This must be Monterey Park

If you’re looking for the best dumplings in Southern California, a broad bean paste the manager at your local Ralph’s has never heard of, or a place that serves a Hong Kong-style breakfast, Monterey Park is the place.

Some refer to the nearly 8 square miles on the western edge of the San Gabriel Valley as America’s first suburban Chinatown. Of the nearly 60,000 residents, more than 60% are Asian. On any given day, you’ll find an intersection of generations, with groups of elderly citizens congregating for tai chi or badminton at the parks in the early mornings, then onto the local McDonald’s for coffee and hash browns. Most of the younger residents spend evenings chatting and playing games in the many boba tea shops around town. The most vibrant nightlife in the area happens here, over plastic cups of milk tea speared with wide straws.

Get to know Los Angeles through the places that bring it to life. From restaurants to shops to outdoor spaces, here’s what to discover now.

The predominance of the Asian population can be credited to a real estate developer named Frederic Hsieh. In the 1970s, he drew large numbers of affluent Chinese immigrants by advertising the area as “the Chinese Beverly Hills” in various Hong Kong newspapers.

Between 1970 and 1987, Monterey Park’s racial makeup changed from around 14% to 40% Asian. Now, 26% of residents are Latino and just 6% are white.

Another wave of immigrants from Hong Kong arrived after the British returned the region to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Raymond Young, 55, says he watched as both the foreign-born and local Chinese residents created a stronghold in the community, with large shopping centers and entire city blocks along Atlantic Avenue and Garvey Boulevard catering exclusively to Asian businesses and clientele. The longtime resident, who was born, raised, and currently lives in Monterey Park, is an administrator for Monterey Park Life, a community group on Facebook with nearly 10,000 members.

In 2013, the Monterey Park City Council shot down an ordinance that would have required some “modern Latin lettering” on storefront signs.


“It just spoke to a sign of the times,” Young said. “There are more Chinese in this community and they want to shop and eat in these places so let’s go ahead and market to that audience.”

Though somewhat diminished over the years, the Latino community in Southern Monterey Park still exists. It’s where the family-run La Colonial Tortilla Products Inc. opened in 1952 and continues to produce tortillas. The much-lauded Carnitas El Momo is a little more than a mile down the road. And torta wonderland Cook’s Tortas sits on the southern stretch of Atlantic Avenue just north of the 60 Freeway.

For Young, it’s that fusion of communities that makes Monterey Park so special.

“I think as you go south, it’s much more Latino but it still retains a little of the Japanese influence that was there when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said. “We are a good starting point to other communities. You can live here, discover Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Pasadena. We provide good access to downtown. It’s predominately Chinese, but we provide a good midway point to other communities.”

Most visitors treat Monterey Park as a dining destination, visiting the many Chinese restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores. It’s possible to spend your day in just two shopping centers a short walk from each other, starting with dim sum for breakfast, a stop at an arcade, coffee and souffle pancakes at a cafe followed by some shopping and afternoon boba.

You could plan an entire day of eating, and you should.

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A plate of egg tarts, a classic dessert item while enjoying dim sum at Altantic Seafood and Dim Sum in Monterey Park, CA.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Have dim sum for breakfast at Atlantic Seafood & Dim Sum

Monterey Park Dim Sum $
Women pushing silver carts weave through the tables, filling the dining room with the aroma of sweet baked char siu bao and roast duck. Atlantic Seafood & Dim Sum is one of the few remaining restaurants in the area that still uses the carts, where you can have the real dim sum experience of flagging down the har gao you want from across the room and order a steamer full of siu mai every time the cart passes. The siu mai, plump with steamed pork and nestled neatly into a crinkly wonton wrapper are on every table. If the choices are overwhelming, the manager is happy to make suggestions or answer your questions about what’s in the vegetable dumplings. The sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, spare ribs, siu mai and ham sui gok (fried pork filled mochi balls) are all must-orders. There may be a wait for a table if you arrive during peak breakfast hours between 8 and 10:30 a.m., but things move quickly.
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The Strawberry Matcha Latte drink, a popular choice at Sunright Tea Studio.
(Jennelle Fong)

Sip fresh fruit tea at Sunright Tea Studio

Monterey Park Teahouse $
We’ve entered the age of boba, where tea shops might actually outnumber Starbucks storefronts across Los Angeles. There’s a high density in Monterey Park, with many shopping centers offering more than one place to choose from. What sets Sunright Tea Studio apart are the fresh fruit teas. The shop adds fresh grapefruit juice to strong, fragrant jasmine tea, along with a few slices of fruit. You can adjust the ice and sugar level, to keep things cooler in the summer and sweeter if the mood strikes. Some of the offerings are seasonal, including a refreshing watermelon cooler filled with blended chunks of watermelon, ice and tea during the summer. When mangoes or peaches are in season, the shop uses the purees to flavor the mango or peach teas. The grapefruit is a mainstay, but if the shop can’t get fresh graprefruit in, it disappears from the menu. Unlike some of the tea shops in the area, where friends linger over tall cups of boba milk tea, most of the business at this Sunright location is grab and go, with diners stopping in for refreshments on their way to run errands or hang out with friends elsewhere.
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Diners enjoying the pancake dishes at Gram Cafe.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Get in line for Instagram-worthy soufflé pancakes at Gram Cafe & Pancakes

Monterey Park Japanese $
The first thing you need to do, before you pop your head into the dining room or check the menu on your phone, is add your name to the digital wait list on the iPad stationed in front of the door. Regardless of when you visit, there will be a wait. It’s one of the most popular cafes in the Atlantic Times Square mall and for good reason. Gram Cafe is a Japanese chain that started in Osaka almost a decade ago. The restaurant specializes in wobbly, fluffy soufflé pancakes. As the servers whisk plates of the pancakes to each of the tables, diners ready their cellphones to capture the spectacle. The pancakes are meringue-like in texture with a vaguely sweet, eggy flavor. The Premium Crème Brûlée is a favorite, covered in a thick layer of custard cream and a crunchy, caramelized sugar top. The restaurant also serves Sight Glass Coffee, making it an excellent place to stop in for a latte or cappuccino, with or without a giant pancake.
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Sequoia Park bustling with neighborhood activity.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Enjoy a picnic at Sequoia Park

Monterey Park Park
The park sits at the top of a hill in a residential area of the city. It’s mostly quiet in the mornings, with locals who walk their dogs or small groups who host dance and tai chi classes on the grass. There are two tennis courts, a basketball court, a softball field and plenty of room to run around. The picnic tables scattered throughout the park, including a coveted covered table, make it the ideal place for a quiet picnic. It’s the perfect setting for a banh mi and egg tart lunch, with supplies sourced from just down the hill. Grab a couple of grilled pork or vegetarian sandwiches on light and airy baguettes from Mr. Baguette and a few warm egg tarts from Jim’s Bakery. If you time your meal just right, you might be able to catch a game of softball. And there will be plenty of furry friends on leashes passing through the park.
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Pedestrians enjoying the Edison Trails Hike in Monterey Park, CA.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Take a break between meals with a hike on the Edison Trail

Monterey Park Urban Trail
1.5-mile out-and-back
This is the type of hike you can do if you’re not in shape, if you’re just starting to exercise or might just need a midday break between meals. In fact, it’s more accurate to call it a walk versus a hike, despite the few hills you’ll need to climb. The trail starts at La Loma Park, where you cross Fulton Avenue and make your way up the first hill. On weekend mornings, most of the people on the path are taking a leisurely stroll with just a few runners in between. It’s never crowded, and you’ll have plenty of space between yourself and anyone else on the trail. The scenery is mostly the backyards of the nearby houses and you make your way down the dirt path. After about three-fourths of a mile you reach the end of the trail, a small park across from the California Edison station on Garfield Avenue, where the hike gets its name. There, you’ll find restrooms, grills, benches, picnic tables and drinking fountains. It’s a nice place to stop for a snack (maybe something foil-wrapped and crunchy or some fresh fruit from the nearby 99 Ranch Market) before turning around and making your way back to La Loma Park.
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Using the claw machine to win plushy prizes.
(Jennelle Fong)

Win your dream plushie in the claw machines at the Neofuns Arcade

Monterey Park Games $
A row of pink, blue, green and purple machines beckon with windows full of plush toys at the center and along the walls of the arcade. On a busy Saturday, it’s almost a one-to-one mix of kids and adults with their faces pressed up against the glass of the machines, their hands deftly working to maneuver the claws over rainbow balls, stuffed bears and ducks donning bow ties. The arcade is open until 11 p.m. on the weekends, so expect the dueling air hockey players to jump in age as the night progresses. Pokemon fans will be especially pleased to find a smiling Pikachu featured as a prize in some of the machines. There’s a decent selection of play-for-tickets games too, with Air Dino basketball and Skee-Ball, and plenty of plush toys, knickknacks and even a coffeemaker you can snag for a certain number of tickets. If you manage to collect more than 150,000 tickets, you can usually turn them in for a toy that’s larger than your body.
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Steamed flour roll with a doughnut at Delicious Food Corner on Saturday, October 15, 2016. Opening in 2008, the Delicious Food Corner has been serving Hong Kong style cuisine to customers throughout greater Los Angeles . (Mariah Tauger / For the Times)
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Find comfort in congee and Hong Kong-style buns at Delicious Food Corner

Monterey Park Cantonese
There’s an energy to the restaurant that never seems to diminish as the breakfast rush runs seamlessly into lunch. If the only open seating is the other half of a long table occupied by two women chatting excitedly over big bowls of congee, you’ll be seated there alongside them. Delicious Food Corner has opened a handful of locations elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, but the Monterey Park restaurant is the original. It’s the one that feels most like a diner. The kind of place everyone should be lucky enough to have in their neighborhood. It’s difficult to decide on a single direction, so it’s best if you bring friends or family to share. And get there before 11:30 a.m. for the breakfast. There are steaming bowls of congee studded with fish paste alongside plates heaped with chewy rice rolls drenched in a mixture of sweet bean sauce and peanut sauce. The youtiao are extra crisp and the Hong Kong-style buns are always fresh and soft, with a crackly top and a pat of butter shoved into the middle. The tiles of Spam served alongside the eggs are griddled and golden. Cover the table in all of it, and make sure the ramekin of chile sauce in the middle is full enough for everyone.
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Some of the wares inside Daiso in Monterey Park, CA
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Find stuff you didn't know you need at Daiso

Monterey Park Store $
It’s been billed as the Japanese version of the American dollar store, where unmarked items are $1.75 and a handy conversion chart lists the prices for everything else. Think of Daiso as a household wonderland, where you can find stationery, socks, school supplies, dishware and any tools you may need to cook or clean in the kitchen or bathroom. There are toys, stickers and plush toys. If you look hard enough, you can usually find Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse merchandise. There are name-brand snacks such as Pocky. Then there are the items you didn’t know you needed, like the erasers shaped like a plate of gyoza or zoo animals, the kitchen sponge shaped like a dolphin and a banana keeper. Visit with a group of friends and compare bags post-checkout.
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Freshly baked pastries at Diamond Bakery in Monterey Park, CA.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Fill a tray with warm buns and fresh pastries from Diamond Bakery

Monterey Park Bakery $
Make sure to get there early if you want to choose from a full array of individually wrapped buns that line the shelves of the bakery. Pork sung buns, red bean-stuffed buns, taro buns, curry buns and hot dog buns sit shiny and golden. The loaves of bread are ultra soft, available in half and full portions. In the mornings, locals stop in for morning pastries, and maybe a beef curry pie or two from the hot display case near the register. The bakery takes special orders for cakes as well, with a selection of simply decorated confections behind the counter. There’s never a shortage of desserts adorned with fresh fruit, in the form of a fresh fruit tart with strawberries, mango and grapes lacquered in sweet syrup or the mango mousse cake with an entire half of a mango scored and glistening on top of the cake. As the hours of the day tick by, the selection dwindles, but you can usually manage to find at least a few egg tarts at the end of the day.
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A lineup of signature tortas in the making at Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park, CA.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Choose your own torta adventure at Cook's Tortas

Monterey Park Mexican $
Men in work boots and sweat-stained T-shirts wait in line next to police officers, elderly couples dressed in their Sunday best and weary-eyed parents with multiple kids in tow. They’re all there for the tortas, more than 20 in total, all displayed on a colorful menu on the back wall. The numbers seem random, with #316 denoting a Milanesa torta crammed with breaded steak, jalapeno, tomato and slathered with mayo, and the #26 referring to the California torta with avocado, grilled chicken and fried sage. If the guy behind the counter is feeling generous, you can build your own torta. And lettering at the top of the menu lets you know that you can have your torta lettuce wrapped, if you wish. But the bread may be the most enjoyable part of your sandwich, baked on site with a crunchy, ciabatta-like crust and a soft interior. While you can have anything from portobello mushrooms to smoked salmon in your torta, the #25, also known as the Bacalao, is hard to beat. It’s filled with a garlicky salted braised codfish, bell peppers, banana peppers, potatoes and olives. It tastes like an excellent fish stew clapped between two slices of really good bread. Whichever sandwich you choose, save room for a slice of great-grandmother’s corn cake for dessert.
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Mama Lu's Dumplings' signature dish: xiao long bao, or soup dumplings.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Go on the ultimate dumpling crawl at Mandarin Deli, Mama Lu’s and PP Pop

Monterey Park Chinese $
You could plan a weekly dumpling crawl for months and never repeat a dumpling. There are dozens of styles to choose from in the city, but the following is your blueprint for three must-visit restaurants for excellent dumplings. Start with a plate of boiled leek and three delights dumplings from Mandarin Deli (marked on this map). The thick skins are wonderfully chewy around a filling of shrimp, pork, chives and soft leeks. Next, head to Mama Lu’s for a steamer basket full of xiao long bao. The dumplings will be full of hot soup so be cautious when you take that first bite. Nibble a hole in the skin and slurp out the hot soup, then dunk the dumpling in some provided vinegar and chile sauce and plop the now-cooled dumpling into your mouth. Follow these tips or don’t. You may end up with a dumpling squirt of hot liquid across the table. Finish the crawl with a plate of pan-fried pork and leek dumplings at PP Pop, a restaurant also known for its excellent beef noodle soup. The dumplings are connected by a thin, crisp layer of dumpling lace created by a cornstarch slurry that’s added to the pan while frying. Crack it apart and make sure to get a little bit of the crunchy lace in each bite.
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Fresh farm produce at the Monterey Park Farmer's Market on Thursday afternoons.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Get fresh produce and fancy cotton candy at the Monterey Park farmers market

Monterey Park Farmers Market $
Only open on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., the market is adjacent to the tennis courts at Barnes Park. A band serenades the market with oldies opposite the vendors, creating a lively atmosphere when the sun goes down. And the band provides entertainment for the diners seated at the picnic tables lined up near the market. There’s a solid selection of produce, with vendors dedicated to leafy vegetables and fresh fruit, but what makes this market special is a food court area with various prepared foods. A man in a chef’s hat sells cotton candy shaped like flowers or fluffy animals with big round ears. People stroll sipping cups of boba tea or Thai tea from one vendor while they peruse the pupusas and tamales from another. With plenty of room to roam in the park before or after the market, it’s kid-friendly and a good option for dinner in the park.
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Fresh seafood options at the counter in 99 Ranch Market.
(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Collect all the good snacks at 99 Ranch Market

Monterey Park Market $
The seafood counter on weekday mornings is a busy traffic jam of carts and shoppers, all vying for that evening’s dinner. There are fresh crabs and lobsters in open tanks and a wide variety of whole fish on ice. It’s a favorite place to pick up provisions for any recipe, but especially useful if you happen to be making food that stems from anywhere on the largest continent in the world. The snack aisles, frozen cases and produce sections are where the real gems are found. Pick up milk tea Kit Kat and salted egg potato chips, boba tea pops and frozen scallion pancakes or fresh durian and persimmons depending on the season. Visit in the early afternoon for shorter lines at the checkout stands and fewer hands reaching for the same bunch of scallions.
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The Venice Room for tr-places-to-sing-karaoke.
(Ada Tseng / Los Angeles Times)

Grill your own steaks at the Venice Room

Monterey Park American $
The bar and restaurant is one of the only real nightlife spots in the city, with a full bar and hours that stretch into the next morning. The bartenders are knowledgeable enough to concoct any libation you may request and friendly enough to make the effort. What you’re really here for though, are drinks and steaks. The bar serves raw steaks you season and grill yourself in the dining room. There’s in array of lemon pepper, Lawry’s, onion salt and pretty much any other dry seasoning you can think of on a shelf next to some oil near the grill. Season your meat however you like then use a pair of provided tongs to put your steak on the grill. Diners usually watch their steaks closely, so you won’t need to worry about keeping track of yours when the grill starts to fill up later in the evening. There’s usually an older regular camped out near the grill offering unsolicited tips, in case you need a little guidance as to which part of the grill is hottest and whether you should oil your steak before you season it. Opposite the grill is a salad station where you can dress your wooden bowl of chopped iceberg with the usual dressings. Meals come with foil-wrapped baked potatoes too, and ice cream for dessert. If you spring for the full dinner special, your server will bring an entire bottle of house wine to the table. There are worse ways to end the evening.
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