken dish reminded me of flavors used in cajun cooking. It wasn’t too spicy, but the blend had a little bit of heat with a touch of citrus somewhere in the mix.

The broccoli beef wasn’t flavored as interestingly as the chicken, but it was good.

On the day I went they didn’t have the lemon chicken I once had, and I hope it isn’t gone from the menu. Starlight also has egg drop soup, and hot and sour soup, which I’m looking forward to trying in the future.

I typically opt for one of their one-item, two-item, or three-item combination meals, which, at $4.29, $5.29 and $6.29 respectively, makes lunch or dinner a pretty inexpensive prospect. Drinks are somewhere around a buck, and two egg rolls can be had for around the same price. 

Another reason I like this restaurant is that it’s one of the few Chinese restaurants I know of that happens to be open on Sundays. 

Huge crabs!

I saw these HUGE crabs at NBC Seafood in Monterey Park. The main body of the crab looked like it was 6 to 8 inches long. The entire crab must be at least 1 1/2 to 2 feet!

Anyone know what kind of crabs these are — and more importantly, if they taste good?

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Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia

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Dining on a budget:
I’ve come to the realization that dining on a budget and local Chinese cuisine are often at odds with each other.
Take Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia, which recently opened a second location on the same block of Baldwin Avenue because its popularity among its mostly Chinese patrons had created long lunchtime lines.
In the two years I spent teaching English to college students in Northeast China, it didn’t take long for it to become apparent that dumplings were the budget food of choice for anyone wanting to celebrate.
Several varieties of dumplings are staples served during most holidays, but particularly at Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
Students explained that dumplings are the food of choice because they’re considered lucky, in part, because they resemble coins used in ancient China.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the price was right in China: One could buy a plateful of about two dozen dumplings for less than 50 cents.
So, when I made my first trip to the popular Din Tai Fung restaurant, I was a bit dismayed at the hit my wallet would take.
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Sam Woo

Whenever I crave cheap Cantonese food, I think of noodle soup with roast duck.

Sam Woo Barbecue Restaurant
140 W Valley Blvd # 107
San Gabriel, CA

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What’s not to love? Roasty duck, egg noodles, sodium-high broth and a few vegetables. Cheap, simple food. The other dishes are clams with black bean sauce and beef chow fun.

Go China

Go China restaurant in Glendora has exactly the nondescript strip-mall exterior that so often hides real gems. Unfortunately, while Go China offers tasty BBQ-pork fried rice and a wide range of generously portioned $5-$6 lunch options, calling it a gem would be too kind.
The $5 BBQ-pork fried rice, which is all I must have from a Chinese restaurant, passes the taste test deliciously. Too many restaurants fill their fried rice with peas and carrots flavored by freezer burn, so it was good to find an inexpensive place where the rice dish tasted fresh and they don’t skimp on the egg. The slices of barbecued pork can be forgiven for being fatty, and given credit for flavoring the rice. The ample portion makes at least two meals all on its own.
But the inexpensive lunch specials, though also two-fers, seem less promising.
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