The last few weeks, Ive been loading up the chowpups and taking them to my favorite Northern Chinese-style breakfast joints in Monterey Park and San Gabriel to sample baozi, danbing, doujiang and such. I thought Id pass along some of the hits and misses that weve encountered.
First, for the benefit of those who dont have a copy of Carl Chus Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles (which has a terrific chapter on Northern Chinese breads and dumplings), Ill give a brief description of some of the items the we like to get (please dont think these basic descriptions condescending; Im simply trying to be helpful to as wide a group as possible). Second, Ill offer some of my opinions on some of the local places that serve these items and give a few recommendations.
Basically, Northern Chinese breakfasts are rustic, humble, boldly-flavored (when flavored at all), stick-to-your-ribs meals usually served in the Chinese equivalent of greasy spoons (greasy chopsticks?), in contrast to the refined Southern dim sum, with its delicate flavorings, luxurious ingredients and vast, palatial dining halls. This is the food of people who faced long winters and the all-to-real threat of starvation; more fuel than art. Thus the heavy use of preserved vegetables, and hardy winter crops like cabbage and onions. As such, its a bit of an acquired taste, and IMHO best appreciated early in the morning when theres a bit of a chill in the air. Heres a brief description of some of the thing I like to get at LAs Northern-style breakfast shops:
Shaobing: basically a small, flat, rectangle-shaped, flaky bread thats usually topped with sesame seeds. You can eat them as is, or open it like a pocket and stuff in youtiao, fried egg, leeks, or pretty much anything else you want. When I lived in Taiwan, Id sometimes give the local breakfast guy some ham and cheese and hed make me an Egg McShaobing. I thought I was a pioneer in low-end fusion cuisine; he thought I was crazy.
Crullers (youtiao): literally oil sticks, these are deep-fried sticks of dough that can be dunked in soy milk or placed in shaobing. Theyre crispy and taste basically of oil and little else. Ive never been a big fan, but they have admirers.
Soy Milk (doujiang): a drink made from ground soybeans and water. It comes either hot and salty in a bowl or cold and sweet in a large Styrofoam or plastic cup. You can dunk crullers (youtiao) in the salty kind (if youre into that sort of thing). Soy milks a bit of an acquired taste, but can really hit the spot. Several local places make their own soy milk in-house. Theres also a similar, latte-brown drink called mijiang which I believe is made from rice (and peanuts??? someone correct me if Im wrong), and is sometimes served half-and-half with hot soy milk.
Danbing: what you get when you cross an omelet with a tortilla. Egg and green onion topped with an uncooked tortilla then fried together, rolled up and sliced. Delicious with a little soy sauce.
Chive Turnover (jiucaihe): A fried, or deep-fried, half-moon-shaped turnover filled with chopped chives, egg bits, pressed bean curd and bean-thread noodles. Delicious, but youll taste it the rest of the day.
Steamed Buns (mantou, baozi): steamed wheat-flour buns. Mantou are plain buns (which are sometimes split and stuffed to make sandwich-like snacks), while baozi are pre-stuffed with a variety of sweet or savory fillings basically like giant dumplings. Some examples are:
*Roast Pork Buns (chashaobao): tender, slightly sweetened bun filled with roast pork in a sweet sauce.
*Vegetable Buns (caibao or sucaibao): filled with mixed vegetables and sometimes mushrooms, bean-thread noodles, pressed bean curd or gluten. Some use cabbage as the main veggie, other use a more pungent mix of greens.
*Chive Buns (jiucaibao): filled with chives, egg, pressed bean curd, and bean-thread noodles.
*Pork Buns (xianroubao): filled with seasoned ground pork.
*Pork & Cabbage Buns (cairoubao): filled with a meatloaf-like mixture of ground pork and cabbage.
*Chicken Bun (jibao or jiroubao): filled with chicken and sometimes mushrooms or other seasonings. There are a few different types of these buns, some with a slightly sweetened bun, others with un-boned chicken chunks, others with pretty much everything in the fridge (chicken, sausage, egg, etc.).
*Pork & Mushroom Bun (xianggu roubao or taiwan roubao): usually filled with soy sauce stewed pork and dried mushrooms.
*Preserved Vegetable Buns (xuecaibao or xuecai roubao): filled with a mixture of vegetables, including preserved snow cabbage, and sometimes ground pork. Another, similar bun is filled with preserved mustard and ground pork (meigancai roubao).
*Steam-Fried Buns (shengjianbao): filled with pork and/or sometimes veggies, fried till crisp on the bottom, then steamed till the tops are tender (I may have the order mixed up).
*Sweet Buns: filled with sweet things like pastes of red bean, lotus seed, taro, sesame or egg custard. I dont particularly care for them, but some people do.
There are a number of other breakfast items that I dont regularly eat (e.g., fantuan, huajuan, etc.). Feel free to add to the list. Most of these breakfast joints also serve a wide variety of noodles, dumplings and even stinky tofu at lunch (I instinctively checked the chowpups pants the first time I caught a whiff of the stinky tofu at the next table last weekend).
Here are a few of the places that Ive been hitting semi-regularly over the past few years. Again, feel free to add to this list.
Ding Pangzi: 115-117 N. Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park
Suitably grimy joint that has quite good danbing, really bad shaobing and big, pillowy buns. I quite like the Mushroom & Pork Bun (xianggu roubao) and the Preserved Mustard & Pork Bun (meigancai roubao). The Pork Bun (xianroubao) can also be good (if seemingly undercooked at times). I seem to recall quite liking their Chive Turnovers, but its been a few years since I had one there. The cold soy milk is served in bottles, so I don't know if they make their own (haven't ordered the hot in years). This place is difficult to find. Its in a strip mall off of Garfield near the Garvey intersection, across from the Hong Kong Supermarket and behind the Heavy Noodling restaurant. Its actually two restaurants side-by-side; the breakfast joint I go to is the one on the left. Packed on the weekends. Very nice staff. Menu only in Chinese, but plenty of bilingual folks there on the weekend.
Yi-Mei: 736 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park
Cozy (okay, cramped), little shop in the Dingho strip mall. Almost always packed. Very good shaobing, danbing, and doujiang (made in-house). My faves are the compact, hefty and juicy buns. The Preserved Snow Cabbage & Pork Bun (xuecai roubao) is terrifically pungent (admittedly, an acquired taste), and the Pork & Mushroom Bun (Taiwan roubao) has a great mixture of potent soy sauce, pork and mushroom flavors. The Pork & Cabbage Bun (cairoubao) is also quite good. The Vegetarian Bun (sucaibao) and Chive Bun (jiucaibao) are okay nothing special. The wife quite likes the Roast Pork Bun (chashaobao). The Chive Turnover (jiucaihe) and Steam-Fried Pork Buns (shengjianbao) are pretty disappointing. Menu only in Chinese, but shouldnt be a problem, IIRC the very nice lady at the counter has pretty good English. There is another Yi-Mei in the San Gabriel Superstore complex (608 E Valley Blvd. #G, San Gabriel), which is more spacious, but I havent been as impressed with their stuff.
Yung Ho Tou Chiang: 533 W. Valley Blvd. (New Ave.), San Gabriel
Another very grimy joint thats nonetheless quite popular. Excellent soy milk and shaobing (one pup licked every last sesame seed off his plate). The danbing is a little too eggy for my tastes (I prefer more of a balance between the dan and the bing), and the buns have always disappointed me gristly meat and little discernable flavor. The pups hungrily demolished the huge hubeidoupi (glutinous rice and ground meat in a fried bean-flour wrap); I thought it was okay. They have an extensive menu with English translations, though. Theres another branch at 1045 E. Valley Blvd. #A105, but Ive never been there.
These are my three favorites. If anyone can add to the list, add insight or correct mistakes, please do.