As the second largest city in the United States, Los Angeles is unsurprisingly one of the country’s great food scenes. Though top-notch restaurants are spread throughout the region, the epicenter of dining is generally considered to be the Westside, including the separate cities of Beverly Hills, Culver City, and Santa Monica. Meanwhile, as I have previously noted, the growing Chinese food mania in Los Angeles, especially to the east in the San Gabriel Valley, has dominated Chinese food culture nationwide. So why is the Chinese food on the Westside so poor, with restaurateurs wondering whether it’s even possible for destination Chinese restaurants to succeed there?
A leading L.A. food blogger recently proclaimed that Westside Chinese food has improved so much recently that it can no longer be called terrible. Faint praise indeed. There’s no mystery why Westside Chinese food was so deficient throughout most of the 20th century. Until the mid-1960s, housing discrimination kept most Westside neighborhoods almost entirely white. Indeed, until I enrolled as a student at UCLA in the 1960s, I doubt I had visited the Westside more than a handful of times. As such, only the most Americanized Chinese restaurants operated in that part of town. Through the 1980s, Chinese food was defined by wholly Americanized restaurants such as Wan Q, Kowloon, Madame Wu, Twin Dragon, and Jade West. Only in the 1990s did a critical mass of Westside Chinese residents enable a few authentic Chinese restaurants to open.
More recently, commentators posited that if a signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant were to open in West LA, it would clean up. This idea is based two factors: a perceived higher sophistication of Westsiders towards Chinese food, and a growing Westside Chinese populace. However, contrarians warn not to be fooled by the number of Westsiders who understand and appreciate San Gabriel Valley Chinese food, as indicated by their restaurant reviews and participation in message boards and food blogs. In reality, their argument goes, there aren’t enough of these foodies to support a branch of a high-quality authentic Chinese restaurant on that side of town. Their position is buttressed by the observation that while there is certainly much discussion of top San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants by non-Chinese posters, when you actually walk into any of these restaurants, the presence of non-Asian diners is negligible.
Thus, it was with great anticipation that Newport Seafood, one of the Valley’s most popular Chinese restaurants with a typical 90-minute wait for a table on Saturday night, opened a branch on Beverly Hills’s Restaurant Row last August. Its success would validate that the Westside’s taste for Chinese food had matured to the point where one no longer had to make the trek to Monterey Park or San Gabriel to get the real thing. Perhaps New Port Seafood (notice the variation in the name of the Beverly Hills location) would be followed by other San Gabriel Valley heavyweights, like Din Tai Fung and Sea Harbour. Why not?
So far, however, things have not gone that way. It was widely expected that when New Port Seafood opened, it would be one of the toughest tickets in town. In fear of the crowds, I deferred my first visit until a month after opening. When I arrived, only one or other two tables were occupied the entire time. Subsequent lunchtime visits have repeated the near-empty restaurant experience, even though the food at the Beverly Hills location is reasonably good compared its San Gabriel counterpart. Dinnertime crowds are bigger, but there’s never a wait. And the diners I see there are predominantly Asian, indicating that the non-Asian Westside foodie crowd is not finding its way here.
Further fueling doubts of Westside Chinese dining is Hakkasan, the London-based international purveyor of upscale and highly authentic Cantonese cuisine which opened three years ago in Beverly Hills. Food at Hakkasan’s branches in Manhattan, Miami, and Las Vegas probably represents the best authentic Chinese food in each city, and the Beverly Hills branch was no different. But it was not a good sign when Hakkasan Beverly Hills first closed down its lunchtime dim sum service, and then shut down completely a few months ago.
The one bright spot on the Westside Chinese dining front is Meizhou Dongpo in the Westfield Century City mall. Open for nearly two years, Meizhou Dongpo is the first US branch of a Beijing-based chain, whose decision to debut on the Westside was surprising, if not puzzling. Though it has not dumbed down its authentic Sichuan-style fare, some concessions were made to the Westside clientele: a large number of non-Asian servers, friendlier non-Sichuan dishes such as Peking Duck and xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) not found in its restaurants in China, and a toned-down overall spice level. While it may not be drawing huge crowds, Meizhou Dongpo is doing well enough to spur a second US branch opening shortly in the San Gabriel Valley, a third mega US branch in Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel, and a fourth branch opening in the heavily Chinese enclave of Irvine in Orange County. But a couple of things are noteworthy about Meizhou Dongpo’s relative success in Century City. The clientele is mostly Chinese, particularly at dinnertime, as it is at New Port Seafood in Beverly Hills. Neither restaurant carries widespread recognition among the non-Chinese Westside dining crowd, and are being largely supported by the local Chinese community.
Yes, things have improved for Chinese dining on the Westside of Los Angeles, giving Westsiders an alternative to the long trek to the San Gabriel Valley. Even more encouraging is new authentic Chinese restaurants continue to open there, including Qin West, ROC, M.J. Café , and New School Kitchen, though these openings may be more attributable to the growing Mainland Chinese student population at nearby UCLA. But clearly, for those who thought that when a signature Chinese restaurant opened, Westside foodies would flock there en masse, when it comes to Chinese food, the Westside of Los Angeles still is not ready for prime time.
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.