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Dim sum at H.L. Peninsula. Photo: H.L. Peninsula / Facebook.
All other photos by David R. Chan

In the past decade, Chinese dining in the United States popularized “Mainlander food,” or non-Cantonese regional cuisines. The Mainland moniker distinguished it from food from Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Mainland food largely excluded Cantonese cuisine, even though Canton (now known as Guangzhou) sits squarely on the Chinese mainland.

Why Mainland food excluded Cantonese

Chinese have lived in the United States since the mid-19th-century. However, these immigrants did not come from the whole of China. Rather, they mostly came from rural villages around Toisan (now called Taishan), some eighty miles outside Canton. For over a hundred years, the majority of Chinese residents in America were of Toisanese origin.

The dishes that these rural villagers brought with them where what came to be known as Chinese food in America. The cuisine was adapted to use local ingredients and to fit local tastes. The Toisanese-influenced American Chinese food was not at all representative of authentic Chinese food in general. Chinese Exclusion Laws slowed Chinese immigration to a trickle, so this Chinese food wasn’t particularly representative of contemporary Cantonese food in China, either.  

It was only when America relaxed its immigration laws in the late 1960s that a significant influx of new Chinese immigrants arrived. However, because the United States and mainland China did not have diplomatic relations at the time, the first wave of new Chinese immigrants originated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, bringing with them the latest, up-to-date Cantonese cuisine. In ensuing decades, as Hong Kong blossomed as a culinary center, restaurant trends such as the development of seafood and dim sum palaces were replicated in the United States.

In the 1980s, after the United States and China re-established diplomatic relations, Shanghai and Beijing-style cuisine arrived in America. As more regional cuisines arrived behind them, Cantonese food became a relatively small part of the overall dining scene in most U.S. Chinese communities. In the Los Angeles area, for example, it seems like every new authentic Chinese restaurant either serves Sichuan food, hot pot, or skewers — none of which are Cantonese. 

Mainland food came to be identified with migrants who arrived from China after diplomatic relations were re-established. Though Cantonese people did migrate to the United States during this period, they had no effect on America’s Cantonese cuisine.

The picture gets complicated

This neat compartmentalization of Mainland and Cantonese food started to blow up in the past five years. America’s growing appetite for Mainland Chinese food attracted the attention of restaurant chains based in Mainland China itself. Many such chains, like Din Tai Fung, Hai di Lao, and Meizhou Dongpo, rushed to set up shop in the United States, primarily in Los Angeles but also in San Francisco and other communities.

H.L. Peninsula

When H.L. Peninsula restaurant opened in South San Francisco last year, it represented the first Guangzhou-based restaurant chain in America. Previously, Mainland Chinese restaurant chains reflected the new wave of non-Cantonese regional food, coming from places like Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu. But H.L. Peninsula is a Mainland Chinese Cantonese food restaurant.    

When dining at H.L. Peninsula, I can’t say there was much of an apparent difference from a typical Hong Kong-style Cantonese seafood restaurant.  The only thing truly distinctive was a plate of fruit waiting for us as we were seated at the table.

Ooak Kitchen

Shortly after H.L. Peninsula opened in the Bay, Guangzhou-based vegetarian restaurant chain Ooak Kitchen set up shop in Culver City, on L.A.’s Westside. Its situation was quite puzzling, as the predominant concentration of Chinese in the Los Angeles area is in the San Gabriel Valley, which lies miles to the east of downtown Los Angeles. But here, diners were treated to Guangzhou vegetarian specialties likely never seen in the United States, such as the mock shaking beef steak pictured below, rendered from a gigantic mountainous Chinese mushroom. 

Alas, Ooak Kitchen was the wrong place at the wrong time. It quickly rebranded as a more generic Chinese restaurant, Fifty One Kitchen. But it gave a glimpse of how Guangzhou-style Cantonese food could be different from the Hong Kong-style we’ve grown used to.

Ying Ji Chang Fen

Early this year, the Guangdong-based Ying Ji Chang Fen chain opened in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton. Ying Ji Chang Fen offers a limited menu specializing primarily in rice noodle rolls (often referred to in the United States as cheung fun) and congee. But this isn’t your Chinese American father’s cheung fun as pictured below.

No, Ying Ji Chang Fen serves a burrito-sized roll that comes close to being a meal in itself. There’s also a thin vegetable layer to make this rice noodle roll a more balanced dish than its Hong Kong-style version. It shows that Guangzhou-styled Cantonese food differs from what we’ve seen in the United States and Hong Kong.

What’s next?

Recently, H.L. Peninsula opened a second branch called H.L. Peninsula Pearl in Burlingame, near the original location. And Ying Ji Chang Fen opened on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. Surely, more Guangzhou-based restaurants will follow in California and throughout the rest of the United States. It raises the question of whether the terms Mainlander and Mainland Chinese food will continue to refer only to non-Cantonese cuisine. And it challenges chefs to see how distinctive Guangzhou-style Cantonese food may be from what we have come to expect.

Posted by on October 28th, 2019

Photo by Wanyun C. / Yelp

West Yellowstone, Montana offers authentic Chinese food options that Los Angeles Chinatown doesn’t. Let me say that again: You can eat Chinese dishes in Montana that you can’t eat in downtown L.A.

I am in no way suggesting that Montana is any kind of Chinese dining destination. However, this improbable but true statement combines two recurring topics I have addressed: the emergence of Mainland Chinese cuisine and the effect of Chinese nationals across the United States.


Posted by on June 17th, 2019

1939 Redlining map of Los Angeles. Green areas were the most desirable, followed by blue, yellow, and finally, red.
Photo: urbanoasis.org

Three mega-Chinese communities in the United States—Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York—are each home to more than 600,000 Chinese Americans. But L.A. stands out in a peculiar way. Unlike San Francisco and New York, where authentic Chinese food has been fairly well geographically dispersed for a number of years, the Los Angeles area until quite recently concentrated its authentic Chinese food in just a handful of places, especially the San Gabriel Valley. Why?


Posted by on April 1st, 2019

Steamed lobster in supreme sauce. Photo by Szechwan Chinese Restaurant.

In the Los Angeles area, both the San Gabriel Valley and Chinatown provide hundreds of choices for authentic Chinese food. But few are aware of a collection of authentic Chinese restaurants tucked away in the South Bay, centered in the unlikely location of Lomita. With a negligible Chinese population, Lomita boasts no Chinese grocery, dry goods, or other kinds of Chinese stores or businesses anywhere in the vicinity. But decades ago, in a roundabout manner, Lomita started to become a center of Chinese dining. (more…)

Posted by on January 14th, 2019

Chinese food in Los Angeles is the best you’ll find in this country. And yes, that means that Chinese food is better here than in San Francisco.

But what qualifies me to make such a statement about Chinese food, given my professional background as an attorney and in accounting? Add on the fact that I hated Chinese food as a kid, and that even now I am unable to use chopsticks. Who am I to make this argument?

Let’s take a short journey through the history of Chinese food in America, and see how that history has been reflected in my own personal experiences. The two intertwined stories will illuminate how my home city of Los Angeles has become the center of Chinese food in America, and why it’s not so outlandish for me to proclaim it so.   (more…)

Posted by on November 19th, 2018

Kung Pao Prawns. Photo by Opal.

Hotel dining isn’t generally an interesting topic of discussion. With a few notable exceptions, people dining in hotels usually don’t want to bother to look for someplace to eat after a tiring day of travel. Meanwhile, hotels are sometimes not particularly keen to operate on-premises restaurants, particularly if they don’t have conference facilities, but do so grudgingly to offer an option for weary guests.

In the context of Chinese-American communities, hotel dining has been historically non-existent because in Chinatowns new and old, hotels themselves have been largely non-existent. While Chinatowns have been a tourist attraction for well over a century, few tourists desired to secure rooms there. Those few lodging facilities that did open in Chinatowns during the 20th century were largely independent motels without many amenities, such as the Royal Pacific Motor Inn in San Francisco Chinatown and Moytel in Los Angeles Chinatown. With the plethora of local Chinese dining opportunities only steps away, the motels did not need to offer on-premises dining. (more…)

Posted by on October 15th, 2018

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. (more…)

Posted by on August 13th, 2018

In many communities across America, “Restaurant Row” is a block or two with an unusually heavy concentration of restaurants and other eateries. In some cases, it’s more extensive, such as the famous Restaurant Row on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, or the five-mile stretch of Belt Line Road in Addison, Texas. But neither of these compares to the string of Chinese restaurants along a nine-mile stretch of Valley Boulevard in southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. (more…)

Posted by on July 16th, 2018

Photo by Kevin Clark / The Herald

I recently visited my local McDonald’s, but as I parked my car, a McDonald’s worker rushed over. “Sir, sir, I’m sorry,” he said, “but you can’t park here.”

“Why can’t I park here?” I asked.

“Because this is for Uber delivery pickup only.”

That’s when I saw it: a row of spaces specifically for Uber Eats drivers.

In the last five years, according to the NPD Group, revenue from restaurant deliveries has increased 20%, and the overall number of deliveries has risen 10%. Due to the rise, restaurants have had to change operations, including redesigning interiors and modifying menus. (more…)

Posted by on May 29th, 2018

Photo by John Sequeira

Cantonese restaurants have declined in the United States amid a corresponding rise of what is often referred to as Mainland Chinese food. In the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Cantonese restaurants represent only about 10 percent of total new Chinese restaurant openings over the past five years. The story is the same throughout the country, where coast to coast, non-Cantonese restaurant openings are surging compared to Cantonese restaurants. Historically Cantonese Chinatowns such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia now have numerous non-Cantonese restaurants in their midst. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, perhaps demographically the most Cantonese/Toishanese remaining Chinese community in the United States today, Sichuan and other Mainland-style restaurants, including two branches of Z & Y Sichuan, Pot & Noodle, Chong Qing Xiao Mian, House of Xian Dumpling, Spicy King, and Bund Shanghai have diversified the Chinese dining scene with regional Chinese cooking styles. Even in Phoenix, whose old Cantonese Chinatown disappeared decades ago, food writer Lauren Saria recently lamented the seeming disappearance of Cantonese food. (more…)

Posted by on April 9th, 2018

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