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Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: South El Monte and El Monte

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Tucked in San Gabriel Valley, east of East L.A. are the twin cities of South El Monte and El Monte. Lined along main streets like Garvey Avenue and Peck Road are a number of Mexican, Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, and more recently Cajun restaurants. This wasn’t always the case. To find a good bowl of phở years ago, my Vietnamese family had to drive to other cities in the San Gabriel Valley or we would make the trek down to Little Saigon in Orange County. Today, you can easily find a good bowl of phở or menudo in South El Monte and El Monte. This diversity of food appeared after three decades of Asian and Latino working class folks co-creating a community together. As kids, my sister and I would often hang out at the garment factory after school where my mom worked. We took snack breaks when the paleta man or fruit vendor would stop by. One of my favorite snacks was deliciously ripe mango with a generous dosing of Lucas, a spicy seasoning in a small brightly yellow labeled cylindrical container. We were just two Vietnamese girls, eating mango con chile — which we often do today. I guess some things never change.

Garcia’s Fruits 

There’s a powerful combination of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. The place that achieves this level of deliciousness is Garcia’s Fruits! It's almost a Pavlovian response to salivate when I see/think/hear of chili and salt on fruit. Really the words "con límon" (with lime) are a trigger for me. A local favorite is this spot! Elotes (corn on the cob, mayo, cheese, lime, and chili) are a favorite. Want an easier way to eat it? Order the esquite, the cup version! Another favorite is the beloved chamango: a chamoy lined cup with chopped mango, your choice of ice cream/sorbet, more chamoy, chili, lime, and a tamarind covered stick. My favorite combo is the chamango with sandía (watermelon) sorbet.

Garcia’s Fruits9661 Garvey Ave Suite 103, South El Monte, CA 91733 (626) 453-0125

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Mexican snacks never stop evolving. Here's chopped mango on watermelon sorbet, all bathed in tangy chamoy sauce and sprinkled with chili powder. | Photo: Christine Tran

Phở Filet

Orange County may be the home to Little Saigon, but Garvey Avenue is L.A. County’s hot spot for phở. Just in case you don’t know — phở is a Vietnamese noodle soup typically served with rice noodles and rare beef that gets cook in the hot broth. You can garnish it with bean sprouts, basil and culantro. There are numerous combinations of what you can get with your bowl of phở. Here are the common meat options: tái (sliced rare round steak), chín (sliced well-done round steak), nạm (flank), vè dòn (well-done flank), gầu (fatty brisket), gân (beef tendon), sách (beef tripe), and bò viên (beef meatball). You can also try the Hà Nội (Hanoi) style phở called Phở Bắc. It’s served with fresh ginger and rare filet mignon.

Phở Filet: 9463 E. Garvey Ave, South El Monte, CA 91733, (626) 453-8911

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With spots like Phở Filet in South El Monte you don't have to go to Little Saigon in the OC. | Photo: Christine Tran

La Palma

Forget giant burritos, small burritos are the way to go. The burritos at La Palma have the perfect filling-to-tortilla ratio. A bite will transport your taste buds to Jerez, Zacatecas in México — where these burritos are a local favorite. Tortillas are made in-house, so grab a bite to eat and take home some tortillas. They were voted best traditional taco of the year at L.A. Weekly’s 2015 Tacolandia festival. A simple menu with their house special star: burrito de birria (spiced shredded beef). You can also opt for the “con todo” (with everything) and get the dynamic combination of birria, frijoles y queso (spiced shredded beef, refried beans, and cheese). You’re going to want to wash it down with some fizzy Mexican Coca-Cola or Fanta! Jonathan Gold enjoys South El Monte and El Monte eats because he digs the burrito here too!

La Palma5120 Peck Rd, El Monte, CA 91732, (626) 350-8286

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Good things come in small packages. Hailing from Jerez, Zacatecas, this small burrito de birria is all about quality and pairs well with Fanta. | Photo: Christine Tran

Havana Club

Cuban food in El Monte? Yes, please! Havana Club is a quaint spot with wooden panel decor. Once seated, the server will present you a lovely basket of grilled buttery bread (grill marks included!). Try their arroz con pollo (Chicken with Rice) or rabo encendido (beef ox tail). Most of their main dishes come with deliciously caramelized plátanos (plantains). Portions are nice and big to share and/or take home.

Havana Club: 3831 Peck Rd, El Monte, CA 91732, (626) 452-1858

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Who knew El Monte had Cubans? Enjoy rabo encendido (oxtail) with a side of platanos and arroz. Havana Club is covered in wood panel, so you know it's authentic. | Photo: Christine Tran

Mana Tea House

Boba and board games? Sounds like a wildly fun time to me! Take a break from life and sip on some milk tea, smoothie, sparkling soda, or slushy. You can mix things up by adding boba (tapioca balls), pudding, red beans, and/or jelly. A good sign that you’re at a good boba spot is when your icy beverage is served with warm boba, which means it’ll be nice and chewy! Also, in the spirit of being in the diverse community of El Monte, you can also order a “Cha-Mana-Go,” their approach to the chamango! You can check out board games with an ID card.

Mana Tea House3944 Peck Rd, El Monte, CA 91732, (626) 416-5383

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Get your boba on! Sip on the classic milk tea, or get cross-cultural with chamango-inspired boba drinks. Welcome to the SGV! | Photo: Christine Tran

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