AT Mission 261, in the century-old building that once served as San Gabriel’s first city hall, waiters in suave gray suits are taking orders for steamed chicken breast rolled around bamboo pith and custard-filled dumplings shaped like tiny rabbits -- a very au courant sort of dim sum in Hong Kong.
Now that a quarter of a million people of Chinese ancestry live in this area, our local Chinese food scene is buzzing with energy. From Monterey Park and the Alhambra-San Gabriel-Rosemead corridor to Rowland Heights and beyond, suburban Chinese neighborhoods are home to a lively, ever-changing crop of restaurants and talented chefs.
“Trends among Chinese restaurants often mirror with what is going on in Taipei, Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, mainland Chinese cities,” observes Carl Chu, author of “Chinese Food Finder: Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.” A recent wave of overseas-owned restaurants, including hand-pulled noodle shops, sweet shops and seafood houses, he says, “illustrates a focal shift from the mom-and-pop eateries of yesteryear.”
To say the least, it wasn’t always like this.
And so it begins
OUR first Chinese restaurants, probably opened in the 1860s, when L.A. was a cow town of about 5,000 inhabitants, didn’t have all the rare ingredients available now. There were no trained chefs, either -- the cooks were just men who had come here to be gold miners or railroad workers and decided to open chow-chows (cook shacks marked with a traditional yellow banner).
L.A.'s original Chinatown had been a single block of cheap lodgings just south of the Plaza. In the 1870s, it started growing and spread eastward but in 1882, anti-Chinese zealots managed to get a national Chinese Exclusion Act passed. As a result, Chinatown’s population stagnated at around 2,000 from 1890 to 1920.
The earliest restaurant known by name is Man Jen Low, simply because it survived down to 1987 (by then known as General Lee’s Man Jen Low). In the 1950s, its menu gave the restaurant’s founding date as 1890.
What sort of restaurants were they? Many were humble noodle shops, but Yong Chen, co-curator of the exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America,” which has appeared around the country in recent years, says they weren’t all holes in the wall: “Some 19th century restaurants were very grand inside, with carving and traditional furniture. Others were just a booth extending into the street from the shop front.
“Very early menus show shark’s fin and bird’s nest, important luxury items for the Chinese and the Cantonese in particular. But they quickly found that Americans weren’t interested.”
Early on, in order to please non-Chinese customers, restaurant owners developed bland, often sweet versions of Chinese dishes. Somewhere along the line, some cook introduced an inoffensive stir-fry he called chop suey (from Cantonese tsa sui, meaning various pieces): meat, celery, onions and bean sprouts, well doused with soy sauce.
“Chop suey is in a way American,” says Chen, “but it is also Chinese peasant food -- a very simple dish, like a way of using leftovers.” He points out that you can still find it on Chinese menus, because many Cantonese restaurants have continued to serve cautiously Americanized food to non-Chinese.
In the early 20th century, Los Angeles started “discovering” Chinese food. Newspapers published chop suey recipes, over the years working in Chinese ingredients such as bean sprouts, “suey” sauce and “Chinese potatoes” (water chestnuts). But outside Chinatown, such ingredients were hard to get, and one newspaper article suggested that readers talk their Chinese laundryman into selling some of his personal stash.
By 1904, L.A. already had its first Chinese food snobs -- eager, smug and tragically less sophisticated than they hoped. A non-Chinese society woman was said to visit a chop suey joint where many of the customers were hookers and opium smokers. She would sweep in wearing a white opera cloak and a corsage and imperiously proclaim, “Pigs! All of you, pigs!” apparently miffed that the diners did not appreciate the gastronomic masterpieces they were eating. She genuinely loved the cook’s chop suey, putting away two or three bowls a night. But after all, it was just chop suey, not at all a dish for connoisseurs.
As another sign that Chinese food was joining the mainstream, Chinese American restaurants started opening in the downtown business district around 1905. The menus were literally Chinese American -- you could get steak or roast chicken there as well as chop suey. But Chinese dishes must have been an attraction, because that year a downtown French restaurant started advertising that it had chop suey.
Chinese immigrants and their descendants had dominated vegetable farming in Los Angeles since the 1870s. In 1909, because of ill treatment by the old produce market, Chinese growers transferred their business to the new City Market at 9th and San Pedro streets downtown. A neighborhood known as Market Chinatown grew up along San Pedro across from the market. Merlin Lo, whose family has run the Hong Kong Noodle Co. on 9th Place since 1913, believes there had previously been two Chinese restaurants at its address.
During the 1920s, there was a general craze for ethnic food, and more Chinese restaurants opened than any other kind. For the novice, their menus offered set dinners with, say, egg drop soup, chow mein, a meat dish such as pork stir-fried with snow peas, rounded out with fried shrimp, rice and egg foo yung.
If you felt adventurous, there would be grander dishes such as almond duck, sweet-sour pork and soy sauce chicken; fish was rarely served. Many places offered a mix-and-match scheme: Pick one item from column A, one from column B and one from column C, all for a single price. Though the food was still Americanized, the dining public was tolerating novel ingredients such as yard-long beans and “white mustard” (bok choy).
In the 1930s, Hollywood started patronizing the top Chinatown restaurants, and you might see Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Walt Disney or the Marx Brothers showing off their chopstick skills there. In gossip columns and movie magazines, Tuey Far Low was mentioned alongside showbiz hangouts such as the Brown Derby, Sardi’s and the Coconut Grove. (One attraction was that it stayed open till 5 a.m.)
Celebrities also flocked to Man Jen Low and the Dragon’s Den. Mae West’s favorite was Man Fook Low in Market Chinatown, one of the first places to feature the dumplings we now know as dim sum.
These were all grand places -- Tuey Far Low resembled a pagoda -- but serious Chinese food lovers also sought out humbler eateries. A 1937 story about an unnamed restaurant (probably Yee Hung Guey) recorded that “day after day and night after night, people who could afford to eat in luxurious and lovely places drive down into one of the dingiest parts of town, stand in line in a queue which stretches around the corner, slowly shuffle their way in through the kitchen and finally, after half an hour of standing in line, rejoice at being allowed to take their places on stools at oilcloth covered tables.”
These were the last years of L.A.'s original Chinatown, because the owner of the land had sold it to the railroads for building Union Station. Some Chinese merchants and residents relocated in Market Chinatown, but more moved into the formerly Mexican neighborhood on upper Broadway and Hill streets where the ethnic mall known as New Chinatown opened in 1939.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Cantonese food saw a revival under a new name -- “Polynesian” cuisine. Top-rank Polynesian restaurants such as Trader Vic’s and the Luau, both in Beverly Hills, sometimes offered Peking duck alongside the usual sweet-and-sour pork, lobster Cantonese, fried rice and pupu platter. (And the rum drinks and hula music, of course.)
Setting the standard
OTHER elegant presentations of Cantonese food were appearing outside China- town. In 1954, when Panorama City was a raw new suburb, Korean American actor Phil Ahn opened Moongate, serving upscale Cantonese food in a serene setting dominated by its circular entrance gate. Arthur Wong’s Far East Terrace drew customers from nearby Universal Studio in North Hollywood.
But New Chinatown still flourished as a dining destination. “General Lee’s was cutting-edge in those days,” recalls Eugene Moy, vice president of programs for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “It had Rudi Gernreich design sharp waiters’ jackets for it.” Gernreich’s fashions epitomized the jazzy, swinging California style of the ‘60s.
Around 1963, Angelenos started hearing rumors about something called Mandarin cuisine. The Shanghai Inn, a tiny place on Hollywood Boulevard around Western, made a big splash, starting your meal with sizzling rice soup and ending it with deep-fried snapper, and it was known for its Peking duck too. Hollywood flocked there. The next year, Peking Mandarin Cuisine opened in Inglewood, and we had a trend on our hands.
Food writers in L.A.'s newspapers and magazines of the era could tell Mandarin food was not Cantonese, but they couldn’t put their fingers on the difference. It was said to involve more meat and spices and pay more attention to color, but it largely seemed to be about that sizzling rice. It was a category that glossed over the differences between all non-Cantonese styles of cooking, just as “Northern Italian” would later lump together a number of regional cuisines in the 1970s.
Some time in the mid-1960s, actor Cary Grant came into Madame Wu’s Garden in Santa Monica, raving about a chicken salad he’d had at another restaurant. Sylvia Wu, the daughter of a wealthy and politically connected family in China who had opened a grand (and non-Americanized) Cantonese restaurant in 1961 and immediately become a favorite of Hollywood society, adapted a Cantonese banquet dish of shredded chicken with almonds, fried noodles and won ton chips as Chinese chicken salad, and her recipe soon conquered the world.
When President Nixon returned from his celebrated 1972 trip to China and remarked on how good the food was there, one result was the decade’s explosion of interest in authentic Chinese cuisine. Another, due to his trade liberalization policy, was the availability of ingredients such as wood ear mushrooms and golden needles (day lily buds) -- which, in themselves, made possible a craze for moo shu pork.
Foodies demanded to know what Chinese regional food was really like, and the “Mandarin” category was unpacked into the now familiar Sichuan (Szechwan), Shanghai, Beijing, Hunan and other schools. Sichuan, popularized in 1974 by Cathay de Grande in Hollywood, struck a particular chord around here; the word became a virtual synonym for “spicy.” Kung pao chicken ruled the roost.
In the early ‘80s, taking advantage of liberalized immigration policies, a great influx of Taiwanese turned Monterey Park into the nation’s first suburban Chinatown. Here were practically the first American Chinese restaurants that did not inherit the tradition of serving Americanized food. They served honest, savory Taiwanese cooking; the iconic dish was pan-fried clams in garlic black bean sauce.
Around the same time, several big seafood restaurants opened back in downtown’s Chinatown, above all the famous Mon Kee, which drew the sort of adventurous diners who also ate at the period’s French-influenced nouvelle cuisine restaurants such as Ma Maison. Overnight Angelenos became acquainted with shrimp in pepper salt. Menus went on with page after page of sea cucumber and crab dishes.
In the later ‘80s, prosperous Hong Kong immigrants created the explosion of Chinese restaurants along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, San Gabriel and Rosemead. Here you could find Chinese Islamic cuisine and Shanghai restaurants and cookery of the Chiu Chow people, who had sojourned for centuries in Vietnam and Thailand. At one of the new restaurants, the former chef of Chinese premier Chou En-lai would cook you as fancy a dinner as you were willing to pay for (a high-end meal included a lot of vegetables marvelously carved into dragon and phoenix shapes). When the Empress Pavilion opened in downtown’s New Chinatown, the victory of sophisticated Hong Kong-influenced cuisine seemed complete.
Buzzing with energy, that’s our Chinese food scene today. When a new restaurant opens, flocks of people rush to check it out. Serious eaters follow chefs from restaurant to restaurant, the way foodies followed nouvelle cuisine chefs in the 1970s. There’s an enthusiasm for all the ancient riches of Chinese cuisine -- and the latest developments from Hong Kong.
“Sometimes, if you grew up here,” says Moy, “you feel nostalgic for those old dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung.
“But then you order them, and you realize the food is so much better now.”