Five years ago, I wrote a Menuism article about why I generally did not eat at Chinese restaurants in the United States that were more than 20 years old. My reason for this 20-year rule was that Chinese food in America was evolving at a surprisingly rapid rate, with diners and chefs endlessly looking for that next more delicious, more innovative Chinese food creation. Because innovation is more likely to come from new players, and because existing successful Chinese restaurants are likely to stick with what works, I decided that after 20 years, most Chinese restaurants are behind the curve.
That article recently jolted back into my consciousness with a Sunday Los Angeles Times article entitled “The Vanishing Old School Chinese Restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley.” The back-to-back closures of two of the largest and most iconic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, Ocean Star Seafood and Empress Harbor Seafood, were so stunning that the Times decided that explaining the closures merited front-page consideration. Both the Chinese American community in particular and the Los Angeles foodie community in general could not believe these restaurants and others like them were shuttering.
I don’t agree that Ocean Star and Empress Harbor qualify as “old school Chinese restaurants,” because, despite erroneous information in the article, these restaurants had not purveyed their Chinese cuisine to generations of customers. Ocean Star opened its 900-seat facility in 1992, while Empress Harbor opened in 2000, hardly “old school” by normal standards.
However, by the standards laid down in my Menuism article, Chinese restaurants of Ocean Star’s and Empress Harbor’s vintage were indeed reaching the point of being worn. Twenty years ago, Ocean Star’s lobby displayed an award from the City of Monterey Park proclaiming it the city’s top sales tax generator. With a hall packed with dim sum carts crisscrossing the dining room at lunchtime and packed banquets at night, life was good.
But then a slew of competitors opened up palaces with dim sum ordered off the menu, not from carts. Without carts, all dim sum arrived fresh and hot. New, more delicious varieties could be created without worrying about how well they might keep or whether they would be chosen off a cart. Along with menu-driven dim sum restaurants, new American Chinese restaurants took their cue from Hong Kong, mimicking its latest dinner entrees. Ocean Star became a relic.
Digging more deeply into my 2014 article, I found an exception to my underlying 20-year premise: Koi Palace Restaurant in Daly City (in the San Francisco Bay area). Though it opened in the late 1990s, Koi City still appeared to be at the top of its game. The restaurant’s owners, the Ng Family, periodically reinvented its menu items and trained its staff to follow current culinary trends in Hong Kong. Now that Koi Palace has passed its twentieth birthday, does the 20-year rule still stand, or does it have to be modified?
The answer is complicated. Koi Palace is no longer the top Chinese restaurant in the United States. But it’s also not a restaurant I would turn my back on, as it is still a successful, high-quality restaurant. Its continued relevance is a testament to management’s awareness of the need to evolve. Koi Palace’s menu has been invigorated with new and improved dishes. The dim sum here now combines carts and menu service to address this trend.
Dragon Beaux, located in the Richmond district of San Francisco, has overtaken Koi Palace as the best Chinese restaurant around. Dragon Beaux has been a rousing success thanks to innovative items such as its curry chicken charcoal bun and squid ink dumplings with spicy pork and peanuts.
It used to be that Chinese food lovers in Los Angeles traveled en masse to San Francisco in search of superior Chinese food. This era has long passed, and now Bay Area residents travel to Los Angeles instead. But even today, Los Angeles dim sum aficionados regularly trek to Dragon Beaux for dim sum that is widely recognized as better than anything in Southern California. (See, for example, this thread on Foodtalk Central, where most of the comments are from Angelinos).
But here’s the kicker: Dragon Beaux is a separately branded restaurant within the Koi Palace empire. As Willy Ng commented in 2015 when Dragon Beaux opened, physically, Dragon Beaux was meant to convey a feeling of combined Chinese and European opulence, while culinarily it reflected the latest trends from Hong Kong and Guangzhou in Mainland China. Younger chefs not tethered to the past were hired as part of the quest for innovation. When asked why a new product line was created instead of merely making changes to the Koi Palace brand, Koi Palace executive and one-time Dragon Beaux general manager Dennis Leung indicated that even with periodic menu reinventions, the problem with an existing operation like Koi Palace is that the staff is the same, and most importantly, the customer base remains stable. With a new Dragon Beaux brand, the company was free to hire completely new staff, create a new menu, and target a different customer base, while maintaining the separate Koi Palace brand that everyone is still so comfortable with.
Today, Dragon Beaux is four years old, and the Koi Palace group continues to move on. Earlier this year, Palette Tea House and Dim Sum, the next brand in its portfolio, rolled out in San Francisco’s famed Ghirardelli Square. The concept behind Palette is to appeal to today’s younger foodie generation.
Leung, now Palette’s general manager, describes the new brand as “better service, less rush, comfortable ambiance, beautifully presented dishes.” Though barely past its soft opening, you can see that the artisanal approach and high-quality ingredients (such as Dungeness crab with rice noodle rolls, and other dishes with Kurubuta pork and Iberico ham) reflect this new direction.
Like Koi Palace before it, Dragon Beaux will undoubtedly fall from its perch one day. But its prescient parent organization realizes the limits of reinvention within an existing brand. In a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Palette Tea House, or perhaps a Koi Palace brand yet to be invented, may take over as the new Number One.
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.