Star ratings are ubiquitous when it comes to restaurants. While a one-star Yelp rating has a far different meaning from a one-star Michelin rating, universally the rule is that the more stars, the better. However, I created my own star rating system which has nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant. Rather, under my system, each star represents a different Chinese restaurant that has operated at a particular location; a four-star restaurant location means that I have eaten at four different Chinese restaurants at that particular address.
Of course, under my system, the sky is the limit for the number of stars that can be awarded, given the rate at which Chinese restaurants close down and are immediately replaced by successors. Right now, the leader is in a shopping center on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel where I have eaten at 14 different Chinese restaurants over a 25-year period. There are roughly a hundred four-star restaurants on my list and hundreds more with five or more stars.
My latest four-star Chinese restaurant visit was to Hot Hot Food on Hoover Street in East Hollywood. Opened in late May, Hot Hot Food serves Chinese food with Mexican fusion elements, such as its wonderful General Tso Fu (Get it? Tso Fu = Tofu) and fried rice with guacamole. Indeed, “LA Fried Rice” is the centerpiece of the menu, including pork carnitas fried rice and what is essentially Hawaiian loco moco fried rice. For me, what makes this location notable is that its fourth star comes some 20 years after becoming a three-star location because the circumstances within this time period reflect larger changes and current trends in the demographics of this neighborhood, and Los Angeles in general.
I have frequented the portion of East Hollywood sometimes known as Virgil Village, east of Vermont and south of Santa Monica Boulevard, for 40 years. This is where my wife grew up. When she was a girl, the neighborhood was largely white, with a good representation of Eastern Europeans and Japanese. Even then, East Hollywood never shared any of the glamors of nearby Hollywood. Over the years, the neighborhood became predominantly Hispanic, initially Mexican but later heavily Salvadorean and Central American. In the early 1990s, I got an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the area’s gang infestation, when wild gunshots fired out of a speeding, screeching vehicle directly across the street from me at a mini-mall on the corner of Vermont and Burns Avenues.
During this era, the Hoover Street location was home to a series of Americanized Chinese restaurants: for many years it was Jade Garden, then Furamount, then Lucky Chinese Food. Eventually, Lucky Chinese Food closed and was replaced by a succession of Mexican and Argentinian restaurants. Meanwhile, the immediate neighborhood was hardly a destination; the few exceptions to come here were Cha Cha Cha Caribbean restaurant (John Travolta actually ate there?), Jay Jay Burgers, the Smog Cutter bar, and maybe Wah’s Golden Hen. It was nowhere near trendy.
Therefore, it was totally stunning when two years ago, foodies and hipsters began descending on Sqirl, lining up on Virgil Avenue for its signature breakfast and lunch fare. Sqirl began as an artisan jam and preserve manufacturing kitchen, so its Virgil Village location wasn’t particularly strange. But then the owners added a coffee shop serving their preserves on toast, followed by an expanded menu, and suddenly Sqirl captured the imagination of the entire city. The buzz wasn’t just in Los Angeles: Sqirl was written up by the New York Times, and Bloomberg wrote about how this tiny groundbreaking restaurant had opened up in a “strange neighborhood” with cheap rents.
A trendy lounge called The Virgil opened nearby, as well as Virgil Normal, a hipster men’s boutique. A block away from Sqirl and Hot Hot Food, Cha Cha Cha was razed after the lot was sold for $2 million. No word yet on what’s coming up, but whatever is built will be the first significant commercial construction in the area in many decades. I would be shocked if it didn’t include more hipster dining.
So Hot Hot Food’s Hoover Street location has come full circle, from a long history of Chinese restaurants, to many years of neighborhood cuisine, back to Chinese food, but now with a Mexican twist reflective of the neighborhood’s evolution. Hot Hot Food co-founder Dean Harada told me he had no idea about the Chinese heritage of his location until locals mentioned it to him, which adds a special touch for him to this new endeavor.
Changes to this part of East Hollywood mark an exceptional turnaround as millennials in Los Angeles express their preference for in-city living. The rapidly evolving neighborhood food scene seems to advance almost daily. And this story is recurring in other in-fill neighborhoods including West Adams, Boyle Heights, and Highland Park, where demographic changes dating back 50 years and longer are quickly reversing.
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.