“Because I’m closer to so many restaurants…”
That’s the explanation I’ve offered friends when they’ve asked me why I decided to move to the San Gabriel Valley, the biggest Chinese ethno-burb in Los Angeles County. It wasn’t just the food that influenced my decision to move, but San Gabriel’s dining and shopping landscape was a very important influence in determining where I wanted to call home. The 626 has developed into a unique combination of immigrant tastes and Los Angeles infrastructure, a neighborhood that looks like a 1950s suburb, yet smells like an enticing Sichuan hotpot.
One big plus of living in Los Angeles is this proximity and diversity of authentic cuisines available all within the sprawl of our city’s county lines. So, instead of thinking of our urban landscape in relation to infrastructure or traffic, I began thinking about Los Angeles in relation to where we eat and how we get there. The San Gabriel Valley, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown specifically.
Although I personally prefer tea to coffee, I alway enjoy going out to cafes in KoreaTown. These coffee drinking spots, both small and big, are a perfect example of what Claes Oldenburg once described as the “third place” in urban context: a lively semi-private/semi-public social space outside of the home or office. People come to these Koreatown cafes both day and night – meeting friends, studying, working, or even just to people watch. Similar to Korea, Los Angeles’ K-town cafes offer tons of menu options compared to American chains.
Coffee isn’t the singular focus at a Korean cafe; the furniture setting, interior design, background music, backyard/loft seating, are all highly valued features that distinguish a Korean cafe from its American counterparts. Moreover, as Instagram has become a powerful grassroots marketing tool, the presentation of food and drinks at these K-town establishments are designed to garner Instagrams and followers’ “likes”.
Speaking of appetizing looking food, the Japanese are famous for their presentation, from the traditional kaiseki dining experience to ramen houses and to enticing street snacks. In the northeast section of Downtown LA is the historical district known as Little Tokyo, a cultural landmark neighborhood that exists like a vignette of the Los Angeles’ larger and longstanding Japanese-American community. Differing from the Koreatown “coffee-scape”, which focuses more on an interior experience, the Japanese “snack-scape” blurs the boundaries of interior and exterior with alternative outdoor seating, pedestrian-friendly avenues, big shop and restaurant windows for peering in, and comfortable pedestrian shading with pleasant landscaping…basically everything William Whyte proposed that made for a vibrant social life in urban spaces.
San Gabriel Valley
Finally, let’s talk about the Chinese “foodscape”. It should be no surprise food is deeply ingrained into Chinese culture. Every festival seems to revolve around a specific type of dish or ingredient. In China, we have something similar to the late night beverage and dining options of Korea’s “coffeescape” and the Japanese “snackscape”, the tea house. However here in Los Angeles, and even more so in the San Gabriel Valley area, I noticed something I’d refer to as the Chinese “supermarket-scape”.
Chinese supermarkets are noticeably different in both size and scope of groceries sold, offering an abundance of live fish and shellfish. The quality of produce is highly prized in Chinese cuisine, and the markets here reflect this attention to freshness. In many Asian countries, people still prefer to go to poultry markets than purchase their fowl prepackaged.
Another uniquely Chinese practice is supermarket shopping as a group activity. In the last decade China’s economic prosperity fueled middle class growth, and with it, the popularity of supermarkets. Thus, friends and family have come to congregate at the supermarket as a social activity, where purchasing goods might come secondary to just “hanging out”. This might have changed how Chinese shop, but the cuisine still remains a family-style experience, with shared dishes and large portions the norm. Because of this communal nature of dining, shopping for food is usually a serious weekly errand, requiring a plethora of different kinds of vegetables, meats, tofu, condiments, and spices to feed appetites. In many ways the supermarket plaza in the San Gabriel Valley is an extension of this cultural shift, with shopping centers becoming the communities unofficial center.
Back within Chinese households the ingredients, cooking tools, and cooking techniques have all shaped the suburban landscape in subtle ways. For example, a Chinese kitchen has to have a suitable ventilation system, since traditionally a great deal of dishes cooked require stir-frying or boiling, thus producing a plentitude of steam and smoke. As a controversial 2014 LA Times piece about the influx of Chinese into the San Gabriel suburb of Arcadia noted, “Nearly all of [the homes on sae] have a second ‘wok kitchen’ next to a larger and showier main kitchen. Some of the Asian cooking requires a lot of BTUs for the burner, and it gets oily and messy, so that’s a must-have.”
This Sunday will be the Lunar New Year. Many Chinese people start shopping for their big new year’s eve dinner. The decorations, music, and food displays in supermarkets at this time will all reflect the importance of this special festival to the Chinese community (alongside other Asian communities who recognize the date).
If you’ve never stepped foot inside a Chinese supermarket, I’d say now is the best time to visit and experience something much different from your Ralph’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. These ethnic supermarkets, restaurants, and snacking/refreshment spots dotting Los Angeles are all what make Los Angeles an ever evolving landscape of flavors.