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SGVegan: Five Essential Plant-Based Restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]ong ago, before Impossible burgers and ‘vegetable-forward’ seasonal menus became buzzwords in L.A.’s restaurant scene, the San Gabriel Valley served vegan and vegetarian food without the slightest sense of pretension. 

Due to immigration patterns in the 2000s, the S.G.V. has been a powerhouse for regional Chinese food. Along with this gastronomic bounty came a few meatless menus for the immigrants who were Buddhists, Hindu, or simply health-conscious. For the most part, when you make the trek to these neighborhood gems—almost always a hole-in-the-wall and in a strip mall—that’s who their clientele is, too. There will be a crossover of punk rockers, Millenials taking photos of their food, and older long-haired customers along with their local clientele, because, Los Angeles.

The dishes at these restaurants are affordable, unassuming, and it is very likely that you will have leftovers due to the generous portions. If there are meat substitutes, the menus usually don’t say which vegetables, grains, or legumes they’re made from. Nevermind the decor, background music, or service. It’s all about the food cooked with soul. The best of it all? Parking is always plentiful. 

Some of them might not be strictly vegan and unless you are fluent in food-ordering Mandarin, Cantonese, or Vietnamese, it might best to practice flexitarianism while dining here. 

A self-made plate of brown rice, veggie shrimp, squid, and pork with vegetables and mushroom-based fried chicken at Happy Family in Monterey Park
A self-made plate of brown rice, veggie shrimp, squid, and pork with vegetables and mushroom-based fried chicken at Happy Family in Monterey Park

Happy Family Restaurant

Many food critics have praised the Chinese food in Monterey Park, and that’s where we’ll start because it is also the closest to the hungry vege-heads who will be zipping down the 10 east. Located a few steps from the AMC Theatre on Atlantic Boulevard and Hellman Avenue, Happy Family is perhaps the best known vegan restaurant in the Valley. It has a relatively small dining room with a gigantic menu—168 items—of family-style Chinese food. Popular dishes here include the Crispy Seaweed Rolls with Taro, Kung Pao Chicken, Vegetable Fish with Brown Sauce, Pumpkin Eggplant Tofu Curry, Walnut Shrimp, Fried Kabocha Squash, and Crispy Oyster Mushroom. You order a la carte, or all-you-can-eat if you are particularly voracious. Note: Even the AYCE option is all made-to-order, no buffet tins here.

The mushroom-based chicken is the headliner here, with the crunch of the batter, the flesh-like texture of the mushrooms, and the sweet and savory sauce. Of course, bean curd does not taste like actual pork but that is beside the point; the texture and seasoning are good. The squid and shrimp, made from an unidentified vegetable base, is remarkably snappy seafood-like. All of the vegetables are perfectly cooked, which is paramount for many vegans who are sworn against meat alternatives.

Happy Family Restaurant. 500 N Atlantic Blvd. Ste 171, Monterey Park, CA 91754. (626) 282-8986

Thien Tam Vegetarian Restaurant

There is much more to the San Gabriel Valley than just Monterey Park and Alhambra. Let’s make our way mid-Valley, to El Monte and Garvey Avenue. The Vietnamese diaspora has steadily expanded in this area over the last two decades, and thanks to that, we have Thien Tam. If the checkered floor, blue walls, and faux-granite table don’t put you in the mood for some noodles, the low prices and ever-peaceful elderly clientele should definitely do the trick.

Two bowls of Bun Bi Cha Gio at Thien Tam in El Monte
Two bowls of Bun Bi Cha Gio at Thien Tam in El Monte

The egg rolls in their Bun Bi Cha Gio, vermicelli with shredded tofu and peanuts, vegan egg rolls, grilled veggie ham, and topped with vegan fish sauce, are particularly out of sight. Thien Tham serves all the usuals you’d find at a standard pho shop. Some things are served ready-made, like the Cha Lua Tofu Ham Roast, Banh It (durian, coconut, and mung bean sticky rice dumplings), and the Banh Mi sandwiches. Made to order, there are plenty of varieties of bun and pho, as well as stir-fries and “chicken” dishes. Future meal plans for myself include the bun rieu with tomato broth, and bun bo hue (spicy ‘beef’ noodle soup).

Thien Tam Vegetarian Restaurant. 10345 Garvey Ave., El Monte, CA 91733. (626) 579-1050

Garden Fresh Vegan Food

Now that you’ve been indoctrinated into our affordable food SGV ways, let’s cruise to the deep east Valley, east of the 605 and the San Gabriel Riverbed. In the Metro L.A. imagination, Hacienda Heights almost doesn’t exist. But it’s an important place, founded on the land that was Rancho La Puente, homestead of the Workmans, the Temples, and burial place of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. 

Enter Garden Fresh Vegan Food on Gale Avenue. A stalwart of the community, established in 1993 and located in Stimson Plaza between a psychic, a folklorico shop, and across the street from Deja Vu. What makes their Taiwanese-Korean offerings stand out is the eye-popping taste of healthiness. Instead of loading you up with salt and cornstarch, it’s turmeric, cardamom, and ginger-infused tofu, freshly squeezed juices (watermelon, elderflower, and lavender lemonade), and herbal hot pots to boost vitality.

Lunchtime is crunch time here. City of Industry’s vegan workforce phones in orders for their ‘bento boxes’ in advance, to avoid losing out on limited supplies. From 11 AM to 2 PM, the shop offers rotating two to four item lunch special combos. Heavy hitters here include the gorgeous Soy Fish with Chili Sauce, Stinky Tofu with Kimchi, Spicy Noodle Soup, Sesame Chicken Chow Mein, and out of sight Bean Curds. There are a few Japanese and Thai dishes sprinkled in, but despite the many delicious entrees, make sure to leave room for dessert. They have vegan ice cream and muffins. Another word to the wise: The menu is not very descriptive. If you can’t tell what looks good, ask.

Garden Fresh Vegan Food. 16034 Gale Ave , Hacienda Heights, CA 91745. (626) 968-2279 

India Fresh

You can get to our next stop by sliding down to Azusa Avenue and heading North to San Bernardino Road in Covina. Across the street from the iconic Clearman’s Northwoods Inn snow-covered A-frame and near Chuck E. Cheese, is the deal of the century: India Fresh

This deli market is an S.G.V. legend. In addition to providing an amazing selection of spices, sauces, and frozen goods, the proprietor who simply goes by ‘Baloo’ puts out rotating mixes of Indian classics for customers to pair with basmati rice and naan. Much of it is vegan, some are vegetarian, and there are meat dishes too. Just ask them what’s up. I went with a friend and we got two Tandoori Specials with two items each: Sindhi Okra Potato Curry & Gobi Manchurian (cauliflower, glazed somewhat like kung pao or orange chicken), and Chana Masala (chickpea curry) & Daal (lentil and bean curry). We also had vegetable pakora, non-vegan fritters with potato, onion, coriander, and chickpeas fried in egg, and dipped in minty green Hari Chutney and tamarind-based Imli Chutney.

Two Tandoori Specials with garlic naan at India Fresh in Covina
Two Tandoori Specials with garlic naan at India Fresh in Covina

Even though you may think otherwise, all the dishes taste better because the flavors have been coming together all day under the heat lamps. The daal (lentils) and chana masala (garbanzo beans) are creamy and stick nicely to the naan, and the okra and cauliflower are hearty and fresh. Protip: The urge to add a samosa or pakora on the side is a strong one but the combos alone are really filling.

India Fresh. 553 N Azusa Ave, Covina, CA 91722. (626) 974-6666

Szechuwan Garden

Let’s empty out those pockets for this flavor bomb of a vegetarian restaurant. As well as having the highest menu prices on this list, it also boasts the most aggressive and addictive flavors. Residing on good ‘ol Route 66 in Glendora is Szechuwan Garden. It is not a vegetarian restaurant, but they offer a good size auxiliary vegan menu and a sushi menu.

The Tangerine Beef with brown rice is a standout with its deliciously meaty fake meat. There is also a decent-sized vegetable section, with fantastic Braised Tofu with Mushrooms in Brown Sauce, Szechuan Eggplant, and other various mixed spicy veggie that exude the breath of the wok. I am still petitioning them to sub in the vegan meats for their incredible House Pan Fried Noodles (which come covered in perfect, crisp vegetables), and maybe they will modify it for you if you ask nicely. 

Szechuwan Garden. 1932 E Rte 66, Glendora, CA 91740. (626) 335-9055

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