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Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: Monterey Park

"America's first suburban Chinatown," the "Chinese Beverly Hills," or "Mandarin Park" are just some of the nicknames for Monterey Park, but like most American cities that boomed into a majority immigrant community, Monterey Park has seen many incarnations since it became an official city in 1916. Before the Chinese exodus from Chinatown, Monterey Park was home to white and Mexican settlers, Japanese farmers, and in the 1950s, upwardly mobile families who left East L.A. for this "Mexican Beverly Hills."

Today it's a city full of strip malls and subdivision homes. A closer look reveals some unexpectedly diverse structures: quirky Spanish Revival buildings, custom-built mid-century modern homes with Japanese influences, a museum housing an impressive collection of Mesoamerican art, and even a Pierre Koenig-designed mansion. One of the best hidden gems of Monterey Park? The city has its very own observatory in Garvey Ranch Park.

NBC Seafood: This large Cantonese banquet hall is typical of the Chinese restaurants that ruled Chinatown and along Valley Boulevard strip malls in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1990s. Their large, and often grandiose dining rooms were large enough for weddings and red egg and ginger parties for numerous guests and obligatory dragon dances for such occasions. They were also roomy enough for ladies to push carts full of steaming dim sum up and down the aisles on weekend mornings. This was a time when restaurateurs could charge big bucks for exotic ingredients like turtle soup and shark's fin soup, until it was banned. And now, fewer of these seafood restaurants are flourishing in the area, and though a few remain -- like Ocean Seafood, Empress Harbor Seafood, and Capital Seafood, all within a half mile of each other -- it marks the dwindling population of Cantonese immigrants who demand this type of fussy cuisine.
404 S. Atlantic Blvd., Suite A, 626-282-2323

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Luminarias: You can call Luminarias Monterey Park's premiere restaurant with a view. It sits up on a hill by the municipal golf course, overlooking the 710 and 10 freeways along with the Edmund D Edelman Children's Court. (To be fair, the Children's Court didn't exist when Luminarias opened in 1971.) For many who have lived in the area, they've probably attended a wedding, graduation, or quinceañera here at some point in their lives. In keeping with the theme of some of Monterey Park's Spanish Revival architecture, Luminarias is made to look like a sprawling hacienda, and serves up Mexican combination plates, seafood specials, and bottomless mimosas for Sunday brunch. And if you're lucky, you might be there on a night when the mariachi band is performing out on the patio.
3500 Ramona Blvd., 323-268-4177

 

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Mandarin Noodle House: Monterey Park's first Chinese immigrants were primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Mandarin Noodle House is a reminder of that history. Just the name of the restaurant is revealing. When it first opened, most people didn't really care to differentiate between the diverse Northern cuisines of China the way we do today. For many, Mandarin Noodle House was an introduction to foods eaten by generic Mandarin-speakers, and that food was often Shanghainese cuisine. This was the place to go for spicy beef brisket noodle soup, onion pancakes, fried rice noodle cakes, and their signature oblong-shaped fried potstickers. Even under new management, it still retains much of its basic and no-frills look, which is part of its charm. More importantly, they're still serving the same kinds of dishes. Though there are now plenty of Shanghainese specialists in the area, customers keep coming back.
701 W. Garvey Ave., 626-570-9795

 

Happy Family: Even with the extensive variety of Chinese cuisine found in the San Gabriel Valley, it can still be a challenge to find a Chinese restaurant serving only vegetarian food. Years ago, it was almost impossible to eat at a meat-free establishment, except for this place. It became a popular hangout for monks and nuns from nearby Buddhist temples and visiting college students who found vegetarianism during freshman year. It's moved several times, mostly to make way for the Atlantic Times Square complex that opened in 2010 (and where they are now currently located), but Happy Family has always stayed loyal to Monterey Park though they have other locations throughout the San Gabriel Valley. Vegetarian diners have stayed loyal to Happy Family's fake meat too, many swearing allegiance to their sweet and spicy Vegetarian Fried House "Chicken" made of mushrooms.
500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste 171, 626-282-8986

 

Shakas: The guys who started the Hawaiian take-out didn't introduce Hawaiian food to Monterey Park -- plenty of Chinese and Japanese Americans were already making their way to Miki-Chan's in neighboring Montebello or the South Bay to get their fix for that -- but if you want to trace a part of Asian-American youth subculture in Southern California, this is one place to start. Shakas opened just on the tail end of a 1980s to late '90s cultural phenomenon -- part of that culture included modifying Japanese sports cars and wearing customized Hawaiian Island Creations flip-flops -- and made Hawaiian food cool way before poke. Shakas is also notable as one of the few independent Hawaiian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley with dishes that reflect the Asian and Hawaiian fusion food that dominates in Oahu, like mochiko chicken, spam musubi, and saimin. But naming their signature plate the 442nd Combo, after the regiment of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II to prove their loyalty while their families on the West Coast were forced into internment camps, is a loving tribute to and brilliant reminder of an immigrant community that once had strong ties to this area.
2300 S. Garfield Ave., Suite D, 323-888-2695

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