How Going Kosher Gave This Chinese Restaurant a Second Life

Shanghai Diamond Garden reinvented itself as a home for Kosher Chinese comfort food.EXPAND
Shanghai Diamond Garden reinvented itself as a home for Kosher Chinese comfort food.
Kayvan Gabbay

Shanghai Diamond Garden, a Chinese-American restaurant, has been around in one incarnation or another for the better part of 50 years. It serves what's colloquially called "Chinese takeout" cuisine — a specific genre of Chinese cuisine completely disparate from the regional gastronomic temples of San Gabriel Valley — in the vein of a gussied-up Panda Express, or perhaps former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda's old-school favorite, Paul's Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles.

But in the last couple of decades, business at Shanghai Diamond Garden dropped off considerably as the surrounding community in the Pico-Robertson area became exponentially more observantly Jewish. Nowadays synagogues are found almost every couple of blocks while a half-dozen kosher butcher shops line the bustling boulevard. 

In 2004, the original proprietor, Chi W. Wong, partnered with a couple of Persian-Jewish restaurateurs to devise a new future for Shanghai Diamond Garden as a glatt kosher restaurant. Glatt is the most stringent kosher certification conferred on meat.

It's an arduous, painstaking, time-consuming process to convert a non-kosher restaurant to a kosher one. The restaurant closed for two months to revamp and retool the kitchen. They had to clean some parts of the extensive kitchen and replace some appliances, remodel the dining room and devise the new menu according to kashrut (kosher dietary laws) to eventually receive the imprimatur of the Kehilla glatt kosher certifying agency. Kosher restaurants must close on Fridays after lunch service and all day Saturday in observance of the Sabbath, which for most non-kosher restaurants is prime business hours.

Shanghai Diamond's kosher orange chicken is 100 percent holier than Panda Express.EXPAND
Shanghai Diamond's kosher orange chicken is 100 percent holier than Panda Express.
Kayvan Gabbay

Perennial favorites such as shrimp with lobster sauce or mu shu pork had to go, as well as any dishes containing pork or shellfish, which are all strictly verboten according to the stringent precepts of halakha (Jewish law). One of the tenets of halakha is the separation of meat and dairy, i.e., the complete separation of kitchen appliances, pots and pans, plates and silverware. This was a relatively simple update to the newly kosher restaurant, since dairy-based dishes aren't used at most Chinese restaurants. Many of the dishes that were previously on the menu remained there intact: kung pao chicken, won ton soup, beef with broccoli and eggplant in garlic sauce.

Ultimately, the restaurant reopened with the Kehilla glatt kosher certification in late 2004 and remains one of only a few sit-down kosher Chinese restaurants on Pico Boulevard, the others being Kabob & Chinese Food and the newly opened O'Woks Japanese & Chinese Cuisine. And the neighborhood imminently took to it in immense numbers. At a recent visit, a waiter who worked at the restaurant, both before the reopening and after, mentioned that they "got very busy" in the first few years when they reopened.

Lilliputian baby corn hide under a hearty helping of Kosher Chinese comfort food.EXPAND
Lilliputian baby corn hide under a hearty helping of Kosher Chinese comfort food.
Kayvan Gabbay

The large restaurant has maybe two dozen tables and a number of banquettes. There's a full bar with a sushi refrigerator case displaying fish in the room near the entrance. It seems to do a brisk business in various sushi rolls, too. On the weeknight we visited, the restaurant was packed. We dug in into standards like hot & sour soup, which was a little heavy on the cornstarch. The iconic orange peel chicken, world-famous from the Panda Express chain, was less sweet and decidedly healthier given the absence of the expected deep-fried, shaggy coating usually associated with food-court fare. 

The Mongolian beef was as expected: tasty slivers of stir-fried beef with scallions, onions and celery in a rich brown gravy. The kung pao fish was composed of wok-fried filets of whitefish with roasted peanuts, the Lilliputian baby corn and sauteed bell pepper. For the neighborhood denizens who only partake in kosher eats, the Chinese-American comfort food is tantamount to a blessing from above.

Maybe have a cocktail by the glow of the aquarium, while you're at it.EXPAND
Maybe have a cocktail by the glow of the aquarium, while you're at it.
Kayvan Gabbay

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