Good Chinese Food Finally Comes to the Westside, Thanks to UCLA Students

Anne Fishbein

Those who have lived in Los Angeles for any length of time are aware that the Westside has historically been a wasteland when it comes to good and "authentic" Chinese food. Fortunately things are rapidly changing, thanks in large part to the presence of the UCLA student community.

Until the mid-1960s, housing discrimination kept most Westside neighborhoods almost entirely white, resulting in only the most Americanized form of Chinese food being served in area restaurants. Rare is the good and authentic Chinese restaurant that doesn’t have a local base of Chinese diners to serve. Even after housing barriers fell, there was no critical mass of either Westside-based Chinese diners or sophisticated non-Asian diners to justify authentic Chinese restaurants in the area for another two decades.

Even if a good and authentic Chinese restaurant made a Westside breakthrough, such as Shange-La and then Oriental Seafood Inn in Marina del Rey, Hong Kong Royale in Beverly Hills and Unicorn Inn in Venice in the mid- to late 1980s, it was unfortunately not a permanent one, with all eventually shuttering. Also in the late 1980s, strong rumors abounded that Harbor Village, the “big dog” of the era, with its dim sum and seafood branches in San Francisco and Monterey Park, was going to open up on Pico in West L.A., but that never materialized.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that respectable Chinese food came permanently to the Westside. You can imagine the joy felt when two Chinese seafood restaurants, J.R. Seafood and VIP Harbor Seafood, opened up on the Westside. These were followed shortly by pan-Asian eateries in Westwood Village such as Noodle Village, Noodle World and Boba World, specifically targeting the growing Asian-American student population at UCLA. And then San Gabriel Valley powerhouse Ocean Star Seafood opened its Royal Star Seafood branch in Santa Monica.

For the next 15 years, Westside Chinese food was pretty much status quo, aside from the normal turnover that marks any dining scene. Indeed, Royal Star actually closed down in 2004, and the 2008 attempt by a restaurant called Munch to target overseas Chinese students attending UCLA fizzled. Meanwhile, in the San Gabriel Valley, a major transformation was occurring. Chinese food shifted heavily away from Cantonese to other regional styles, reflecting the latest immigration patterns. Mainstream restaurant reviewers and diners became more attuned to the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, but Westside Chinese food remained largely the same.

The Westside began to awaken from its Chinese food slumber in 2012 with the opening of ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle. Chef Perry Cheung made headlines before the restaurant’s opening by stating that his goal was to bring “all that is tasty in the San Gabriel Valley” to the Westside. Indeed, prior to its debut, speculation ran on Los Angeles food message boards as to whether ROC Kitchen would be a destination restaurant that might draw diners from the San Gabriel Valley.

ROC Kitchen has proven to be a success in introducing Chinese dishes not previously available on the Westside, such as xiao long bao (soup dumplings), three cups chicken, fried pork chops and Sichuan cucumber salad. In that regard, ROC Kitchen has succeeded in importing San Gabriel Valley dishes to the Westside, attracting an audience of both Asian and non-Asian diners, so much so that additional branches have opened up in Beverly Center and Playa Vista. However, few if any diners would say that the food is comparable to the identical dishes found in the San Gabriel Valley, though diners are rightfully grateful to ROC Kitchen for introducing nice versions of San Gabriel Valley dishes to the area.

In the following two years, Westsiders next cheered the openings of Meizhou Dongpo in the Century City mall and Newport Seafood on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills, bringing two large SGV-quality restaurants to the Westside. Though both nicely appointed, there are stark differences between the two, with Meizhou Dongpo representing the new, non-Cantonese SGV and Newport Seafood representing a more traditional Cantonese/Vietnamese end of American Chinese cuisine. Meizhou Dongpo was the first U.S. branch of an upscale Sichuan-style chain based in Beijing, and its choice of a Westside beachhead was interesting. While some accommodation was made to its Westside audience in the form of a friendlier menu, including non-Sichuan items such as Peking duck and xiao long bao, the food is on the correct side of authenticity. And when night falls and the Century City office workers go home, Meizhou Dongpo is still bustling, with a predominantly Chinese clientele. Meanwhile, Newport Seafood represents the old guard, tracing its history back almost 30 years to its original Santa Ana location. It continues to serve a menu very similar to its San Gabriel Valley locations, with its signature House Special Lobster, and other favorites such as crab, shaking beef and basil fish. And here, too, dinnertime is dominated by an Asian dining crowd.

What might be the real game changer had yet to arrive on the Westside. In the past decade, a wave of Chinese college students from mainland China has swept over American universities from coast to coast and everywhere in between. Chinese students attending American universities doubled in number, and then doubled again. It is true that overseas Chinese students have been a staple in our universities ever since the immigration law changes of the 1960s made it much easier for Chinese people to come to the United States. But those foreign students came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, often from working-class families, and with plans to remain in the United States after graduating. Consequently, these students were not as parochially Chinese in their dining preferences. While there was an increased availability of Chinese food around campuses that hosted these Chinese students, the overall effect on the national Chinese dining scene was small.

However, the current wave of students coming from the Chinese mainland to study at American universities is quite different. First of all, these students, often the offspring of wealthy Chinese government officials and business owners, are much more conspicuous in wealth than their predecessors; in many locales, Lamborghinis and Maseratis are synonymous with college students from mainland China. Also, due to their family connections, they are likely to return to China when their studies are done, making them less likely to integrate with local communities and more likely to be partial to their native regional foods. Stark proof of this new paradigm is the fact that there are three times as many boba shops in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, than Starbucks locations. Many of these students are from the interior of China, whose regional cuisines had only become recently represented in the United States, and only in select parts of the country.

As a result, particularly in the past five years, in dozens if not hundreds of college towns throughout the country — from Pullman, Washington, to State College, Pennsylvania, to Auburn, Alabama, to Columbia, Missouri, to Kent, Ohio — authentic Chinese restaurants are appearing where they had never been before. Indeed, it is the rare college town today where you can't find dishes such as Sichuan style hot pots, cumin lamb and Chongqing spicy chicken, where less than a decade ago the only place you could easily find them was in our San Gabriel Valley.

The one notable exception to this trend was Los Angeles, where little authentic Chinese could be found within hailing distance of the UCLA or USC campuses. UCLA students were stuck with the on-campus Panda Express and the Americanized First Szechuan Wok in Westwood Village, or the now-closed starving-student favorite, Mongols, on Gayley Avenue. In a way, the lack of Chinese fare close by UCLA wasn’t surprising given Los Angeles' car culture and the plethora of regional Chinese cuisines represented in the San Gabriel Valley. And certainly the eventual openings of ROC Kitchen, Meizhou Dongpo and Newport Seafood alleviated the situation.

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