California Asian

Nearly 5 million people of Asian descent reside in California, and recent census figures show that the state’s most concentrated Asian communities—Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and more—are no longer situated in the heart of the big cities but outside them.

Nearly 5 million people of Asian descent reside in California, and recent census figures show that the state’s most concentrated Asian communities—Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and more—are no longer situated in the heart of the big cities but outside them. So, when my husband and I decided to hit the highway recently on a food-focused tour of the state, we bypassed LA and San Francisco and headed for the unprepossessing strip malls and palm-lined main streets of suburbia.

Our first stop was the municipality of Westminster, home to Little Saigon, the thriving business district that serves Orange County’s 200,000 Vietnamese-American residents, who constitute the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam. At the Asian Garden Mall (9200 Bolsa Avenue, Westminster; 714/894-3854), the vendors in the lively food court hawked noodle soups, papaya salads, and a riot of Vietnamese snack foods, including garlicky skewered meatballs and fried bananas. We ordered freshly pressed sugarcane juice before venturing out to peruse the well-stocked markets along Bolsa Avenue, where we found fresh rice noodles, frozen durian, and taro stem along with non-Asian foodstuffs like peanut butter and tortillas, in a wonderful hodgepodge that, for me, defines Southern California.

An hour north, in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, we cruised through the communities of Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead, home to the densest concentration of Chinese-Americans in Southern California. At San Gabriel Square (140 West Valley Boulevard, San Gabriel; 626/280-0786), a 12-acre complex also known as the Great Mall of China, we were overwhelmed by the array of regional Chinese restaurants: Sichuanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong style, and on and on. Ultimately, we opted for the Shanghainese fare at nearby Mei Long Village (301 West Valley Boulevard, San Gabriel; 626/284-4769), where the xiao long bao (broth-and-pork-filled dumplings) were among the most delicate and aromatic I’ve ever had.

Early the next morning, we drove north toward Sacramento, where 19 percent of the population claims an Asian background. On the outskirts of town, along a two-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard lined with Asian businesses, we found Vinh Phat Market (6105 Stockton Boulevard, Sacramento; 916/424-8613). I eagerly pawed Thai eggplants, tender long beans, and other Asian produce—much of it grown by Southeast Asian farmers nearby—and marveled at the buzzing butcher counter, where a dozen workers were slicing specialty cuts for clamoring customers: ribbons of beef for hot pots, spareribs for braising, and chunks of pork hock for soups. Down the road, at a restaurant called Pho Bac Hoa Viet (6645 Stockton Boulevard, #300, Sacramento; 916/399-1688), we tasted savory pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, and bought terrific-looking grilled-pork banh mi sandwiches at New Paris Bakery and Cafe (6901 Stockton Boulevard, #300, Sacramento; 916/391-1118). Later, as we headed west on Interstate 80 and munched on our banh mi, we found the notion of living in the ‘burbs to be suddenly pretty enticing.

Andrea Nguyen, a SAVEUR contributing editor and the author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)