Shanghai-style Chinese food is in effect at Ding's Garden.
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.
Pickle, pork pan fried rice cake ($8.15) consisted of springy rice cake slices cooked with bitter stalks and leaves from a “snow vegetable” and juicy pork squiggles.
Pork chop, fried rice and egg ($8.15) involved a thin-cut chop, panko-crusted and fried, 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 beef tendon slices.
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.
We ordered Pickled fish with old grandmother’s wine ($5.45) based on the name alone.
If my old grandmother busted out her wine and decided to cook with it, game on. Skin-on, tangy fish slice 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. We learned the paste, which also contains peanuts, scallions and infused pork chunks, works even better when tempered with noodles.
Shanghai style pan fried wonton ($8.15) were especially good, filled with a juicy combo of pork and bay shrimp and dippable in scallion studded soy sauce.
Spicy beef noodle and tendon soup (6.35) wasn’t very murky, contained spinach, thin flour noodles and tasted heavy on star anise, which was fine by me.
Interesting Chinese-inspired drinks included passion fruit with aloe juice, papaya milk, and my choice, sweet Plum Green tea ($2) served over ice.
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.