Road Trip to Asia 20 Minutes From LA: Finding the Wonderful (and Weird) in San Gabriel Valley

The inspiration behind this blog was not only to find a creative writing outlet, but to share some of the fun and sometimes downright crazy things we uncover. And in the Los Angeles area there are so many great road trips. Just a 20 minute drive, the San Gabriel Valley can be daunting to explore without a plan given it’s massive size. The area is home to more than half a million Asian Americans from diverse backgrounds and each with their own cuisine.

One of our favorite dishes from Shanghai, China – soup dumplings or xiao long bao. You’ll find no shortage of places in the San Gabriel Valley

Forget Panda Express. Many of the families that moved to the SGV opened restaurants serving food they’d want to eat (or grew up eating). I even found several places serving the spicy regional cuisine from Borneo. It’s really that specific! Below you’ll find our recommendations for an entertaining trip — hitting historic sites, tasty and unique restaurants and a super market that was a shock even to our senses!

Stop #1: Lunch Stop with Food as Art

Steamed buns at the newly opened Victory Kitchen

Victory Kitchen opened just a few weeks ago. But talk about presentation. Come here and order some of the very Instagram worthy dishes like the steam buns (filled either with pork or red bean paste), or the Hello Kitty or Pikachu Curry.

Curry dishes with rice in the shape of Pikachu and Hello Kitty

Is it a little silly? Yes, but where else can you find this? It sort of reminds me of the cute bento box creations we saw in Japan earlier this year (and that I was so envious of!). The menu focuses mostly on Chinese dishes, but you’ll also find sweet potato fries (served in a pick up truck). It’s plain old fun and cheap! Dishes run from $2-$12. Lunch runs from 11 am-3 pm (closed on Tuesday).

Stop #2: A Slice of California History at the San Gabriel Mission

San Gabriel Mission

Founded in 1771, the San Gabriel Mission is the fourth mission of 21 in California (and famous for growing the first orange tree in the state). It was part of the Old Spanish Trail, a historic pack trail connecting Santa Fe to the pueblo of Los Angeles. Travelers from Santa Fe aimed for the San Gabriel Mission as a welcome destination. Traders brought wool from New Mexico and returned with highly-prized mules and horses.

There is a small museum on site, but we recommend just wandering around the exterior and checking out the tiny shop inside. Signs are posted outside explaining the importance of the site.

Stop #3: Hawaii Market

Get ready for some culture shock. I first heard of the Hawaii Supermarket a few years ago from a coworker when I was trying to track down some rattlesnake meat (don’t ask!). From the outside, it looks like your typical market. But oh no, once inside you will discover something on a whole new level. This ain’t no Trader Joe’s!

The sign as you enter – apparently, not a huge fan of American Express here!

Upon entering the store, you need to check out the list of “offenders” who have done everything from shoving “French butter in their pants” to “throwing eggs at each other”

But the real culture shock can be found at the back of the store. Head all the way to the meat section where you’ll find all kinds of frozen (and live!) animals that you’d probably never consider eating. Sale on a frozen raccoon anyone?

Flyer from the Hawaii Market

You’ll find live turtles to consume (which made me think of my pet growing up!), rattlesnakes and armadillo just to name a few.

We passed on the frozen armadillo and came here specifically for a dessert item called Dragon Whiskers Candy (also known as Dragon Beard Candy).

It was initially created in China, but soon spread in popularity and became a regional delicacy in other parts of Asia. The one we purchased had peanuts and honey inside. It’s really chewy, almost like cotton candy. Or as I described it to Kevin (since he totally passed on eating it!), sort of felt like what eating a butterfly larvae would be like. Okay, maybe this is the reason why he passed on it? I’m not sure. Would I get it again? Definitely not, but it was an experience!

Stop #4: Dinner at Omar’s Restaurant

This stop was the inspiration for our trip to the San Gabriel Valley (and on my must-try list for at least 5 years!). Omar’s Restaurant is the ultimate hole-in-the-wall. A family owned restaurant, Omar’s specializes in a very specific cuisine from the Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. A majority of the population lives in Northwest China in the Xinjiang region with smaller populations scattered throughout.

Kevin is VIP on his cell phone as I order a few dishes that I’ve been waiting to try

I first heard of Omar’s after reading LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s top picks for Chinese restaurants. At first glance, the menu looks like something you’d find at many Chinese restaurants (Chow Mein, cold tofu) along with Indian food (such as naan).

But the main staples here are the Big-Plate Chicken with noodles made just a few feet from where we were sitting and the Meat Pie (a must-order!).

The entire meal with tax came out to about $50 including tax and tip — a little pricier than many of the Chinese spots but well worth the price tag. I’ve never been to Northwest China (though visited other regions) and the food was unlike anything I’ve had. The noodles were incredibly long and we love that it was served with scissors that we used to cut up the dish. It’s definitely spicy (at least it was for us!) but the Meat Pie helped balance the spice and was full of flavor.

If we went back, we’d definitely order the meat pie but probably try something else such as the DingDing Chow Mein (I wanted to try it this time, but glad I held back since 2 dishes was MORE than enough). By the end of the day, we were stuffed and headed back to West Hollywood — seemingly worlds away and ready for a nap. Though, I was too busy to sleep and already planning our next trip to the San Gabriel Valley!

Road Trip to Asia 20 Minutes From LA: Finding the Wonderful (and Weird) in San Gabriel Valley
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Road Trip to Asia 20 Minutes From LA: Finding the Wonderful (and Weird) in San Gabriel Valley
Just a 20 minute drive, the San Gabriel Valley can be daunting to explore. The area is home to more than half a million Asian Americans from diverse backgrounds and each with their own cuisine. Check out our recommended foodie road trip hitting up restaurants and historic sites.

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