Dozens of similar restaurants around the San Gabriel Valley -- clones of typical coffee shops in Hong Kong -- began to open in the 1980s, and today several -- including Litz Restaurant, J&J Restaurant and Ledo Cafe -- are Southern California institutions. Fine dining they are not. They're diner-style, comfort-food depots where a quirky range of global-fusion cravings can be allayed at any hour.
But lately, some hipper, more vibrant updates of the old-school places are springing up. They're lots of fun, with more creative food and drink and menus geared to more worldly, contemporary tastes -- a trip to modern Asia without a plane ticket.
The saga of their predecessors, the Hong Kong coffee shops that evolved from that city's once-ubiquitous Russian cafes, would make great TV melodrama.
Russian refugees fleeing the Bolshevik regime after 1917 settled in Shanghai, where their cafes thrived in the European concessions. In 1949, in the wake of mainland Communist takeovers, the Russians fled again, this time to Hong Kong, where Chinese from all over the mainland crowded the city as well.
AS Hong Kong grew and flourished, the "work-driven melting-pot society created an ideal situation for the coffee shops," says Able Kwan, founder of Southern California's two Red Ant Cafes (his previous Helena restaurants, which opened in 1983, were among the first Hong Kong-style coffee shops in this area).
Chanteclair and Cherikoff's, the two most famous of Hong Kong's Russian-owned eating places, gave residents of that city, especially young people of the post-World War II era, their first taste of Western food served in individual portions (as opposed to Chinese family-style platters) with Western cutlery.
The Russian places, more like bakeries or delis with small attached dining areas, maintained long hours to compete with other casual restaurants in a city where prepared food was available around the clock.
Prix fixe menus with several courses were a big draw, and that tradition is reflected on the menu of L.A.'s Hong Kong coffee shops, which often offer their own versions of Russian-inspired French and Continental dishes and individual prix fixe-style dinners of fish and meat.
Over the years, Hong Kong coffee shops began serving Chinese food and reflecting British influences. The jolt-inducing, triple-strength, Hong Kong-style milk tea and sandwiches trimmed of their crusts are essential coffee shop fare.
Vestiges of this history can be seen at some of the San Gabriel Valley's newer East-West cafes, including some that serve Chinese dishes exclusively and others that emphasize recent trends in Western cooking.
At Cafe Spot in Alhambra, a fashionably dressed couple sip Merlot and eat steamed clams in garlic-wine broth and Chinese dumpling soup. They're oblivious to the energetic buzz from the communal table at the other end of the restaurant.
Around the room, customers have ordered dishes as diverse as Kobe steak served with vegetables, grilled eel with curry-fried rice and steamed milk custard topped with puff pastry.
In the hierarchy of our local Hong Kong-style coffee shops, this one could be described as a bridge between the old-school diner-like Regent Café in Alhambra and the chic Yume Kitchen in San Gabriel.
THE Regent once offered a proper English roast beef Sunday dinner buffet, says Wilber Woo, retired president of Cathay Bank in Chinatown. Today that roast beef dinner, with fresh veggies and a bacon-bit garnished baked potato, appears on the regular menu. And in keeping with tradition, the Regent serves freshly made, hot cabbage borscht, a serviceable French onion soup topped with a flaky pastry crust and decent Chinese shrimp dumplings in broth -- which may be a lure if you're hungry in the middle of the night.
But late hours aren't necessarily the attraction at the more progressive of L.A.'s Hong-Kong-style coffee shops. Most draw crowds instead for their weekend breakfasts of Eastern, Western and fusion dishes; their afternoon tea specials; and beverage bars where a host of teas, juices, smoothies and other refreshers are mixed and served to customers.
There is no better place to get a feel for this new breed than at the amiable Yume Kitchen in San Gabriel. Yume's glass facade gives it the look of a sparkling, transparent box. The simple décor has a retro feel with muted, mint-green walls and chrome-legged, molded plastic chairs. Yet the butcher paper-covered tables recall bistro setups.