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Yin Ji Chang Fen in San Gabriel | Antonio Diaz

Kato Chef Jon Yao's Top 12 Places to Eat in the San Gabriel Valley

Acclaimed Chef Jon Yao of Kato shares his childhood haunts and new favorite places to eat and drink in the San Gabriel Valley.
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This story is published in partnership with Life & Thyme.

Peking duck. Hand-pulled noodles. Steamed pan-fried dumplings. These are the dishes acclaimed Los Angeles chef Jon Yao returns to in the San Gabriel Valley, where he spent his childhood. Food can satisfy hunger, but it's also a ritual, and at least once a week Yao performs this one: He leaves the Arts District — where the new location for his Michelin-starred restaurant Kato is set to open this year — drives east, and eats. He does this because it feels like coming home. Because it temporarily puts work in the rearview mirror. And because it recalibrates his palate, reminding him of the flavors that formed his cooking.

The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Kato's tasting menu weaves the chef's inventiveness with the flavors of his mother's kitchen and the local restaurants he grew up visiting. Yao is from Walnut, one of the easternmost towns in the valley, where he says restaurants of all kinds were a short drive away.

The ancestral land of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, the San Gabriel Valley extends from East L.A., stretching north to the San Gabriel Mountains and east to the Inland Empire. In the suburbanization era of post-World War II, Asian Americans and Mexican Americans moved away from East L.A. and Chinatown toward the valley, laying the foundation for later waves of Chinese, Taiwanese and Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees. Today, it's home to one of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans and Latinos in the United States.

"The area I grew up in was super diverse," Yao says. "Everyone was very willing to experience another person's culture. All my friends were super into food."

While busy moving Kato from its original West L.A. location to a larger, splashier space at The Row, Yao still hits the San Gabriel Valley for late-night bites, breakfast and other excuses to scout new places. Here are some of his favorites.

Breakfast


Huge Tree Pastry - Monterey Park

423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Suite 106
Monterey Park, CA 91754

You might need to work up an appetite to try all of Yao's favorites at Huge Tree Pastry: the egg crepe, the daikon rice cake and fan tuan, the sticky rice roll wrapped around cruller (elongated deep-fried dough), pork floss, egg and pickles. "Breakfast foods are usually fast, but Taiwanese breakfast stuff is so technical it takes a lot of skill, so you almost always have it out," says Yao. Wash your morning fuel down with sweet or savory soy milk, and if arriving around lunch time, Yao recommends the pork chop rice.

An animated GIF of food from Huge Tree Pastry in the San Gabriel Valley.
A selection of food from Huge Tree Pastry in the San Gabriel Valley. | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

Alice's Kitchen - Monterey Park

580 E. Garvey Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91755

"Cantonese cafés are kind of like diners," Yao says, who comes to Alice's Kitchen for the Hong Kong-style bolo bao or pineapple bun, named for its checkered crusty top. The yeasty bread is served hot with a generous pat of cold butter. You'll find it sandwiching a fried egg and meat options too.

A Late Dinner


Lu's Garden - San Gabriel

534 E. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776

"There's a style of Taiwanese food that's kind of like Panda Express, where they have everything in hot plates and then you just order two or three things and they give you white rice with it," says Yao of Lu's Garden. For homestyle stir fries with a side of rice, Yao comes here — although other diners are lured by the rice porridge with hunks of sweet potatoes. And it's open until 11 p.m.

Northern Café - Monterey Park

128 N. Garfield Avenue, Unit B
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Find several styles of knife-cut and hand-pulled noodles to luxuriate in broth or hit the pan for a stir fry. Yao also picks up their classic cold dishes like wood ear mushrooms and smashed cucumbers. Northern Café is open until 11 p.m.

To Take the Parents


Bistro Na's - Temple City

9055 Las Tunas Drive, Suite 105
Temple City, CA 91780

Bistro Na's, the only Michelin-starred restaurant on this list also ranks at the top of Yao's for a sit-down dinner with the parents. "If you're looking for really high-level-executed Chinese food, I would say they're the best," Yao says. The menu is a nod to the ​​imperial court cuisine of the Qing Dynasty, and it's the braised pork belly dish that reigns in this lavish dining room. According to Yao, it's the only rendition that competes with his mother's.

A selection of Chinese food on a lazy Susan.
A selection of food from Bistro Na's | Courtesy of Life & Thyme

Ji Rong - Rosemead

8450 Valley Blvd., Suite 115
Rosemead, CA 91770

Maybe it's the contrast between perfectly crisp skin and tender, moist meat that has kept peking duck around for centuries. "Those two factors are counter intuitive of each other, so to strike that balance takes extreme skill for sure," says Yao. "I would say it's the best peking duck in Greater Los Angeles." At Ji Rong, prepare for a possible wait time of over an hour until you get your duck carved and sliced by the chef, ready for you to layer into pancakes with cucumber slices and scallions. This is Yao's runner up for a sit-down dinner with the parents.

Something Caffeinated


Tenju Tea House - Rowland Heights

18311 Colima Road, Suite B
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

"I probably shouldn't be saying this because I have problems with my blood sugar, but I drink a fair amount of flavored tea stuff. But when I really want something good, I'll go to Tenju," says Yao. Fresh premium loose-leaf teas are brewed here and mixed with milk or boba, and adjusted to sweetness preference.

Something Sweet


Melo Melo - San Gabriel

529 E. Valley Blvd. #178B
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Coconut meets Jell-O at Melo Melo, a dessert shop where you'll find silky coconut jelly layered with tropical fruit or combined with ingredients like matcha and red bean. Yao is a purist and goes for the straight-up coconut flavor.

Dragon fruit jelly at Melo Melo
Dragon fruit jelly at Melo Melo | Antonio Diaz

Soup


Summer Rolls - Rosemead

9016 Mission Drive
Rosemead, CA 91770

"I eat a lot of Vietnamese food," says Yao. "I was eating here probably once a week at one point." While Summer Rolls is known for its translucent rice paper rolls cradling grilled pork patties and fresh herbs, Yao comes here for the bún bò Huế. The rice noodle soup from the Huế region of Vietnam flexes a spicy, full-bodied pork and beef broth.

Golden Delight - Rosemead

8479 Garvey Avenue, Suite 101A
Rosemead, CA 91770

Vietnam and China share a border, and at Golden Delight they share a menu — with Chinese dishes starting and ending later in the day. Yao comes here for the phở served in a stone bowl so it's piping hot the whole time you're slurping.

The Dumpling Crawl


Kang Kang Food Court - Alhambra

27 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801

Kang Kang is known for its sheng jian bao. "It's basically like a bao that's pan fried on the bottom and steamed on the top, but the inside is super juicy," says Yao of the dumplings bursting with ground pork and its scalding juices. Yao also enjoys the fried crispy layers of the Jin Dong meat pie.

Eight pieces of sheng jian bao (pan-fried pork buns) in a plate.
Sheng jian bao at Kang Kang Food Court | Antonio Diaz
Jin Dong meat pie at Kang Kang Food Court
Jin Dong meat pie at Kang Kang Food Court | Antonio Diaz

The Sandwich


Bánh Mì My-Tho - Multiple Locations (Alhambra or Rosemead)

304 West Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91803

Or

9011 Garvey Avenue C
Rosemead, CA 91770

At this tiny temple of Vietnam's quintessential sandwich, Yao argues that the bread takes on an almost existential quality. "The bread is not even bread — it's just this crunchy exterior that holds all the ingredients," he says of Bánh Mì My-Tho. That next-level crusty to squishy ratio bouquets a range of meat options, pâté, egg yolk mayo, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño. Bring cash.

A woman holding and tearing apart a bánh mì sandwich.
Bánh mì at Bánh Mì Mỹ Tho. | Antonio Diaz

Roll With It


Yin Ji Chang Fen - San Gabriel

227 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 118-A
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Yin Ji Chang Fen is the L.A. outpost of a Guangzhou-based Cantonese chain is known for its cheung fun, slippery rice noodles topped with soy sauce and filled with stuffings like beef and shrimp with chives. "They do all types of flavors and the sauce is really good," says Yao. Don't sleep on that chili oil.

 A man pouring sauce over marinated beef & shrimp with chives rice noodle roll from Yin Ji Chang Fen
Marinated beef & shrimp with chives rice noodle roll from Yin Ji Chang Fen | Antonio Diaz

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