It started with a email.
"SGV!?!? Let's eat! -- AZ"
Two weeks later, I was knocking on the doors of Chinese restaurants on Valley Boulevard, getting their permission to film. Rejections were handed out like cards, I had to explain to a bulk of the owners what the Travel Channel was, but thankfully -- the few who recognized Andrew Zimmern's celebrity were more than happy to oblige.
And in the end, it worked out. This past Monday night, I was featured on the "Hidden Los Angeles" episode of "Bizarre Foods America." The task: to show Zimmern around the San Gabriel Valley and expose him to fantastic Chinese food.
I've been covering the Chinese food scene for roughly a year. Though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I started my writing career out in Shanghai as a contributor for CNN Travel during a study abroad stint. (Check out my piece, Shanghai's best Western meals).
I've since moved back to Los Angeles, and Zimmern caught wind of me after this article ran in L.A. Weekly: 10 Best Handmade Chinese Noodle Restaurants In Los Angeles -- an attempt to chronicle the different classifications of handmade noodles in the city. I grouped them by style (knife-shaved, hand-pulled, hand-kneaded) and by city of origin (Shaanxi, Shanxi, Lanzhou, Henan, and Xinjiang).
Here's the process on video and a interview with one of the chefs: Q&A with Shi Peng and Phillip Fu of JTYH: Noodle-Making, Media Fame + a Noodle Video.
A good word from my colleague and his friend Bill Esparza, the Mexican food hound, got the ball rolling.
Soon after that email from A.Z. himself, I was contacted by the producers and we scheduled to fit in ten restaurants within the span of one and half days. The picks were curated by yours truly. In actuality, only a couple of restaurants made the chopping block, but that's just the reality of TV.
Now, filming with Andrew was a fantastic experience. Yes, Zimmern is just as likable as he is on television and commands a presence on and off-air. He's also incredibly involved in the production process and like a lot of the people who have been lucky enough to work with him, I have nothing but positive things to say.
A quirk? Tweet at him. Chances are he'll see it. He's heavily in touch with his social media outlets and has become quite obsessed with Vine.
But of course that comes at no surprise. Zimmern's in-person and online presence is paramount and he knows how to use it. The moment he tagged me on Twitter, my follower count increased by the dozens. Those who recognized him on the street gawked in shock and asked for photos. Zimmern always obliged, as long as it didn't get in the way of the shoot.
People were drawn to him and whether it was via our social media stream or just by word of mouth, fans managed to track him down. At one point, the mayor of West Covina showed up to our visit at 85C Bakery for a brief photo opp.
It was astonishing.
This episode was the first time the San Gabriel Valley was featured on "Bizarre Foods." Arguably thrust into the mainstream spotlight by prominent foodists such as Jonathan Gold, the area is a mecca for Chinese food that really began developing in the 1970s following a wave of migration of immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and now mainland China.
In the valley alone, there are approximately 500 Chinese restaurants. Two hundred of those lie on Valley Boulevard, a road that intersects across major cities in the valley, including San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Alhambra. Rosemead, Temple City, and El Monte. Nine of the restaurants we visited were on Valley Boulevard. These restaurants were chosen based on both authenticity and convenience.
View SGV Bizarre Foods Food Crawl in a larger map
We sampled a couple dishes at each restaurant and spent no more than a half hour at each site. A breakdown:
- Hakka-style pig intestines at Happy Garden
- Cantonese BBQ at Sam Woo
- Unleavened bread with lamb at Shaanxi Gourmet
- Boba at Tea Station
- Squid ink bread at 85 C Bakery
- Thousand-year-old egg porridge at Yung Ho
- Giant fish head at Hunan Mao
- Miniature river crabs from Aji Ichiban
- Faux meat at Vege Paradise
- Stinky tofu from 101 Hot Pot
The entire experience was breathtaking, and when the crew loaded up for the airport, I was sad to see them go. Yet Andrew's curiosity and genuine fascination with some of the dishes I showed him told me something about the potential of the San Gabriel Valley and Chinese cuisine as a whole. China has the longest continuous history of any country in the world and each dish has an ancient story to go with it. It's no surprise the fare has become of such fascination to outsiders but because of language and cultural barriers, it's hard to access. The food isn't really bizarre, it's just unknown.
For more on the episode, click here.