Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley

Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Bò Kho at The Lemongrass (Little Saigon, Seattle, WA)

One of the great Vietnamese adaptations of French cooking is bò kho (beef stew), although its precise origin is somewhat murky. The French connection is not only that it’s a stew of braised beef but that it can be eaten with a baguette as popularly as rice or rice noodles. That’s where the similarities end because the flavors are unquestionably Vietnamese: an intriguing blend of beef-flavored broth, tomatoes, lemongrass and star anise. Here in the States, Vietnamese restaurants might have it on the menu though not nearly as much as pho. That’s a shame because for me it’s so soul-satisfying and comforting, especially when cold, damp weather casts its pall over the Northwest.

The Lemongrass in the Little Saigon district of Seattle serves it. But before I get to it, let me say that recently we’ve had less than satisfactory versions, one at Pho An Sandy in Portland and one at the Renton Lemongrass of the same chain. Regarding the latter, the Little Saigon and Renton versions were so different that it prompted a good friend of mine to comment on it to the Renton maitre d’ (or owner?), who protested that the recipe was the same. Oh-kay. The recipe might be the same, but the chef obviously wasn’t.

The beef stew here (☆☆☆☆) was exceptional. The broth was a perfect balance of flavors: tomato, beef, lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, fish sauce, and possibly curry, with a touch of sweetness. The cubes of beef chuck were so tender that several fell apart as they were lifted out of the broth, testament to the long simmering they had undergone. Some pieces were attached to generous amounts of fat, ligament and tendon, not uncommon in Asian cooking. Other additions were tender carrot chunks, Thai basil, bean sprouts, cilantro and freshly ground pepper. I ordered my stew with rice noodles. My wife prefers hers with a baguette, which soaks up that wonderful broth. This is a dish to come back for time and again.

Bo koh (Vietnamese beef stew)

Bo kho (Vietnamese beef stew)

The stew was listed as a restaurant specialty. Also on the list was Hainan Chicken, a dish that has reached cult status in Singapore, though it had its humble origins on Hainan, an island off the coast of China. It made its way to parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, having undergone regional changes along the way. In its most common preparation, a whole chicken is immersed and simmered in liquid redolent with aromatics (especially ginger) and its resulting broth used to cook the rice. A variety of condiments accompany the chicken, dipping sauces of various kinds, including some made with chiles. Lemongrass served a small dish of salt and pepper, sliced jalapeños, and lime wedges, and a tart and garlicky dipping sauce. Some diners may balk at the chicken, my wife included, because braising leaves behind pale, oily and “goose”-bumpy skin, a far cry from the burnished crispiness produced by roasting. I wouldn’t have minded this dish (☆☆½) so much if it weren’t for the measly amount of meat; bone made up most of the substance of every cleaved piece. The salt & pepper and dipping sauce were nice accompaniments. The rice itself was very good with a gingery underscore. Lemongrass‘ version was finished off by baking in a metallic bowl that left behind a chewier rice and almost crusty bottom where nearly caramelized shallots added wonderful flavor.

Hainan chicken with rice

Hainan chicken

Update: KirkJ, the friend who introduced us to this restaurant, informed us that the staff has changed since the review in this post. The stew also was not as good, suggesting that ownership (and the kitchen) has also changed.

The Lemongrass
1207 S Jackson St #106b
Seattle, WA