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Sugar Spice Café: Ladies who lunch in the SGV

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A few weeks ago, food maven extraordinaire Jonathan Gold described this new restaurant, saying “There are ladies who lunch….and ladies who lunch in Chengdu.” Drawn by this description, I pulled together a posse of ladies and headed for Sugar Spice Café, in the mini-mall next to the Hilton on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Unlike the usual SGV noodle joint, there is décor of which to speak: wicker chairs, comfy banquettes, and even a couch with a coffee table. All is clean, crisp. There are Chinese pop music videos on the flat-screen (although the songwriters all seem to have Scandinavian names). This alone could keep me happy for hours. And then comes the big surprise: the waitresses cook - or more accurately, assemble - the meals, from a salad-bar-like station behind the counter. Nary a chef was spotted; the tiny back room appeared to be a dishwashing and prep room.

Regardless, lunch at Sugar Spice Café was very good, with the extra added dimension of surprise that no one was actually cooking behind the counter where the very good food came from. The menu includes noodle bowls and hotpots, a few cold appetizers, teas and other drinks, and cookies (in addition to lunch/dinner, the café promotes tea and cookies in the afternoon). When we ordered the bean curd and greens appetizer, our waitress plopped a plastic container in the middle of our table. Within was a spicy mix of diced smoked bean curd and chopped mustard greens - a tasty way to start the meal. I’d assumed that the case full of cold appetizers was for take out, but it turned out to be for take out and eat in, all prepared ahead of time and stacked neatly in the the fridge. Our Plum Tea (too smoky for one guest) and Honey Chrysanthemum Tea (just right) came in plastic cups with lids and straws, as if we were about to go.

By contrast, the main dishes all came in rustic pottery bowls. The Beef Satay Noodles were fairly basic, including a flavorful, but not spicy sauce, beef, and well-steamed baby bok choy. The very garlicky Cold Sesame Noodles included only noodles, sauce, and some chopped cucumber. The Spicy Beef Hotpot was fun to look at and eat: steamed vegetables of all sorts, including tree ear mushrooms, lotus root, and half-slices of corn on the cob, in a fiery broth that included bean-thread noodles and was topped with what seemed like several tablespoons of hot pepper flakes. On a hot day, this spicy hotpot was light (no heavy wheat noodles) and effective; afterwards I felt as if I had purged all the bad energy that had accumulated since the last time I had very spicy food on Valley Boulevard. We also shared an onion pancake, which was respectably flaky and a good counterpoint to the hot broth (a point made on the menu, which has more than enough English to reassure ladies who don’t happen to be from Chengdu).

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So is it a plus or minus that Sugar Spice Café doesn’t seem to have a chef? In the restaurant’s favor are its atmosphere - this is a place where a leisurely conversation would be possible, unlike, say, at Luscious Dumpling - its menu, which is wide-ranging enough to include, as well, the Chicken Curry Rice that Mr. Gold particularly enjoyed, and the prices, including lunch specials from $4.95 up and tea-and-cake of an afternoon for the low low price of 75 cents. Against the waitress-assembly-line factor is that our dishes came out when they were ready; my hotpot arrived at least ten minutes after the other two noodle dishes. Although everything tasted fresh and tasty, one wonders when everything was precooked (perhaps there really IS one huge central kitchen under Valley Boulevard where master chefs labor, and Sugar Spice Café is the first restaurant to make that story undeniable). And certain things, like the bean curd and our drinks, came in plastic - not quite what a proper lady would approve. I’d recommend trying the Sugar Spice Café for lunch (it’d be great for a solo lunch, with all those videos to watch). Prices are reasonable for high-quality food, and the atmosphere is relaxing, which is hard to say for many other restaurants (except for, maybe, Bamboodles) in the SGV.

Sugar Spice Café
227 W Valley Boulevard (between New and Del Mar)
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 308-3777