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At lunchtime, a line starts to form in front of Lu’s Garden in San Gabriel. Right in front of the entrance is a narrow walkway and a long counter with a line of buffet trays filled with braised pork, lap cheong (a type of dried, sweetened Chinese sausage) and more. Stacked behind them are bowls filled with more dishes like sautéed string beans and bok choy. The kitchen staff can be seen replenishing the various buffet trays seemingly every five to ten minutes, keeping them full as hungry patrons file through.

Both dine-in and takeout customers choose their dishes based on what’s at the counter – there are more than enough options, as Lu’s Garden generally has fifty different dishes at a time. To the right of the order line is a spacious dining room, where each table is stacked high with an array of vegetables and meats. On most tables you can also see a red metal pot filled with rice porridge and a vivid pop of color, as bright orange sweet potato floats tantalizingly inside. Sure, some customers order rice here, but the porridge – or congee – is what Lu’s Garden has always been known for.

Lu Shi Sam opened the original Lu’s Garden in Taipei back in 1974 before he immigrated to San Gabriel in 1989, where he opened and operated the current Lu’s Garden for many years. The restaurant gained a loyal following with his porridge and the assortment of traditional Taiwanese dishes that Lu offered. When he retired, about twenty years ago, he sold the business to Sophia Fan. Lu Shi Sam passed away in 2019, but his daughter, Debbie Lu, still works at Lu’s Garden even under the new ownership and continues her father’s legacy.

Debbie Lu has worked at Lu’s Garden since she was around twenty years old. “I worked with my father and now I work with Sophia,” Debbie Lu explained, “I know every procedure in the kitchen, because I started in the kitchen when I was younger.” Now she works as a manager but still makes sure the quality of the food remains the same as when his father used to run the restaurant.

Lunchtime at Lu’s is especially popular because of the lunch combo deal. For $15.99, diners get a choice of three items served with porridge (or rice). A small portion of each item is served; the choice of three makes up enough food for a satisfying meal with a nice variety.

Every regular customer has their own favorites here, but some of the most popular items are the pan-fried whole squid, braised bamboo shoots, braised pork belly, and sautéed bean curds. Another popular one is a dish called “flies’ head,” a Taiwanese stir fry dish of minced pork, chives, bird’s eye chili and the fermented black beans that gave the dish its name. All the dishes at Lu’s Garden are traditional Taiwanese or Chinese dishes and are meant to be side dishes eaten with porridge, much like one would accompany a bowl of rice.

Congee is a comfort food that can be found in many Asian cuisines. Chinese congee is savory and usually eaten plain or just with a bit of soy sauce, green onions, and a piece of youtiao (Chinese cruller) on the side, but the dish becomes more embellished as it makes its way to other kitchens – take the Indonesian bubur ayam, in which it’s served with shredded chicken, crispy shallots, and more. In most cultures, it’s usually eaten as breakfast or a late night meal – warm, filling, and easy to eat and digest. Adding sweet potato to rice porridge the way Lu’s Garden does is common practice in Taiwan. The sweet potato adds a bit of a natural sweetness, and the starch gives the porridge a thicker consistency. It also harkens back to the World War II era and the hard times that followed, particularly the rice shortage. Sweet potato became a staple crop, as it was easier to grow on the hillsides and more drought tolerant. Making congee or rice porridge and adding sweet potatoes were a way to maximize what little rice they had during the shortage, becoming a substitute for a bowl of steamed rice. At Taiwanese establishments these days, it’s typical to have a myriad of side dishes to choose from to enjoy with your bowl of porridge.

This nostalgic porridge and the traditional Taiwanese and Chinese dishes that accompany it are what brings diners to Lu’s Garden. There are around fifty dishes available at Lu’s Garden at any point in time. “Most of the menu is always available; we only change the seasonal vegetables,” said Debbie, “We make sure that the taste remains the same, that’s how we have so many returning customers.” The fact that the kitchen staff keeps refilling the buffet trays is because they only cook a small portion of each dish at a time. “That way it’s always fresh,” Debbie explained. Throughout the day they may end up cooking each dish ten times a day – or more for the popular ones.

As a restaurant that’s been open for 34 years, Lu’s Garden has naturally seen generational changes in their customer base, but they see a personal continuity. Lu’s Garden has been in business for so many years mostly due to word of mouth and the loyalty of their longtime customers. “I see that a lot of customers are second generation [Chinese or Taiwanese immigrants],” Debbie said, “When they eat here it’s like a childhood memory. And then they bring their kids in.”

Social media doesn’t seem to play a huge role since Lu’s doesn’t even allow guests to take photos of their food (we got a special permission to take photos for this article). As for new customers that come in on their own for the first time, “usually they heard it from friends,” Debbie noted.  There’s been some confusion with another porridge place also named Lu’s Garden in City of Industry, but the two restaurants are actually not affiliated. At Lu’s Garden in San Gabriel, the team doesn’t seem too bothered by it, as their regulars know where to find them.

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Fiona Chandra

Published on August 07, 2023

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