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

Ramen Fujisan (San Gabriel, CA)

Tonkotsu ramen (image posted by Charlie C on Yelp)

“Thick noodles or thin?”

“Heavy, medium or thin broth?”

“Lean pork or pork belly?”

“Firm, medium or soft noodles?”

“How much oil do you want?” (more on this below)

These are the battery of questions you get asked by the wait staff when you order ramen at Ramen Fujisan in San Gabriel. On top of that, you have the option of adding extras for an additional cost: green onions, nori, sliced tree ears, chashu, bamboo shoots, corn, bean sprouts and egg, the first four simply more of what already comes standard. As a reviewer on Yelp carped, “I came for ramen I didn’t come to play 20 questions.” To me personally, they represent a great, if verbose way to customize your order for no extra cost. The trend of tailoring ramen (like udon) to your preferences seems to be popular nowadays.

My father-in-law was in search of another ramen restaurant since the demise of Ton-Chan, also in San Gabriel and soon to be replaced by another ramenya, when he read about Fujisan.

The ramen (☆☆☆) was pretty good served with a rich, milky tonkotsu broth that wasn’t heavy on sodium. Having gone once before, my wife and her sister remarked that the “heavy” broth was practically indistinguishable from “medium” strength. The difference between “firm” (or al dente) and “soft” noodles is more obvious. I ordered mine firm. “Thick” noodles, which we all ordered, have more girth than standard (thin) ramen noodles that can withstand softening in hot broth longer.

And now, about the oil that you get asked about when ordering. An obvious euphemism, it’s really pork fat that to many rameniacs (to borrow a word coined by a popular but now inactive blogger) is part of the ramen-eating experience. Many a ramen where one doesn’t have a choice come with a layer of it on top, unnoticed by many but definitely there. It adds flavor and also keeps the ramen hotter for a longer period of time. The process of making genuine tonkotsu broth naturally results in a fair amount of rendered fat. So, in order to cater to customer concerns, the grease must be skimmed off afterward and left up to the diner to add back in.

The difference between the “lean” pork and “pork belly” option is a matter of degree. The label of lean in my book is a misnomer because of the generous amount of fat still attached. Regardless, both cuts are flavorful and tender.

Yet another choice is the degree of spiciness you want, anywhere from none, normal, spicy and extra spicy. The capper is an even hotter level, wryly called Eruption of Mt Fuji. Why would anyone risk forever blistering one’s taste buds? For one thing, you don’t get charged for the ramen ($7.50 with no extras) if you finish it in 20 minutes. Secondly, you’ll receive a $10 restaurant gift card. There is a downside though: if you lose, you get charged $30 for the ramen, which means you don’t enter the challenge lightly. For the victor, your name and photo gets added to the winner’s list on the wall. Once you win, you can’t throw down the gauntlet again. I can’t imagine a serious ramenya sponsoring such a challenge, apparently a relatively recent phenomenon to satiate a growing interest in ever spicier foods. It seems more suited to theater even if it adds an element of fun and suspense to an otherwise straightforward eating experience.

Ramen Fujisan
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 138-B
San Gabriel, CA 91776

The Bomb at Ton-Chan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

Before the crush of food preparation for osechi ryori, five of us headed over to Ton-Chan for lunch. A previous review of it is here. Instead of the usual Sapporo miso tonkotsu ramen that others ordered, I went for one appropriately called The Bomb, basically a miso tonkotsu ramen with spicy ground pork. As noted before, the addition of chile paste, optional with all three kinds of tonkotsu ramen (shio, shoyu and miso), is a modern introduction to appease the public’s growing appetite for spicy dishes. The Bomb is another departure, a synthesis of Japanese and Chinese styles. Even without adding the chiles, the ramen is lustily hot, though not anything approaching Ton-Chan‘s six-chile noodles. The same rich tonkotsu broth is here, along with slices of baby bok choy, slivered green onions and half of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg (firm whites, runny yolks) that Ton-Chan does so well. In short, this is a tasty alternative to the standard soup noodles.

The Bomb

The Bomb

Ton-chan (**NOW CLOSED**)
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Lunch at Ton-Chan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

After taking care of some personal business, we stopped at Golden Deli to have pho. As usual, the place was packed and there was a waiting list (15-20 minutes, the lady said). Then, we noticed right next door a Japanese restaurant, called Ton-Chan, that specializes in Tokyo tonkotsu ramen. So rather than wait, we decided to give this place a shot. We’re glad we did because the ramen was excellent. The tonkotsu broth was really good, very milky and porky. There are only three variations: shio, shoyu and miso, though this is not traditional. Plus, you can dictate the heat level, anywhere from no spiciness to a whopping 6 (more on this later), another departure from convention, probably to appeal to chili heads more than anything. All of us ordered the miso. They all come with toasted nori, green onions, a half a boiled egg, and meltingly tender (and fatty) chasiu.

According to the waiter, the tonkotsu is made fresh every day, using a whole pig. Regarding the quality of the broth, I’d rank it pretty high. Like I said, it had the requisite milkiness and porkiness of flavor that you associated with the best ones, though not so extreme that it could be off-putting to some. You can choose two additional toppings for free. The egg was perfectly cooked: the whites were firm and the yolk just past runny, slightly hardened from the hot broth. The chasiu evidently was sliced from the sacrificial pig. And the ramen noodles had good texture.

Sapporo miso ramen

Sapporo miso ramen (with optional corn and baby bok choy)

Regarding the heat levels, the range is from 0 to 6, with 6 being classified as “my eyes are tearing.” If you can put away a double order of 6-level ramen, it’s yours free, a challenge that, if you succeed, will get your picture posted on the wall board. There were only a handful of pictures. Like I said, this adding of chile paste is not traditional. I suffered through the “4” that I ordered, sweating bullets and burning my tongue. Be forewarned that as you increase the heat level of ramen, your tongue increasingly loses its ability to discern subtle flavors.

Complimentary at meal’s end is a delicious dessert called an-nin, silken tofu topped with lychee syrup.

The restaurant opened in December of last year, so word hasn’t spread very much yet. It won’t take long.

So this strip mall has Ton-chan, Golden Deli, and Southern Mini Town. If Newport Seafood had stayed here (they moved down the street on Las Tunas), it could arguably be the best food haven in the San Gabriel valley.

Ton-chan (** CLOSED **)
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Lunch at Bamboodles (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

Bamboodles makes its own bamboo stick noodles from a technique developed in China by a master named Hu Min in the early twentieth century. The chef here learned his trade from one of Min’s disciples. The kneading of bamboo stick noodle dough is done by the master who straddles (actually, it looks more like a slow bouncing up and down) a large, hollow bamboo stalk that compresses the dough at the other end. When it gets thin enough, he folds it over and starts the process again, until the right texture has been achieved. In the final step, the dough is stretched out thinly and rolled, and then cut by mechanical cutters into thin noodles.

Limited to only 100 servings a day, the Spicy Beef Stew Noodle Soup is one way to appreciate these noodles. The broth is very rich with the essence of beef and five-spice powder and spicy with chiles, though not fiery. As the name suggests, the beef (consisting also of tripe and fatty parts) is stewed for a long time. The pasta itself had a wonderful, springy texture, though surprisingly not much flavor.

Spicy Beef Stew Noodle Soup

Another favorite was the spinach noodle soup with green tea pork, using noodles made the same painstaking way, but with added spinach.

The Cold Noodles with Green Tea Pork is served with shredded pork, julienned cucumbers, par-boiled bean sprouts, and corn kernels. These noodles revealed the same fantastic, springy texture.

Cold Noodles with Green Tea Pork

Having said all of the above, other menu items were mediocre at best. On a subsequent visit, we found all other soup noodle broths unremarkable, including that of the Wonton Noodle Soup, though the wontons were very well made with very thin wrappers. The Spicy Noodles (Szechuan-style) really had no sauce to speak of; whatever sauce there was only came from the ground pork, which was mounded on top (along with ground peanuts and blanched bean sprouts). With the dearth of sauce, the noodles soon became pasty and dry, a regrettable waste of the effort and care to make them. The celery dumplings (which we all shared) had a very tasty ground pork-Chinese celery-ginger-green onion filling, but their wrappers were extraordinarily thick.

Their menu appears to have gotten more extensive, perhaps an unwise decision when aspects of original items need improvement.

P.S. (7-3-12: Apparently, Bamboodles has closed its doors for business.)

Bamboodles (**NOW CLOSED**)