San Gabriel may not be immediately pretty at first, second, or fifty-fifth, glance. It is, however, a city that can count itself as one of the most authentic to its premodern through modern past.
Like many clustered under the SGV regional umbrella, San Gabriel has strong sociocultural roots woven mostly by descendants of descendants from Central America, East and Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and those native to California.
The silhouette of San Gabriel’s heritage, mestizo, Asian, and all, can be vividly illustrated in architectural shorthand by way of the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and San Gabriel Square. One is among the older missions that Father Junipero Serra established in the Golden State, even before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. The latter catalyzed the growing diversity of Chinese cuisine in the area, unparalleled elsewhere in the country.
The two can’t be any more polar in history, purpose, and contemporary use. And yet, they share commonalities as sites of skirmish and sanctuary.* And even more tellingly, they symbolize what has most informed the city’s culinary DNA. Below are five restaurants that serve as key nodes on this map.
A half mile away from Golden Deli, and more than two centuries ago, Tongva/Gabrielino Californians resisted against Spanish colonization. You’ll find little dispute over which spot is the star of the corner lot where Main arches into Las Tunas. Few would also debate whether Golden Deli is one of the better Vietnamese restaurants within a multi-city radius, if not for range in pho then for consistency in taste. The average age of customers tends to decrease as the night draws in and unwieldy crowds form for plates of cha goi served alongside barely dried Romaine lettuce leaves and never dry pan-fried pork chops dressed with chopped scallions.
Golden Deli: 815 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, (626) 308-0803
Babita Mexicuisine seems to fly under the radar of today’s self-described ‘foodie’ population oft fed more by image. Perhaps, for the uninitiated, the restaurant is too outwardly unassuming. Nine times out of 10, it can escape your notice on the bustling segment of San Gabriel Boulevard that abuts the Interstate 10. But perhaps the value of Babita’s Mexicuisine is best reserved for those who’ve made the effort to see it. It has certainly stayed steady, despite being amidst a decent share of shifts in flows, from neighbors to visitors, given its nearly 18-year residence. Food enthusiasts clued in to San Gabriel have long been acquainted with chef (and owner) Roberto Berrellaza’s culinary stylings and thoughtfully hospitable nature. He will personally introduce specials of the day, which are tough to turn down after hearing his descriptions. Hailing from Sinaloa, Berrelleza cooks as if compelled to answer philosophical questions. You taste this through the variations on the soup of the day, almost always a ying yang duet between a cream of some vegetable as well as that of some fruit, poured in two halves. And when it’s available: chiles en nogada, a singularly dimensional entree of stuffed poblano chile that calls for nuts, goat cheese and pomegranate seeds, to name a sliver of ingredients.
Babita Mexicuisine: 1823 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, (626) 288-7265
Lu’s Garden has been ladling brick red plastic pots of rice porridge with blocks of yam since Wherehouse sold cassette singles in cardboard wrappers two blocks down. Whereas that branch of the music chain store has closed for some time, this throwback to Taiwanese cooking remains rather reliable in the increasingly restaurant dense neighborhood. The setup borrows from a cafeteria. A hot buffet of homestyle classics welcomes you at the entrance. It teems with dishes, stir-fried, stewed, or dressed, commonly paired with the porridge: Napa cabbage with dried shrimp, pan-fried fish, and pork hocks red-braised until candied. Lu’s Garden has kept some tenets (cash only policy; order first before you sit) and exchanged others for locals no longer limited to those who hail from Taiwan (a few new standards replacing old dishes). This is still food that speaks to Taiwanese folks across generations, tied to neither noodles nor snacks of deep-fried persuasion. For a Taiwanese restaurant like this to still have legs in this western neck of SGV is fairly extraordinary, if not epic.
Lu’s Garden: 534 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, (626) 280-5883
Awareness of Yama Seafood goes through ebbs and flows since opening roughly 30-plus years ago. Minimalistic in its offering of fresh sushi and sashimi at the front counter, it is ultimately SGV’s worst kept secret. Lines form fast during lunch on weekdays, and get even longer on weekends. Mr. Yama is a sashimi whisperer, cutting hefty chunks of fresh yellowtail, tuna, and salmon every morning so he can slice them to order by early brunch. He is also part consigliere and wholly traditionalist. He will tell you the quantity of pieces according to the number of people, not their collective preferences, in your group. Like three-hour windows for Super Shuttle pickups, fudge the number a little if you have a hungrier crowd. This is less a seafood mart than a sushi emporium. Pick up accompaniments for the perfect sushi lunch, including cold matcha tea, pickled ginger, and ingredients for a miso soup made from scratch.
Yama Seafood: 911 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, (626) 281-8045
Claro’s Italian Market
The city’s Italian past is most present at Claro’s, a family-owned business since 1968. This is a deli market hybrid unwavering in focus, thus mostly unruffled by trending foods like kale, kefir, and kombucha. You come here to eat or cook Italian American cuisine as defined by thousands of nonnas — and nonnos too — harking back at least four generations. The Claros have laid out the path accordingly with a clear route in and out of the market. You will first come across nonperishable essentials from the small sea of twenty-eight ounce tins of San Marzano tomatoes to bags of dried pasta outside the conventional canon of spaghetti, macaroni, linguine, and fettuccine. You can pick up a meatball hero or a pound of baked ziti for a hot meal thereafter. Next you can browse through the tubs of take-home Italian American casseroles, soups, and braised meats, packed inside the row commercial refrigerators. There are the encased displays of wedding cookies, tiramisu, and baba rhum to check out as well. Somewhere in between, they have colorful printed booklets of their recipes, changed by month.
Claro’s Italian Market: 1003 Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, (626) 288-2026
*On a much more minor scale, San Gabriel Square sees a different type of struggle. The pursuit of space, parking or sometimes pedestrian, at San Gabriel Square is common, peaking on weekends. And yet, many persist as it has long been a go-to for food in the Chinese community.