MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.
When you think of Vietnamese American neighborhoods in Southern California, most people’s minds will automatically jump to Westminster or “Little Saigon” in Orange County and overlook the bustling sister community that spans the suburbs of Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Temple City, Arcadia, El Monte, and Rosemead aka the overwhelmingly Asian American populated parts of the San Gabriel Valley, aka “the SGV.” When people say “the Valley” in Los Angeles, they often mean the San Fernando Valley. But the SGV is completely different from that one. Being in the SGV is akin to taking a trip through a Southeast Asian American food heaven.
When you cruise down Main Street going into Alhambra, you could be anywhere in Small Town, USA. There’s the fire station, the big box store, the chain grocery store, but then you notice some billboards and buildings signs are in Vietnamese and Spanish. There’s a tai chi training center, a handful of car dealerships, some tea houses and dim sum spots, and more and more Asian restaurants, mixed in with American food chains like Coldstone Creamery and Starbucks, along with Asian chains like 85 Below for desserts and breads. Follow your nose towards the grilled meat and sauces and savory broths, going another mile or so and you’re at one of the low key epicenters of Southeast and East Asian food. There are tables outdoors at the strip mall where people of all ages and races sit before steaming bowls of things like pho, even when it’s hot outside. The nearby houses are unassuming and well-kept with topiaries straight out of Edward Scissorhands. You hear school kids practicing instruments, with jazz coming out of windows.
Alhambra is the most Asian American populated point of the triangle at the intersection of Alhambra, El Sereno, and South Pasadena, on the edge of Los Angeles, with over 50 percent of its residents being AAPI (according to Wikipedia, the 2010 Census, and World Population Review with 2021 numbers). The area hosts a greatly varied BIPOC population of small business owners with South American, Indonesian, and Korean restaurants. In Vietnam and also in Alhambra, it’s very common to have Chinese Vietnamese people—those whose families hail from China, and adopted Vietnamese language and culture.
Khanh Tran, a writer who grew up in Vietnam and then spent his high school years in Arcadia, told me about his favorite banh mi shop in Alhambra: Banh Mi My Tho (at 304 West Valley Boulevard). Khanh explains what makes a banh mi just right for him. “The thing about Viet food in LA is that the texture of the baguette has to be right—a little fluffy and a little crunchy—and this place nailed the balance,” he said. The banh mi at My Tho is under $5 too. The ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with milk) is also “super strong,” Khanh said, a winning combination.
Vince Duque is a Filipinx writer and filmmaker who grew up in Alhambra, who told me about his food preferences. “I haven’t been in awhile but I think they call it Saigon Eden (29 S Garfield Avenue) now but it’s still the same—a bit more kitschy,” he said. “I still call it by its old name, Pho 79. It feels authentic to me. There’s so many Vietnamese people with roots in Alhambra, so there’s a hometown spirit that I like. I feel like pho places like in Silver Lake can be so hip. Pho 79 is just straight-forward, no bullshit, and it feels like real LA, not all this Asian fusion to make it all super cool white American Californian. With all the gentrification going on everywhere this place still feels like home. You know how LA can feel like it’s not your hometown because most of the people are here to cash in on LA? Well, Pho 79 feels like coming home.”
Howard Ho, a Chinese American YouTuber and writer also grew up in Alhambra and confirmed that Saigon Eden, aka Pho 79, was the hang-out spot growing up since it’s so close to Alhambra High School. He said that he learned to eat pho because of all the Vietnamese kids he was friends with from class. I ask Howard about the “hip” factor Alhambra has gained over the last decade. “I think it became hip because the Asian food went from being sort of low rent to being viewed as high cuisine.”
Howard also loves Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine at 19 South Garfield Avenue. It’s an Indonesian and Singaporean restaurant. Tina Quach is a Chinese Vietnamese American filmmaker who hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, spent time as a child in Alhambra with her extended family, and in her late-20s moved in with her grandmother to the San Gabriel Valley. She rides for Borneo, too. “Borneo is actually one of top my favorite restaurants ever because their laksa is super good.” Why? It’s all about the broth. “[It’s] very flavorful, not crazy spicy with heat, and the noodles are chewy like fresh ramen.” Laksa is a curry coconut milk soup served over vermicelli noodles and chicken, prawn, or fish. Tina also likes Banh Mi Che Cali down the way. She gets the spring rolls when she goes with her mom. As for me, I just love their simple things like the saucy satay meat skewers and the simple fried rices, both with just enough sauce and crisp. A lot of food here is very similar to Vietnamese food. My family was in a refugee camp in Indonesia and didn’t have access to nice food like this, so it’s wild to have a taste of it down the street from me in Alhambra.
Banh Mi Che Cali is a small chain. The Alhambra outpost is at 647 W Valley Boulevard. Its name sums it up: You can get both banh mi and che (Vietnamese desserts). Vietnamese American actress Anastasia Nguyen likes to get the bamboo shoots with tofu there. They have great banh cuon (tapioca and rice flour rolls with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, and sometimes with shrimp) and banh bao (fluffy steamed pork buns with boiled egg).
If you go, be sure to get the che soi nuoc, chewy, mung bean-filled flour balls boiled in a sugar-ginger sauce and smothered in creamy coconut sauce with sesame salt sprinkles. It’s my favorite Vietnamese dessert. It packs a surprise even with a very simple look à la oversized white mochi balls, but it’s so much more. The sweet and tangy liquid over-top and the perfectly salted mung bean middle combination really makes it.
Jiang Nan Spring is a “Shanghainese” restaurant at 910 East Main Street in Alhambra. Kelly Chang helps her parents with translations and spoke with me about her father’s cooking there. Her father, head chef Henry Chang, opened the restaurant two years ago, just a little over a year before the pandemic. Chang had another restaurant in Arcadia for 13 years prior to this one. A native of Taiwan, he has specialized in cooking Shanghainese and Taiwanese cuisine for over 45 years, starting when he was 17. He’s headed and owned different restaurants, all in Southern California. Kelly and Henry’s favorite dishes that he makes at Jiang Nan Spring include the seaweed fried fish, dong po pork, and Shanghai-style baby back ribs. It’s earned them a spot in the Michelin Guide.
“We were not expecting to be mentioned in it as a ‘discovery,’ along with other Southern California restaurants especially during the pandemic,” Kelly said of the write-up. “We are completely grateful and honored. We actually found out about it from our customers. It was a total surprise to us so we do not know when or who discovered us.” Like Howard Ho said, sometimes a non-Asian person comes along and anoints something pre-existing and then people flock to it.
Just a couple blocks more east is Pho Superbowl, which has an extensive menu. I’ve been going here for a dozen years. It’s a real family owned business and the closest tasting thing to my parents’ homemade pho. My go-to meals there are the pork chop with rice, the “golden brisket” and well-done flank pho, and the charbroiled meat pho with extra orders of sliced tendon. They have pineapple shakes to top everything off, and they also give you a lagniappe of sweet mung bean/seaweed/tapioca warm dessert pudding after your meal, which makes everything just right.
Joe Ho takes us across the street from Pho Superbowl, a mere few feet over the Alhambra/San Gabriel border. He’s a Vietnamese American guy who works in digital operations for the television industry. His go-to spot is called Golden Deli (at 815 West Las Tunas Drive) “because they have a wide variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes from pho to bun to com tam to che, they cover all the basics. Consistent quality across the board, just a dependable go-to spot especially during the pandemic whenever I’m craving Vietnamese food that tastes like actual Vietnamese food.”
Around the corner, off Main Street on the corner of Garfield and Elgin is 7 Leaves—not just any 7 Leaves—a drive-thru one. This is a small chain, like a Vietnamese American Starbucks-style establishment, offering Vietnamese coffee drinks (with thick sweet condensed milk) and mung bean drinks. And then there are the standards like taro-milk, jasmine tea, Thai tea, and others. Standouts include strawberry-hibiscus and one they call “Sunset Passion” (passion fruit juice), which comes with a salted plum. You can choose to add things like grass jelly, boba, or “whipped sea cream” to any of your beverages. 7 Leaves was founded by Sonny Nguyen whose family escaped Vietnam and were sponsored by a family and brought to near-by El Monte.
It’s family businesses like these with humble beginnings that give Alhambra its unpretentious charm and staying power—a far cry, yet not a very long drive, from the LA restaurants that have gotten most of the attention for haute-Asian cuisine over the decades.
Thuc Doan Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American essayist and screenwriter with an Irish passport. You can find out more about her at consideratecontent.com.