The South Bay’s Hidden Chinese Dining District
A Lomita family, 1953
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
While everybody knows that the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles' Chinatown have many choices for authentic Chinese food, fewer are aware that there is also a nice collection of authentic Chinese restaurants tucked away in the South Bay. This concentration is centered in the unlikely location of Lomita, and the immediately adjacent portions of Torrance, along Pacific Coast Highway. To say this is an unlikely locale becomes more evident when you consider that Lomita has a negligible Chinese population, and that there are essentially no Chinese groceries or other kinds of Chinese stores or businesses in the vicinity. How 30 years ago Lomita started to become a center of Chinese dining arose in a roundabout manner having very little to do with Lomita itself, and makes for an interesting tale.
The story begins several miles to the north in the early 1960s in communities like El Segundo, Hawthorne, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach. That region rapidly built up as the home to many aerospace companies involved in the Cold War and the race for outer space. All of those companies employed cadres of Chinese-American aerospace engineers and technical workers, and as the industry and their employees thrived, those workers looked for an upscale residential community to settle in. That community turned out to be the neighborhoods of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
However, for the initial Chinese residents, gaining the toehold in Palos Verdes wasn’t without difficulty. As the civil rights movement changed America in the 1960s, certain communities were particularly resistant to housing integration. In the Los Angeles area, the major holdouts included Palos Verdes, South Pasadena, Arcadia and San Marino, which ironically all now have large Chinese populations, as well as Glendale and Inglewood. Indeed, pioneering Chinese home buyers in Palos Verdes were advised by real estate brokers that before making an offer on a house, they should knock on neighborhood doors to ask the homeowners if they would object to having a Chinese neighbor.
Of course all barriers eventually fell, and the Palos Verdes Chinese community grew, creating a large demand for authentic Chinese cuisine. But with Palos Verdes being almost exclusively residential, those restaurants did not appear locally but rather down the hill in the communities of Lomita and Torrance.
One of the first of these restaurants serving the Chinese population up the hill opened 30 years ago on Pacific Coast Highway in Lomita. Still in operation today, A-1 BBQ is clearly the godfather of authentic Chinese food in the South Bay. To call A-1 BBQ’s premises a shack is no insult, because it holds probably only eight tables and is almost windowless. Due to A-1’s success, and the growing Chinese population in Palos Verdes, it wasn’t long before a good number of other authentic Chinese restaurants appeared on the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Hawthorne Boulevard and Western Avenue. While A-1 remained an institution for more than a quarter of a century, with Cantonese barbecue meats and beef chow fun headlining its menu, it did lose much of its luster as restaurants serving Hong Kong–style seafood and dim sum made their appearance in Lomita. More recently, the same changing demographics throughout America, where non-Cantonese Chinese food has been supplanting Cantonese food, also were at work in this region. Consequently, A-1 BBQ was recently sold to new owners, who have added Taiwanese and Sichuan-style dishes to their menu, such as fried pork chops, cumin lamb and minced pork rice, which has reinvigorated the restaurant to its former glory.
A 1980s menu from Szechwan Restaurant
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Less than a block away from A-1 BBQ is Szechwan Restaurant, which actually predates A-1 BBQ back to 1980 as an Americanized Chinese restaurant, with its Americanized menu persisting to this day. However, as the Palos Verdes Chinese population increased, Szechwan Restaurant tweaked its moniker to Szechwan Seafood, and added dim sum and seafood dishes to its menu. The name has since reverted to Szechwan Restaurant, but the dim sum service continues, and now a Taiwanese submenu including black pepper pork and sizzling tofu has been added to the old Americanized Chinese favorites.
Pretty much across the street from Szechwan Restaurant is Lomita’s other dim sum option, P V Palace. P V Palace is a throwback of sorts in that, before carts were introduced in the 1970s, dim sum circulated around the dining room via trays carried by waiters. Well, it’s back to the future at P V Palace, where most of the dim sum is delivered on trays. But P V Palace isn’t going retro just for the sake of it. Rather, the restaurant has increased the number of tables in the restaurant during prime dim sum time, and only one aisle is wide enough for carts. Consequently, most tables can only be accessed by servers carrying trays. While Lomita dim sum does not match the best of the San Gabriel Valley, it certainly beats the 30-mile drive for locals.
A few years ago there were troubling signs when landmark Lomita Hong Kong style–seafood restaurants P C H Seafood and Harbor Palace closed down, as did House of Vege, the Chinese vegetarian restaurant just on the Torrance side of Pacific Coast Highway. Fortunately, things turned around a couple of years ago when the San Gabriel Valley’s Honey Boba opened an outpost on Pacific Coast Highway in Lomita, followed by a branch of the Little Sheep Hot Pot chain, which set up shop on Pacific Coast Highway just over the border in Torrance.
But the exciting news is the opening of two new Chinese restaurants in Lomita in recent weeks. The long-vacant Harbor Seafood location has welcomed Ruiji Sichuan Cuisine, the area’s first true Sichuan-style restaurant, reflective of the same changes that have swept the San Gabriel Valley and its move away from Cantonese cuisine. And just a few blocks west, a branch of the Shanghai-leaning Tasty Noodle House chain has opened.
Note that not all of the area’s authentic Chinese restaurants are located on Pacific Coast Highway. Aside from the Taiwanese options already mentioned, there are dedicated Taiwanese restaurants such as Lucky #1 on Lomita Boulevard and, in Torrance, Ju Ju Shine, Peter’s Place and Sue’s Kitchen, making this part of the South Bay a major source of Taiwanese food in the Los Angeles area. Perhaps the best Cantonese option in the area these days is Seashore on Calle Mayor in Torrance. And don’t forget Din Tai Fung, now in Del Amo Shopping Center. So you can’t say there isn’t good authentic Chinese food in the South Bay. You just have to know where to look.
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