For any city with a historic 19th century Chinatown, the original locus of Chinese dining was obviously Chinatown. However, as my series has chronicled, the best Chinese dining in most of these cities has shifted to various suburban communities. In the case of Los Angeles, the shift has been especially complex. Like an army marching onward to the next hill, there has been a continuous eastward migration of Chinese residents, followed by a like movement of Chinese restaurants. The key to this push eastward is a strong preference of Los Angeles-area Chinese Americans for new housing developments, as capsulized by longtime resident Gordon Chow, who said, “You have to go east to find newer and cheaper homes.”
In my first Menuism article on Chinese food in Los Angeles, I described how 50 years ago, the first Chinese Americans were enticed to the new Monterey Highlands development in the hills of Monterey Park. The opening of the San Gabriel Valley neighborhood, located about seven miles east of downtown Los Angeles, and close to where many Chinese had been living at the time, coincided with the start of the civil rights movement. Asians and other minorities had been excluded from LA neighborhoods by numerous means including posted street signs saying “Negroes and Orientals not desired.” Japanese Americans, and to a lesser extent, Chinese Americans, were attracted to Monterey Park’s higher class of non-segregated housing. Monterey Highlands was followed shortly thereafter by the development of Altos de Monterey in the hills of nearby South Pasadena. However, Chinese migration there was delayed, as South Pasadena was historically one of the communities least tolerant of minorities.
Interestingly, there is a consistent and significant lag time between an influx of Chinese residents in a community to the initial appearance of authentic Chinese restaurants. Even though the Chinese population in Monterey Park grew throughout the 1960s and surpassed 2,000 by 1970, the first authentic Chinese eateries did not appear until the mid-1970s, with the opening of Kin Kwok on Garvey Avenue. Other late ’70s Chinese restaurant openings included House of Louie, Mandarin Palace (Ho Hing), and the banquet-sized Nam Tin.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Chinese influence in Monterey Park grew. Renowned in Asia as the “Chinese Beverly Hills,” Monterey Park’s adjacent communities like Alhambra, Rosemead, and San Gabriel, also began to feel swell with Chinese Americans. However, since these cities were already developed, little space was available for spanking new housing (In the past decade, Arcadia has solved this issue by tearing down old houses and replacing them with mega mansions). Authentic Chinese restaurants did spread beyond Monterey Park in the late 1970s with Kin Kwok opening its sister restaurant, Kin Hing in Alhambra, and with Kam Hong in Montebello. San Gabriel, the city currently most prominently associated with Chinese dining, witnessed the opening of its first authentic Chinese restaurant, Fu Shing, in the early 80s, but Los Angeles Chinatown still remained the center of Chinese cuisine well into the decade. Once construction began on several new Chinese shopping centers, capped by the giant 99 Ranch Market shopping mall in 1991, the city of San Gabriel ultimately became the epicenter for Chinese eating.
On the housing front, it was during the late 1970s when Chinese Americans took their next hill: the new housing tracts of Hacienda Heights, a dozen miles to the east of Monterey Park. Hacienda Heights became the beachhead for the development of a new Chinese community now known as the East San Gabriel Valley. Again, it took a while for authentic Chinese restaurants to arrive, with residents cheering the arrival of Lok Tin Seafood in Industry in 1984, followed a couple of years later by restaurants on Hacienda Boulevard such as China Pavilion.
Later in the 1980s, it was on to the next new residential development, this time to adjacent Rowland Heights. This move eastward represented a new phase in the development of authentic Chinese restaurants. Whereas the incursion of authentic Chinese restaurants had previously been a series of one-offs, here, new Chinese restaurants moved into freestanding buildings or shopping center locations in a much more organized manner. In 1989, 99 Ranch Market opened its first supermarket-anchored Chinese mall in Rowland Heights, with room for numerous Chinese restaurants and stores. The mall originally offered a handful of eateries including Great Chiu Chow Seafood, First Dumpling Noodle, Little Shanghai, and A & J Restaurant. Currently, ten restaurant locations pepper the shopping center, and Rowland Heights (with neighboring Walnut and Industry) is as important a Chinese food center in the east as the city of San Gabriel in the west.
The next stop in the Chinese new housing movement was Diamond Bar, seven miles east of Rowland Heights. Diamond Bar started to develop seriously after its incorporation as a city in the late 1980s. Due to its relative proximity to Rowland Heights, however, there weren’t a lot of authentic Chinese restaurants in Diamond Bar, even into the late 1990s. Only in the past decade has a critical mass of authentic Chinese restaurants in Diamond Bar developed, due both to an increasing Chinese population and the development of even more Chinese communities further east.
The early 21st century’s eastward march past the borders of Los Angeles County into the San Bernardino County community of Chino Hills was not without resistance. Though less than 10 miles to the east of Diamond Bar, the two communities are separated mostly by open space. Chino Hills, which was previously unaccustomed to an Asian presence, endured much friction during the 2007 opening of 99 Ranch Market in the former Ralphs Market location. Dire warnings from the locals about the Chinese presence proved unfounded, and to the contrary, has led to an economic boom replete with sparkling new shopping centers anchored by Chinese restaurants and stores.
The most recent beachhead for Chinese Americans looking for new housing tracts is in Riverside County’s Eastvale, a flatlands community outside of Corona, and a dozen miles east of Chino Hills. Once again, the incursion was led by 99 Ranch Market’s new store in Corona, with a handful of authentic Chinese restaurants already congregating nearby.
So over 40 years, Chinese restaurants have methodically traveled 40 miles eastward, from Monterey Park to Corona. And the next hill? At this time, who knows?
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.