In many communities across America, “Restaurant Row” is a block or two with an unusually heavy concentration of restaurants and other eateries. In some cases, it’s more extensive, such as the famous Restaurant Row on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, or the five-mile stretch of Belt Line Road in Addison, Texas. But neither of these compares to the string of Chinese restaurants along a nine-mile stretch of Valley Boulevard in southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.
Though there are Chinese restaurant directories, such as from the Chinese Restaurant Association and the Chinese Yellow Pages, nobody has meaningfully counted the restaurants along the nine-mile portion of Valley Boulevard. My best estimate is that there are as many as 800 Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, of which 200 Chinese restaurants are on Valley Boulevard. That’s over 20 Chinese restaurants per mile!
Of course, a Chinese restaurant row of 200 restaurants doesn’t appear overnight. Still, in some respects, the Chinese restaurant buildup happened remarkably quickly. Long before the area was settled by Chinese-American residents, Valley Boulevard was a major thoroughfare that traversed the contiguous cities of the San Gabriel Valley. As such, it was a vibrant commercial street with many different types of businesses including restaurants, and even the occasional Americanized Chinese restaurant.
Chinese and other Asian Americans established their first San Gabriel Valley beachhead in the late 1960s and 1970s in Monterey Park, whose northern border is only a few blocks south of Valley Boulevard. Consequently, the first wave of authentic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley bypassed Valley Boulevard. Not until the early 1980s did Fu Shing in San Gabriel and Ocean Seafood in Alhambra become the pioneer settlers of what was to become the Chinese restaurant row.
By the mid-1980s, a few more Chinese restaurants opened in freestanding locations on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. What fueled the development of the boulevard as THE street for Chinese dining was the construction of large shopping centers designed to house multiple restaurant operations. Valley Square, a horseshoe-shaped shopping center near the corner of Valley Boulevard and New Avenue, is one early example from the mid-1980s. Its two arms fit roughly 10 compact store spaces each, with virtually all of the spaces on the east side occupied by Chinese eateries.
The city of San Gabriel, just east of Alhambra, really kicked into gear the Chinese restaurant-centric shopping centers on Valley Boulevard. In the late 1980s, Prospect Plaza opened. In 1992, the massive San Gabriel Square shopping center (popularly known as Focus Plaza) marked this trend with an exclamation point. When the shopping center opened, future Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold proclaimed San Gabriel one of the great food cities of the world, in the same breath as Paris, Tokyo, and Rome. And as the Chinese sphere of influence moved eastward, so too did the presence of Valley Boulevard Chinese restaurants, into the adjacent cities of Rosemead and El Monte.
Built on a former drive-in movie theater, San Gabriel Square’s sprawling two-level, 12-acre shopping center houses fifteen restaurants, including the banquet-sized dim sum and seafood palace Five Star Seafood, as well as a branch of the international Little Sheep hotpot chain. In a separate building directly in front of San Gabriel Square, an additional three eateries serve Chinese fare.
Life Plaza, on the next block west, is home to seven spacious Chinese restaurants, anchored by the ornate Shanghai Seafood Village #1 Restaurant, and a branch of the popular hotpot chain Boiling Point. Across the street from Life Plaza is the San Gabriel Hilton, whose Trinity Restaurant makes the hotel’s ballrooms among the most popular Chinese banquet facilities in the San Gabriel Valley. The adjacent three-story shopping center is itself a gold mine with ten more restaurants, including the popular Chinese gastropub Chang’An. Immediately west sits the pioneering Prospect Plaza, where one finds another nine Chinese restaurants including Mian, the acclaimed groundbreaking Sichuan-style noodle restaurant, and Tasty Dining and Happy Kitchen, serving, respectively, the rare Wuhan and Lizhou Chinese regional food styles. So, in just a short three-block stretch of Valley Boulevard, you can walk by 45 Chinese restaurants.
The top Chinese restaurants all along Valley Boulevard are too numerous to mention, but I’ll offer a few highlights.
The Alhambra portion of Valley Boulevard offers two Sichuan-style restaurants, Chengdu Taste and Sichuan Impression, which together have brought a new style of Sichuan cuisine to the United States, elevating Sichuan food in Los Angeles far ahead of anywhere else in the country.
Outside Alhambra’s Savoy Kitchen, crowds wait for hours for a chance to dine on its famous Hainan chicken. Diners even pack the chicken to go as they head to the airport, so they can share it with friends and relatives in far-flung places.
The original Alhambra location of 101 Noodle Express popularized the now ubiquitous Shandong beef roll.
To the east of San Gabriel, Valley Boulevard makes its way through the city of Rosemead, featuring Hunan heavyweight Hunan Mao and noodle specialists JTYH Restaurant and Noodle Boy. The parade of Chinese restaurants continues into El Monte, but the restaurants here are smaller and less well known.
For those wondering, yes, I have managed to eat at virtually each and every one of these Valley Boulevard Chinese restaurants. When I started my Chinese restaurant quest, there were only two Chinese restaurants on Valley Boulevard, so it’s been manageable to keep up with all the restaurants as they opened over the years. It would be much more difficult to start that feat today, as a bunch of new restaurants would have opened before you even worked halfway down the street.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.