Chang's Garden is a beacon for Shanghai style cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley.
I first became familiar with the intricacies of Shanghai-style cuisine thanks to Nicole Mones’ article in the October 2003 issue of Gourmet magazine. Mones profiled the chefs of Juon Yuan and Green Village, restaurants situated near each other on the second floor of ever-changing San Gabriel Square mega-mall. Both restaurants deserved the acclaim, but for different reasons, they each now defunct, replaced by lesser establishments.
Thankfully, Juon Yuan chef and Taiwan native Henry Chang soon resurfaced in Arcadia, relocating east to open Chang’s Garden near Santa Anita Park in 2004. I first experienced Chang’s Garden after refusing to endure another ridiculous wait at Arcadia’s Din Tai Fung Dumpling House, opting to scour the neighborhood for a dining alternative. It didn’t take long; Chang’s Garden is around the corner from Din Tai Fung, in the strip mall space located closest to Duarte Road.
We received complimentary boiled peanuts that sure tasted like they were cooked in tea.
The industrial design features metal plates with circular cut-outs, Christmas lights and colorful globe ornaments.
Despite the decorative steel plate strung with faux chile peppers, Shanghai-style cuisine isn’t known for spice, but Chang’s Garden certainly packed flavor.
We had a lot of fun with our brutally honest Chinese Zodiac placemats. Bryan, Allison and I quickly located our birth years. I’m a Dragon, “eccentric” and “complex.” The placemat advised me to “Marry a Monkey or Rat late in life,” and to “Avoid the Dog.”
To start, we split Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf (4 for $9.95). Unfurling still-hot leaves revealed chile-flecked glutinous rice and a single spare rib, super-tender and aromatic from being steamed in lotus leaves.
Green Bean in Chinese Pan Cake ($7.95) featured a tender green bean cluster seasoned with tiny dried shrimp and rolled in flaky pastry.
On subsequent visits, I enjoyed Beef Chinese Roll ($9.95) teaming tender brisket with cucumber, cilantro and hoisin in a pancake that was more chewy than flaky.
Seven years later, Bryan and I still talk about the scallion pie we ate at the now-diminished Dumpling Master. This Green Onion Pie ($3.75) was better, not greasy, and crispy without being dry.
Allison’s become infatuated with rice cakes. Whenever we’re at a Shanghai-style restaurant, it’s a given that an order will end up on our table. This evening was no exception. Shanghai Style Rice Cakes ($6.95) were pan-fried with soy sauce until the exteriors were slightly crusty. The cakes were tossed with onions, pork, spinach, and did I detect a hint of ginger?
Fish Fillet With Hot Bean Sauce ($10.95) is another Shanghai stand-by. Our waiter identified the fish as flounder, though it tasted like cod. Hot beans are not beans at all, but a garlicky, flame-red chile sauce whose heat built in intensity with each bite.
At later meals, Seaweed Fried Fish ($10.95) starred flaky yellow croaker with crispy batter laced with seaweed strands.
Pork Chop with Pepper Salt ($11.95) was another highlight, tossed with cilantro, garlic and jalapeños.
Allison spotted an enticing plate of green vegetables on the next table and asked our waiter what it was. Sautéed Vegetable ($10.95) involved snow pea shoots in garlic sauce, a light respite with thin-sliced, cooked garlic cloves.
Chang’s Garden offers no desserts, but with our check, we received orange slices and fortune cookies. Apparently I “will be fortunate with everything I put (my) hands on.”
There aren’t many restaurants that can share a city block with Din Tai Fung Dumpling House and hold their own. In my opinion, there’s only one: Chang’s Garden. Now, when I drive to Arcadia, pulling into the Din Tai Fung lot is no longer an automatic response.