For many, the San Gabriel Valley is synonymous with Chinese food. And while Chinese restaurants are no doubt one of the first things that you'll see when you drive through Valley Boulevard, look closely as you head east. In time, you'll spot just as many Mexican restaurants.
However, the cuisine is sometimes overlooked in this part of town. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in the San Gabriel Valley with a total of 775,400 residents.
Like the Chinese food scene in this area, the Mexican cuisine is just as varied and complex. I tapped into the vast knowledge of food writer Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA who pointed me to some brilliant selections:
Birrieria Calvillo Aguascalientes
As the name indicates, this regional Mexican eatery is all about the birria -- a spicy shredded goat stew. They do it in the style of Aguascalientes; it's cooked with tomatoes, onions, and oregano. The dish is nuanced and hearty, paired with a side of spicy salsa. If stew isn't your thing, you can also get the birria in a quesadilla or taco. The owners have been at this for nearly a decade now. 12056 Valley Boulevard, South El Monte; 626-443-1942.
El Taquito Mexicano Truck
El Taquito is my go-to late night destination in the San Gabriel Valley. On the weekdays they close at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m on the weekends. It's parked in a Pasadena lot and they dole out great lengua and carne asada tacos for just $1.40 a piece. Say yes to the complimentary sliced radishes. Wash it down with a lovely cup of horchata. 510 S. Fair Oaks Ave. Pasadena, CA 91105;(626) 355-941.
Colonia Taco Lounge
Ever since I found out about this place, Colonia has become a regular destination for my friends and me. Hit Colonia up on Taco Tuesdays, where each taco -- giant and handmade -- is a reasonable $2. Brought to you by the same people behind Guisados, Colonia's corn tortillas are the best in town. I adore the shrimp and coconut taco with aji sauce, and the cauliflower taco which is deep-fried and dressed in crema and caper salsa. 13030 Valley Blvd., La Puente, CA 91746; (626) 363-4691.
Gilberto is the place to get Hidalgo-style cuisine in the greater Los Angeles area. Plan ahead because this pop-up eatery is only open on weekends from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. It's well worth the trek for a taste of their signature barbacoa -- pit-roasted lamb head. They also do fantastic flautas, which are long flute-like tacos stuffed with goat stew. Inside Leyva's Bakery, 551 E Francisquito Ave. #C, Valinda; 626-917-4095.
Burritos La Palma
You won't find giant, over-stuffed cheese and bean burritos here. Burritos La Palma makes burritos with a homemade flour tortilla rolled around an earthy stew. According to Esparza, the restaurant hails from Jerez, Zacatecas where they have multiple branches. This El Monte location, right in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, is their 10th branch. Burritos, as one would expect, is their bread and butter. The signature item is the birria -- made with beef instead of goat. It's spiced and shredded, rolled in a tortilla. 5120 N Peck Rd., El Monte, CA 91732; (626) 350-8286.
This is the place for seafood aficionados. They specialize in giant Cristalazos -- an impressive and photo-worthy ceviche of shrimp, scallops, onions and cucumbers served in a giant cup. This family-owned shop is a Sinaloan cuisine specialist with a strong emphasis on seafood. For something spicy, try the shrimp tamale or the tlaxtihuille -- an earthy mole with shrimp and one of the best variations of this dish in the county. 1665 N Hacienda Blvd., La Puente, CA 91744; (626) 918-0863.