With the arrival of restaurants like Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok and Pok Pok Phat Thai, Burgerlords, Unit 120, Amboy, Endorffeine, Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken, Lobsta Shack, Oleego, and Ramen Champ, Los Angeles Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food. Unbeknownst to many Angelinos, however, this is not Chinatown’s first dining renaissance. Decades ago, it emerged from a dining slumber to become a culinary hot spot.
While it is natural to lump Los Angeles’s Chinatown with other historic core city Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and many others, Los Angeles is unique in one respect. Here, Chinatown began as two almost Hollywood-set-like tourist ethnic theme parks, replete with stylized buildings, wishing wells, touristy restaurants, and gift shops, but very few Chinese people actually living in the area. Yes, Los Angeles did once have a historic central city Chinatown founded in the 19th century, but it was leveled in 1933 to make way for Union Station. While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two separate suitable replacements for the historic old Chinatown in the form of New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, by the time these projects were completed, virtually all of the Chinese residents had moved out of the Chinatown area, leaving Los Angeles without an authentic Chinatown for a good three decades.
During this time, the Hollywood ambiance was so strong that China City was also known as “Chinese Movie Land” thanks to its set decorations from the 1937 movie The Good Earth. Unfortunately, China City pretty much disappeared after only 10 years due to a series of disastrous fires, leaving behind just a small number of random Chinese businesses on North Spring Street, and barely an existing reminder of China City today. New Chinatown, on the other hand, did survive and flourish. However, from its opening in the late 1930s through the 1960s, it was primarily tourist-oriented, not only due to the lack of local Chinese residents, but also to its layout. Most New Chinatown businesses faced an open pedestrian plaza, with walkways sporting exotic names like Gin Ling Way, Jung Jing Way, and Mei Ling Way, as opposed to storefronts on streets with any local traffic.
As such, dining in New Chinatown remained largely tourist oriented as well. As a kid, I only ever went to Chinatown for an occasional banquet, or entertaining out-of-town guests at the somewhat more authentic North Spring Street restaurants (the two districts had not yet merged to form today’s Chinatown) such as Hong Kong Low, Lime House, General Lee’s, Grand Star, New Hung Far, Golden Pagoda, or New Grand East. Other Chinese families had area favorites such as Chung Mee Café on Ord Street, but my family preferred the restaurants by the San Pedro Street City Market produce terminal. Many of the best Chinese restaurants of the day, such as New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen, Modern Café, Paul’s Cafe, and On Luck were located nearby. This was the real Chinatown of the era, the rare mid-20th century American Chinatown without camera-toting tourists or souvenir shops. Few outsiders knew about it, and many Chinese Angelinos earned their livelihood here after old Chinatown was torn down.
Then came the game changer: the 1965 repeal of restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States. With an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, New Chinatown saw its first critical mass of Chinese residents. Chinese commerce grew, with the buffer zone between New Chinatown and the North Spring Street revitalized by expanding Chinese businesses. Restaurants such as Phoenix Inn, Won Kok Center, and Golden Dragon served a more modern type of Cantonese food in the late 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, Grandview Gardens captured the imagination of both Chinese and non-Chinese Angelinos, who swarmed the restaurant on Sunday mornings for its dim sum service. In 1976, Miriwa upped the ante by introducing dim sum service on carts from its location on the second floor of Chunsan Plaza (in the space currently occupied by Ocean Seafood).
Los Angeles Chinatown reached the peak of its first culinary rebirth in the 1980s as restaurants filled the spaces between Broadway and Hill Street. Mon Kee on Spring may have been the first Chinatown restaurant to serve Hong Kong-style seafood, though it was soon left to the downtown lunch crowd. In 1984, ABC Seafood stepped in to the old Lime House location and introduced the city to even more sophisticated Hong Kong seafood cuisine. For over a decade, ABC Seafood served the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the nation. Later in the 1980s, however, Monterey Park, followed by the rest of the San Gabriel Valley, would gradually overtake Chinatown as the locus of Chinese dining in Los Angeles. ABC Seafood’s sister restaurant, NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, helped mark the change. (For those who ask, the owners claimed ABC stood for America’s Best Chinese, while NBC stood for Next Best Chinese, and breakoff CBS Seafood stood for Chinese Best Seafood.)
As San Gabriel Valley emerged, Los Angeles Chinatown experienced a continuous downward descent of Chinese food, such that there is nothing close to a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown today. The 1989 opening of the massive Empress Pavilion restaurant did bring some life back to Los Angeles Chinatown dining, particularly for large banquets. However, Empress Pavilion recently closed, reopened under new management, and then quickly pared back to a banquet-only facility. Indeed, as far as Los Angeles Chinatown is concerned, the best known restaurant may be touristy Yang Chow. The perennial winner of “Best Chinese Restaurant” from downtown office workers, Yang Chow has become known for its slippery shrimp.
Today, ground zero for Chinatown’s second renaissance is the old Food Center complex, since renamed Far East Plaza, as over the years fewer and fewer eating places populated its premises. But now, by housing Chego, Pok Pok Thai, Scoops, Unit 120, Amboy, Endorffeine, and Ramen Champ, Far East Plaza has become a “food center” again, albeit without much in the way of Chinese food.
With crowds of diners once again revitalizing a moribund Chinatown, like Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.
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.