In May, I painted a rather pessimistic picture of the early effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Chinese restaurants in the United States. A combination of xenophobia, prescient caution in the Chinese-American community about dining out, as well as a high concentration of mom-and-pop enterprises, the Chinese restaurant industry seemed to be perilously close to wide-scale collapse.
Los Angeles Chinatown looked particularly stark. In April, a good two-thirds of the Chinese restaurants had shuttered. The restaurants that remained opened for take-out only significantly pared their food offerings. For example, only a handful of dim sum varieties were available at the two remaining eateries, Tian’s Dim Sum and Keung Kee. These establishments were likely the least-known in Chinatown, until Ocean Seafood and Golden Dragon closed, eventually followed by Won Kok Restaurant, Long’s Family Pastry, Lucky Deli, CBS Seafood, ABC Seafood (which remained open for steam tray but not dim sum), and others.
The San Gabriel Valley looked less bleak than feared, with a clear majority of Chinese restaurants managing to adapt to the takeout model. Surprisingly, hotpot restaurants and even one Chinese buffet are among the survivors.
But like Chinatown, dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley has nearly dried up, as the palatial, high-cost, high-volume settings struggle to pivot to take-out dining. A small number of dim sum parlors like Lunasia, Sea Harbour, China Red, and 888 Seafood have stayed open. But Elite, King Hua, Chef Tony, NBC Seafood, Capital Seafood, Longo Seafood, World Seafood, Monterey Palace, Five Star Seafood, Atlantic Seafood, Grand Harbor, Tang Gong and Top Island have all closed, leaving us in fear that few dim sum restaurants will come back. Indeed, without Lucky No. 1, Ocean Bo, and Dim Sum King stepping into the void, dim sum fans like me might have experienced total despondency.
NBC Seafood promised a July 4 reopening, but that date passed without a change. A week later, I stopped by to peer in the window and saw no apparent activity, reinforcing my concern. But miracle of miracles, a few later, NBC did reopen for takeout and subsequently outdoor dining. One by one, the dim sum palaces returned. At the end of July, social media reported that Elite Restaurant was down for the count, but the next day, it reopened! Only King Hua has acknowledged it will permanently close.
Adding to the miracle, new Chinese restaurants are opening in the San Gabriel Valley. While some new establishments are replacing restaurants that sold or closed, it’s heartening that somebody is stepping in. Though we’ve lost long-loved standbys like the original branch of Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, the Arcadia location of 101 Noodle Express, New Lucky Seafood in Monterey Park, and Plum Tree Inn in Chinatown, the resiliency of other Chinese restaurants is indeed encouraging.
Despite the bleak forecasts, the Chinese restaurant industry around LA has avoided the disaster previously predicted. A few months ago, experts braced for a closure rate of 50 percent for Chinese restaurants. Nationally, the permanent closure rate for all restaurants has been estimated at 25 percent. While there’s not a lot of good news around the pandemic, the survival of Chinese food in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley leaves me grateful.
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.