Located in a small strip mall behind a gas station and a Starbucks, Lee’s Garden is easy to miss.
“This is just an old restaurant,” says its owner, Jack Lee, who afternoons and evenings, six days a week, can be found at the register or seated nearby reading a Chinese newspaper and chatting with his regulars.
Dennis Kiu — the owner of a popular West Hollywood Chinese restaurant and one of those regulars — disagrees. Lee's Garden may be one of Alhambra's oldest Taiwanese delis, but it is also among his favorite Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles.
Before driving west to his own restaurant, Genghis Cohen, Kiu often stops by Lee's Garden. He orders a Styrofoam combination plate loaded with the type of simple homestyle Chinese food his Americanized menu lacks: scrambled or hot-oil eggs, cucumber in white wine sauce, potato strips stir fried with garlic and a bit of green onion.
“You always get something quick and simple, and everyday with different choices,” said Kiu, 42, who has been going to the restaurant since he was a student at Alhambra High. “It’s homemade, like family.”
Lee’s Garden was a pioneer on Valley Boulevard, opening in 1984 when Chinese grocery stores and other services were just beginning the eastward expansion from Monterey Park. On weekends Taiwanese would arrive from around the state, and stop to eat at his deli. One man from New York sat down and ordered all 25 items on the menu at the time. Lee told him, “come back, no problem,” and that he did not have to order everything in one sitting. But the man refused to listen. The menu now has more items, but it’s the same dry erase boards on the back wall as it has been there since opening day. Lee notes that the most popular items are the specials, with 90 percent of his customers ordering one of the typical Taiwanese lunch or dinner plates which are somewhat coded by letter, B for beef, C for chicken. The plates come in a disposable version of a bento box — called a bian dang (便當) in Taiwan, whose meaning roughly translates to lunch box — and are loaded with portions of meat or fish, rice, tofu, egg and vegetables. Rice dishes are served with the meat over the rice, a chunk of tofu, pickled cabbage and a tea egg (a hard boiled egg soaked in tea and spices).
The menu is pan-Chinese, with a Taiwanese comfort food influence — and some recipes specific to the island where the Lee's come from. Favorites include o-ah jien (an oyster pancake or omelet). Another typical Taiwanese item is chou dofu (strong odor tofu) in the Taiwanese style. Created by fermenting tofu in plant matter, the resultant strong odor is off putting to many and an acquired taste. Tony Chen, of Sinosoul.com, declared the chou dofu at Lee’s Garden the best, and stinkiest. Despite this acclaim, Mr. Lee says the stinky tofu is more trouble than its worth and he wants to stop serving it since only about 1 percent of his customers order it.
Lee’s wife, Chiuchu, is responsible for the food, a skill she displayed from their first encounter as children in their native Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan that is the second largest on the island. Then just an 11-year-old girl, she was cooking rice by at a wood stove when Lee met her. “In my house everybody knows how to cook,” she said. “Mama taught me.”
As adults they married, and together immigrated to California, following his older brother, who had come to the United States in 1964 to attend UCLA. In Taiwan, Lee had studied veterinary medicine, but working in that profession was not an option in the United States. Instead, Lee initially settled in Anaheim and worked at the post office in the City of Industry. Looking for a career with more growth potential, he opened Lee’s Garden in 1984 with his older brother’s investment. “With neither a specialty nor good English skill, opening a restaurant seemed an appealing choice,” he said, plus, “My wife, she cook so good."
But just three months after opening, Lee wished he hadn’t done it. During the first few months he kept his job at the post office, so he had to work long hours in the restaurant and do night shifts. “Everyday we work like a horse,” he said. “Twelve hours every day.” Soon, however, the restaurant was doing well, and Mr. Lee decided to quit the job at the post office — though the work never let up.
The initial clientele was predominantly from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, but it’s increasingly from Mainland China, reflecting shifts in Alhambra’s population. The cuisine has also reflected these changes. “A lot of the typical Taiwanese dishes that we had when we first started are gone now,” Lee said, “Because mainlanders and people outside of Taiwan rarely order them.”The work never let up, but serving all that comfort food put his children through school. His oldest daughter is a teacher, his second daughter is attending UCLA, and his youngest, a son, is preparing to go off to college. Lee says when son graduates, that’s it — he’s closing the restaurant.