Once upon a time this was my grandmother's favorite restaurant. But it wasn't called Chang's Garden then (believe it or not). Nor was it Cafe St. Michel, nor Mediterranean Cafe, nor any of the previous incarnations of this location. Nope, I'm going way back a couple of decades to when the place was called Jeannie's.
To be honest, I spent half an hour trying to remember the name of the place. I could not. I remembered that it was one word and I thought it was a person's name, but I just couldn't get there. Then I had an idea: query the California ABC website. The oldest listing did not include a DBA, but it did have the name of the owner: Jeannie. Then it all came flooding back. I can't remember how many meals I ate with my brother and grandmother at Jeannie's, but it was a lot.
I immediately emailed my friend Bryce, with whom I have been discussing Asian restaurants around the San Gabriel Valley for almost a decade. "Have you ever been here?" I asked.
"How funny you ask," was his reply. "Been meaning to. My parents told me about it several weeks ago- they love it and buy tons of take-out and eat it for days at a time."
We intended to visit Chang's Garden soon after that, but something always came up. Eventually we made it there, bringing along Bryce's two-year old daughter, Lucy. (Her favorite thing to say to me is "Hi Uncle Justin!," a phrase she repeated no fewer than 50 times during lunch, though I'll be honest: I never get tired of it.)
"No," he said, "let's start with some."
One minute later he asked me if I like fish; I said yes.
"Wanna try the seaweed fried fish?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, realizing at the time we were going to have a lot of food.
"He likes spicy," Bryce interjected.
"It's really, really spicy," she replied. I am not sure if she thought the additional adverb would make me rethink things (Hmm, well, I can take really spicy, but not really, really spicy) but I still smiled and said "That sounds great."
It was delicious. Would I call it "really" spicy? Just barely. It did not blow me away, but the heat was there. Bryce announced after eating some that he was perspiring, and I could feel my forehead heating up too, but at no point did I need anything more than my little cup of tea and I did not hesitate to have a second and third helping.
"Let's give some to Lucy," I said.
(The tone in Bryce's voice suggested this was not negotiable and I let it go.)
"If you haven't made the fried fish we ordered," Bryce told the waitress, "can you cancel that? We're both stuffed." She said okay and walked away, returning 30 seconds later with the dish.
But I was glad she did, because this dish was fascinating. The batter was as delicate as any I have ever had. I'm not sure how they managed to envelop the fish so completely and keep the ultra-thin batter intact, to say nothing of the fact that it was not at all oily. The fish was as fresh as the previous fish entree, and the seawood and salt flavors worked wonderfully together. I cannot think of a single dish I have ever had quite like this and yet each bite seemed so familiar, like it's something I have been eating and loving my whole life.
Not only do I like Chang's Garden much, much more than I ever liked Jeannie's, I liked it more than any Chinese restaurant I have been to in Arcadia or Monrovia. There are no fewer than one dozen items I would like to return and try.