From the Los Angeles Public Library Menu Collection: Man Jen Low, One of Chinatown's Oldest Restaurants
It's amazing how often menus discovered in the LAPL menu collection narrate the history of Los Angeles. Today we look at a menu that details what Chinese food was like in the restaurants of the 1950's. If you look a little closer though, it also tells some of the story of Cantonese immigrants to Los Angeles over the last century.
The menu, which the library dates as being from 1950, is for Man Jen Low, a restaurant that later changed its name to General Lee's and was sometimes known as General Lee's Man Jen Low. A Los Angeles Times story about the history of Chinese food in L.A. says that Man Jen Low is the earliest Chinese restaurant known by name in the city. In an earlier L.A. Times article about the restaurant's closure in 1985, the writer refers to it as "a Chinatown institution dating from 1878," though the story never makes clear exactly what those 1878 origins were. It does indicate that during its heyday the restaurant enjoyed a star-studded clientele.
By the 1940s, General Lee's had become a well-known watering spot that often drew entertainers and prominent diners. David Lee was the Cantonese master chef while elder brother Walter was maitre d'.
"We used to have Gary Cooper ... Helen Hayes, Robert Goulet. Frank Sinatra, he's been here a couple times. Judy Garland used to come here all the time, and she brought her daughter, Liza Minnelli, when she was a kid. We used to cater to Spencer Tracy," David Lee recalled.
The Lee family story is documented on the website Los Angeles Chinatown Remembered. It claims that the restaurant's original location was in old Chinatown, but moved to its final location, in new Chinatown, in 1937.
So what did you eat at a celebrity-favorite Cantonese restaurant circa 1950? Perhaps something from the section of the menu titled "Our Specialties for an Adventurous Mood into the Realm of the Chinese Epicureans." Such as hop toa gai, or chicken with walnuts, for $1.50, or Lobster Cantonese for $1.75, "a very popular dish among foreigners as well as Orientals." There's also chop suey, chow mein, chow funn, and many other dishes that are part of the classic Cantonese and Chinese American culinary pantheon.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.