A Tale of Three Cities: Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles
Second in a three-part series. Find Part 1 (San Francisco) here.
The Los Angeles metropolitan area may have a greater variety and larger number of authentic Chinese restaurants than the San Francisco Bay Area, where authentic Chinese food may be found almost anywhere. However, in Los Angeles, Chinese restaurants are much more geographically concentrated than in the Bay. Indeed, this leaves vast expanses of the Los Angeles area with little or no authentic Chinese food, forcing many Angelinos to travel a great distance in search of that perfect Chinese meal. Here’s why.
By now, most people familiar with Chinese food in America have heard of the San Gabriel Valley, several miles east of downtown Los Angeles and home to the best collection of authentic Chinese food in the nation. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that the 100 best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles County are in the San Gabriel Valley. Or maybe 200. Maybe even 300. For those unfamiliar with the layout of Los Angeles, I should explain that we are not talking about a small geographic area when measured against other U.S. cities. Sixteen miles separate Alhambra in west San Gabriel Valley to West Covina in the east, and from West Covina south to Rowland Heights is another dozen miles. And in the context of the sprawling Los Angeles metropolitan area, the San Gabriel Valley is another long distance away from most residents.
Now, there are a few small concentrations of good Chinese restaurants outside the San Gabriel Valley. In the South Bay area, particularly along Pacific Coast Highway running through Torrance and Lomita, there are a number of excellent authentic Chinese restaurants, such as P V Palace, Shanghai Palace, and Harbor Palace. In the Cerritos-Artesia area is another concentration of Chinese eateries, and interestingly this area has spawned some of the more innovative Chinese dessert and snack parlors in the Los Angeles area, such as Guppy House and Milk and Honey. And there’s still Los Angeles Chinatown which does provide some decent Chinese food. But nothing in any of these locales compares to the San Gabriel Valley, though if you go to neighboring Orange County, branches of San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants have opened up in Irvine, including 101 Noodle Express, Liang’s Kitchen, Four Sea, and Capital Seafood. Otherwise, wide swaths of the Los Angeles area measuring thousands of square miles, from Hollywood to West Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach to the Antelope Valley to the surrounding counties, are devoid of authentic Chinese food aside from an occasional outpost here and there.
So why the geographic concentration of Chinese food, and why in the San Gabriel Valley? Once again, the pages of history provide our answer. As noted in my piece on finding Chinese food in San Francisco, Chinese were a visible presence in 1950s and 1960s San Francisco. In contrast, the few thousand of us mostly Toishanese Chinese residents in 1950s and early 1960s Los Angeles were an insignificant number scattered throughout those parts of the city that would accept us as residents. The local Chinese population only began its explosion in the 1970s, meaning most Chinese families are relative newcomers to the area, the large majority of whom ended up settling in the San Gabriel Valley.
Why San Gabriel? Prior to the new immigration wave, there were a few geographic pockets where clusters of Chinese families had gravitated, including El Sereno and other parts of the predominantly Hispanic area of East Los Angeles, and the largely African-American area of South Los Angeles. Suddenly, starting in the early 1960s, a number of eastside Chinese residents moved to nearby Monterey Park, and in particular to the newly developed Monterey Highlands community. Others from South L.A. followed. So while the literature credits visionary Chinese immigrant real estate developers in the late 1970s and 1980s with founding the Asian community by selling Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in advertisements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, those ads probably would not have occurred but for this 1960s movement of Toishanese Chinese and other Asians into Monterey Park. Monterey Park and the San Gabriel Valley became an ideal suburban area for new waves of Chinese immigrants to settle in, far superior to the aging downtown Chinatown. In the past four decades, starting in Monterey Park, then the neighboring towns of Alhambra and San Gabriel and ultimately points eastwards, the San Gabriel Valley has turned into one giant Asian-influenced community. So even though the Toishanese are now a very small minority of the Chinese residents in the Los Angeles area, they paved the way in establishing today’s San Gabriel Valley.
Still, Chinese food did not immediately follow the Chinese community into the San Gabriel Valley. It wasn’t until around 1976 that the first authentic Chinese restaurant, the long defunct Kin Kwok, opened up in Monterey Park and would begin to make its culinary mark. And it would be almost another decade before the San Gabriel Valley would fully wrest the Chinese food mantel away from Los Angeles Chinatown. But ever since the mid-1980s, the San Gabriel Valley has been the place to go for Chinese food, with both the geographic footprint of the Chinese community, and the available varieties of regional Chinese cuisine expanding continuously from that time to the present.
Nobody knows how many Chinese restaurants there are in the San Gabriel Valley, but on one street alone, Valley Boulevard, running from Alhambra east for nine miles into El Monte, there are roughly 200. A listing of the top Chinese restaurants in the country is dominated by the San Gabriel Valley, with an incredible breadth and depth of Chinese cuisine spanning numerous regional styles of Chinese food. Are you partial to dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood? Sea Harbour in Rosemead, Lunasia and King Hua in Alhambra and Elite in Monterey Park are four of the best in the country. Sichuan your style? Chung King and Lucky Noodle King in San Gabriel are two of many options. Shanghai food choices including xioalongbao (steamed buns)? Mei Long Village in San Gabriel and Din Tai Fung in Arcadia are two of the best among many others. Guilin-style rice noodles? Try the Steam Queen chain. Taiwanese food? Class 302 in Rowland Heights and Old Country Café in Alhambra are just two out of many dozen Taiwanese eateries. Dumplings your thing? Qingdao Bread Food and Mama’s Lu in Monterey Park and Luscious Dumplings in San Gabriel lead the parade. Chiu Chow style cooking? There’s Seafood Village in Temple City and 888 Seafood in Rosemead. Shandong-style beef rolls? Can’t beat 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra though there’s also dozens of others to try. Dongbei-style your preference? H & H in Monterey Park and Shen Yang in San Gabriel are two of the best. Uighur-style food? Get it at Omar’s in Alhambra and Silk Road Garden in Rowland Heights. Heavenly green onion pancakes? Find them at Earthen in Hacienda Heights. Real, not faux Hunan? Hunan Chili King in San Gabriel and Hunan Mao in Rosemead are among the best. Beijing-style? Go to Beijing Pie House in Monterey Park or Beijing Restaurant in San Gabriel. Hainan chicken? People literally line up for it at Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra. Yunnan-style? There’s the Yunnan Garden chain. You can even find Wuhan-style at Tasty Dining in San Gabriel, Shaanxi style at Shaanxi Gourmet in Rosemead, and Lizhou style sea snail broth at Happy Kitchen in San Gabriel. And the joke is that there’s a Hong Kong style café and a Shabu Shabu place on every block. (Some blocks have two.) That’s why I’m glad I live in Los Angeles.