Tianjin-Style Grub in Los Angeles

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Originally posted on KCET. For more info and photos click here.

Located next to Beijing, Tianjin is a coastal city in China that capitalizes on their abundant seafood and river fish. Like its northern neighbors, the province is inundated with dough. Noodles are plenty, but unlike in its neighbor Beijing, noodle ingredients are often served separately; you’re expected to mix them up yourself at the table.

Signature dishes include guobacai, a gravy-like soup littered with mung bean flakes and the wonderful Tianjin bun, a thick doughy bao stuffed with meat. It’s akin to Shanghainese soup dumplings, but it’s the size of a fist and the skin is much thicker. Tianjin also has an interesting selection of breakfast foods that can’t be found anywhere else.

Here are two restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area that specializes in Tianjin cuisine:

Tianjin Bistro
Owner Jinling Tian used to own restaurants in Tianjin; when she moved to Los Angeles, she opened up a restaurant dedicated to her hometown. Located in a small strip mall off of Valley Boulevard near San Gabriel Boulevard, the entire menu is dedicated to Tianjin-specialties. Try the dongbei da lapi (known as tan jin shredded on their menu), a mung bean noodle dish accompanied with shredded pork, egg strips, julienned vegetables, and hot mustard. Give it a good mix before eating. Bun aficionados: Tianjin Bistro has quite a selection. Our recommendations: pork buns (sesame-crusted bread stuffed with fatty pork cubes and parsley), chive turnovers (pan-fried buns stuffed with chives, egg, and pork), and their rendition of Tianjin buns (one order comes with eight and it’s their best-selling item). Seafood is everywhere on the menu. Spicy crawfish comes whole and sauteed with peppers, and there’s a dish called tie bo bo ao xiao yu with whole yellow croakers served with fresh cornbread. Watch out: you’re going to have to manually pick out the bones out. 534 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776; 626-288-9966.

(For more on Tianjin Bistro, see my Serious Eats profile here)

Garage Restaurant
Chinese breakfast places are common in the San Gabriel Valley, but the majority of them have either Taiwanese or Cantonese roots. Rarely do you stumble across a breakfast place that’s specifically dedicated to Tianjin breakfast foods. In fact, Garage Restaurant might be the only one. The owner used to run the entire operation out of her garage, hence the name. It’s a small store in Monterey Park where you can get your hands on egg pancakes, leek turnovers, and youtiao, a Chinese version of crullers. Unique to Tianjin’s breakfast repertoire is the guobaicai, a thick soup flavored with chili oil, a light soy sauce, fermented milk, sesame sauce, and parsley, and topped with strips of dried mung beans (made from a crispy pancake composed of millet and mung bean flour). The jianbing guozi is another specialty item — a scallion egg crepe spread with a mung bean paste wrapped around a youtiao. Don’t leave without trying the tang pi, which is essentially a fried dough mound baked with brown sugar. It’s an ugly sight, but the taste is reminiscent of a donut with a much more conservative sugar level. Tianjin breakfast foods all sound and look very unconventional, but if you’re a first timer, the rule of thumb is to order things with dough, sugar, and/or egg. You can hardly go wrong with those combinations. 123 N. Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park, CA 91755; (626) 573-9088.

(For more on Garage Restaurant, see my L.A. Times feature here.)