Less than three years ago, I reported on the lack of great Chinese food on the Westside of Los Angeles. Though I acknowledged the Westside was no longer a total wasteland for Chinese food, I also lamented that New Port Seafood, the first signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant to open on the Westside, was struggling. In fact, the restaurant shuttered its doors with barely a whimper last year.
But the scene is rapidly changing. In 2014, when the Mainland Chinese chain Meizhou Dongpo opened in Westfield Century City, the Westside’s premier regional shopping mall, it was largely seen as an anomaly. Today, however, Westfield Century City is in the process of turning into a Chinese dining powerhouse. Earlier this year, famed dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung opened here. Now, the mall is awaiting the opening of the renowned 85°C Bakery and Café, as well as Mainland China’s upscale Hai Di Lao hotpot restaurant chain. Chinese hotpot on the Westside of Los Angeles? Three years ago this was a pipe dream, and now the Cadillac of hotpot restaurants will soon arrive in Century City. Outside of the mall and equally notable, Sichuan Impression, one of the two Alhambra Valley Boulevard giants that have reshaped Sichuan cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley and indeed the United States, is also slated to open in West Los Angeles.
What changed the Westside Chinese food scene so drastically, so quickly? As it turns out, the end of my 2015 article described what turned out to be the seeds of this new era. Chinese restaurants were already sprouting nationwide near college campuses to serve students from Mainland China. However, this phenomenon mostly bypassed major universities like UCLA, likely because the larger region was already home to hundreds of authentic Chinese restaurants.
Then, student-oriented Chinese restaurants started to appear near UCLA. Interestingly, it wasn’t the San Gabriel Valley’s big names in Chinese dining that you might expect to turn the tide. Instead, key players had little to no presence there. First, downtown’s Qin West opened on Westwood Boulevard. With its unique blend of Shaanxi, Lizhou, and Guilin-style cuisine not even seen in the San Gabriel Valley, the success of Qin West inspired other Westside Chinese eateries to open. (Qin West still holds the distinction of being the only authentic Mainland restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown.)
Though Qin West’s arrival was important, its Westside location is still almost two miles south of the UCLA campus. What triggered an almost gold-rush mentality was the 2016 opening of Northern Café in the heart of Westwood Village, the shopping district immediately adjacent to UCLA. With its student-friendly offerings of dumplings, noodles, and small plates, Northern Café’s opening was big news, but the restaurant is hardly a name in the San Gabriel Valley’s immense Chinese food scene. The original Northern Café location is not located in the center of Chinese dining, the West San Gabriel Valley, but rather 10 miles to the east, in Hacienda Heights. Would the restaurant be able to survive in the pricey Westwood Village environment, where previously the San Gabriel Valley big boys had not dared to enter? The answer was resoundingly positive, with Northern Café’s Westwood Village location so popular that the restaurant has since expanded to two more Westside locations, in the Beverly Center/Cedars Sinai area as well as in the upscale Brentwood neighborhood on Wilshire Boulevard.
The Westside’s next two openings virtually came out of nowhere. Late in 2016, Irvine’s Popcorn Chicken, featuring fried Taiwanese snacks, opened a branch two miles from UCLA on West L.A.’s Sawtelle Boulevard. Though the area was once known as Little Osaka, recently, it’s become more of a Pan-Asian dining area, especially popular with UCLA students. And 2017 brought the most improbable opening of all: Little Highness Bao, a small, single-location Chinese bun shop in Rowland Heights in the East San Gabriel Valley, unknown to even most local residents in that area, landed in Beverly Hills, across the street from Neiman Marcus. After that, Tasty Noodle House brought its Shanghai-style noodle and dumpling repertoire to two Westside locations near the Beverly Center and Sawtelle Boulevard. Tasty Noodle House is another restaurant operation without a West San Gabriel Valley presence, opting to place its early locations in Hacienda Heights and Irvine.
Not all the newcomers to the Westside are branches of existing Chinese restaurant operations. New, independent authentic Chinese openings around the Westside include Flaming Pot on Sawtelle, iFood on Sepulveda, Gu Yi in Brentwood, and Little Fatty on Grand View Boulevard, as well as the upcoming Westwood Village opening of Dan Dumpling & Noodles.
Furthermore, established Westside Chinese restaurants have added authentic Sichuan dishes, such as the Americanized fixture First Szechuan Wok in Westwood Village and Golden China in Culver City. Longtime Cantonese favorite Hop Woo has partnered with Monterey Park’s little known Meet With Chengdu Restaurant on a separate Sichuan-style menu.
Perhaps most significantly, Ooak Kitchen, the first Guangzhou-based Mainland Chinese restaurant chain to open in Los Angeles earlier this year, chose Culver City for its first US location. Ooak serves up vegetarian and vegan Cantonese food in a large and tastefully decorated dining room. The restaurant located on the Westside rather than the San Gabriel Valley to appeal to the hipster crowd, but the operation attracted a surprisingly large Chinese clientele. As a result, the restaurant is rebranding, having recently changed its name to 51 Kitchen and adding dim sum and seafood items to the menu, while planning to spin its vegetarian operations to a new Santa Monica location.
Has the Westside successfully shed its status as a wasteland for Chinese food? Can it now be considered cutting-edge? Well, if 51 Kitchen becomes Los Angeles’s first Guangzhou-style dim sum palace, the answer will be a resounding yes.
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.