A stroll through Hsi Lai, the largest Buddhist temple in the United States, was a good way to break up the gluttony on a multi-stop crawl through the eastern San Gabriel Valley with Danny Chen, who goes by Kung Food Panda. We started at Four Sea for a Taiwanese style breakfast, then the group drove east to Ding’s Garden, a restaurant that dates to 2004 and belongs to Shanghai natives Florence Ding and Simon Yu.
Eating, smelling and enjoying stinky tofu seem to be separate matters for a lot of people. The aroma is often overwhelming, no matter whether it’s fried or steamed. We opted for steamed stinky tofu in spicy sauce ($4.50), and the odor instantly wafted across the table, penetrating my nostrils with frightening intensity. “The steamed is definitely a lot stinkier, I’ll say that,” joked Chen, who devoured the spongy squares, which arrived in red, lip tingling chile oil, bobbing with scallions. The flavor was just fine, maybe even enjoyable on some visceral level, but the smell was enough to make me request that our server remove the bowl from the table. She did, and it was sweet relief.
Pork chop, fried rice and egg ($8.15) involved a thin-cut chop, panko-crusted and, fried and juicy panko, plated with fluffy, minimalist fried rice and minced pickled mustard greens, which were a good counterpoint to the rich meat.
Ding’s special cold plate ($14.55) was absolutely massive, loaded with soaked strips of bean curd, cartilage-streaked pig’s ear, hacks of beef tripe, crunchy seaweed knots and and spicy slices of beef tendon. With all the other interesting dishes, it’s probably not worth sinking $15 into a plate that’s available at a lot of restaurants and lost its appeal pretty quickly.
Pickled fish with old grandmother’s wine ($5.45) pretty much had to be ordered, based on the name alone. If my old grandmother busted out her wine and decided to cook with it, game on. The slices of skin-on, tangy fish were cool and firm, but the dish didn’t really live up to the epic name.
Incredibly, Shanghai BaBao Spicy brown paste ($5.45) normally comes on its own, in all its salty soy bean paste glory. However, the paste, which also contains peanuts, scallions and infused pork chunks, works even better when tempered with noodles, which is what we learned.
Even with a table of seven ravenous food bloggers, there were still a lot of avenues to explore on Ding’s sprawling menu, and those paths will definitely be passed in the future.