Full review + photos here:
Long before Din Tai Fung invaded Los Angeles and brought the thick-skinned, soup-filled xiaolongbao to the masses (not to mention some unbelievably long wait-times for a casual Chinese restaurant), there were restaurants like J & J, which has been serving this dumpling as well as other homestyle Shanghainese fare for well over a decade.
Located in Prospect Plaza, one of the few old plazas on Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel, from the outside J & J is a pretty unremarkable restaurant - and without prior word of mouth one would probably never be aware of the yummy treasures tucked within.
Just like the exterior, the dining area is nothing more than functional. There's about a dozen tables (mostly two- and four-seaters), all of the well-weathered and scratched. Likewise for the off-white floor, which has suffered years of foot traffic damage but otherwise pretty clean.
Other indicators that is is a no-fuss, no-nonsense place: 1) The beverage fridge (which is *in* the dining floor) is being used as storage for vats of mystery sauces, boxes of noodles and plates of premade side dishes, 2) the tea, served not only in the most generic metal pot but also with a styrofoam cup! and 3) the quintessential "not-A" rating from the LA Public Health department (in J & J's case, a B - further research unveiled that it's a 82.)
After a quick look at the menu, whose lamination is practically falling off, I decided upon my meal - a three-course feast of comfort foods to keep my stomach and soul happy. Starting off this smorgasbord is Stir-Fried Nian Gao, Shanghainese Style.
For those not familiar, nian gao is a glutinous rice cake - eaten most frequently around celebration times such as Chinese New Years. Sometimes it will be prepared as a sweet dish, similar to Japanese mochi, other times it'll be used for something savory, such as the course above, where thick-sliced nian gaos are stir fried like chow mein with some greens, onion slices and meat slivers in oil & soy sauce. The taste is pretty much like any other stir fry, but nian gao's smooth, chewy texture makes this course extra fun to eat.
Next up is a snack I hold near and dear to my heart - scallion pancakes! I swear this is what Hot Pockets' marketing department was eating when they figured out their advertising slogan, "crispy crunchy tender flakey crust" because that's exactly what this is -- and without the artifical tasting and sometimes gross stuffing. Pan-fried to golden perfection, every bite of this multi-layered pie releases the sweet aromatic smells of scallions. Mmmm...
And for the finale, crabmeat & pork xiaolongbaos, eight beauties that I had no trouble finishing off one by one, and I daresay is comparable (if not better) than Din Tai Fung's version. Yes, there's only 8 compared to DTF's 10, but these are substantially larger (practically spilling over the spoon) a bit less pricey too.
Hiding beneath its thick but translucent skin is succulent blend of pork & crabmeat mixed with carrots, ginger and other veggies in a pool of meaty broth. Just a little soy sauce and a little vinegar and it's a one-way trip to yum!
And having dined solo this time, I had plenty of leftovers to take home -- enough for another two meals! True, the pancakes were no longer crispy-crunch-flakey upon reheating, but they're still tender, and having them soak up all the stir-fry grease made them delicious in their own right.
Spread out the bill and each meal is about $5 -- I'd take this over burger and fries anytime.
Pretax/tip total: $13.45
Total score: 31.5/40 (great place to swing by for casual comfort eats, either alone or with a small group of pals)
J & J Restaurant
301 W. Valley Blvd. #109 (in Prospect Plaza)
San Gabriel, CA 91776