Meet Jean Chen Ho and friends: San Gabriel Valley Food Club

This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.

Inside an airy house in Alhambra on a February evening, writers Cherisse Yanit Nadal and Angela Peñaredondo fill their plates from a multicultural potluck spread out over a kitchen table: Thai fried rice, tacos de asada, steamed broccoli, samosas, drunken noodles, sushi, gyros, papaya salad and more.

Out in the sizable backyard, filling the chilly night air with chatter and laughter, is an equally eclectic group of authors: “Fiona and Jane” novelist Jean Chen Ho, Kaya Press managing editor Neelanjana Banerjee, “Beast Meridian” poet Vanessa Angélica Villarreal and her 7-year-old son, Joaquin, plus about a dozen other members of the San Gabriel Valley Food Club.

From left, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, Soraya Membreno and Douglas Brown forage at an Alhambra revival of the San Gabriel Valley Food Club.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

The SGV Food Club, as they call themselves, is a predominantly BIPOC coterie of about 30 friends — writers, students, academics, publishers, educators, editors, poets — committed to eating their way across Los Angeles’ eastern foodscape, from immigrant-run plaza spots to cash-only holes in the wall. For the latter, some have even set aside envelopes filled with dollar bills.

“Being part of the SGV Food Club, I can eyeball the table and know exactly how much we’re paying,” says Nadal. Her friends of her laugh.

“It’s like a secret superpower,” adds Jen Eleana Hofer, poet and translator.

After their first outing about six years ago, a table for eight following a poetry reading, the diners created a Google group to plan regular excursions. It’s been growing ever since. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their SGV jaunts returned into Zoom hangouts.

On a recent Wednesday night, they ditched their computers and phone cameras for a potluck, generously hosted by NPR journalist-producer Andrea Gutierrez at her home.

People fix plates from an overflowing potluck table

The SGV writers’ potluck was as eclectic as the writers assembled and included Thai fried rice, tacos de asada, samosas, drunken noodles, sushi, gyros, papaya salad and more.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

As with an SGV outing, no conversation is off-limits. They talk about careers, family, dating, heartbreak, works-in-progress, world news, video games, “Game of Thrones,” thrift-store finds. They celebrate each others’ successes, commiserate over challenges and share tips on outlets that value writers of color.

“I give a lot of unsolicited job advice,” admits Vickie Vértiz, a poet who drops f–bombs like a sailor. Ho and Hofer burst into laughter.

Many of the club members met through writing groups and literary events, others through MFA programs. Some were invited as one-time guests and just kept coming. F. Douglas Brown, a DJ, poet and high-school teacher who writes about Black fatherhood and other personal issues, says the group is a welcome break from the self-excavating work of writing.

“So much can destroy you when you’re triggered by the things you write about,” he says, “and to have a group where you don’t have to think about that… it’s a recovery.”

As the temperature drops, a group huddles around a fire pit, recounting their first SGV Food Club outing at Omar Restaurant in San Gabriel and musing on the joys and struggles of writing in this vast metropolis.

Jean Chen Ho raises her arm

Jean Chen Ho raises a ruckus as the SGV Food Club comes out of COVID hibernation in February.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve been writing outside lately because the weather has been wonderful,” says Nadal. “I’ve done my best writing in the last two years at benches at In-N-Out.” She tries to think through her work de ella in a car — with mixed results.

“I’m such an emotional driver that I’m not settled enough in my car during traffic to think of anything other than how wronged I was by the person who just cut me off.”

“The issues of our time are somehow more present in LA than in New York,” adds Leland Cheuk, author of “No Good Very Bad Asian.” “Here you really see the wealth inequality everywhere, climate change, all of it… We live in the future. If you’re interested in the future as a writer, you’re kind of living it here.”

After a while, Hofer comes over, warmly embraces Brown and listens in on the conversation, which has pivoted back to the glory of SGV — the valley, the food, the club.

“Most times, when you go out with writers and the bill is placed on the table, nobody wants to pay,” says Hofer. “But with us, we’re like ‘Here, take my $20. Take my money.’”

This professional club may be the best deal in town.

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