What I Learned Eating at Every Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown
Three and a half years ago, I moved into my first apartment, a weathered, 1940s fourplex at the bottom of a long, sloping hill below Dodger Stadium. By way of geography, a murky argument could have been made that my block was on the eastern tip of Echo Park, or maybe the southern fringes of Elysian Park. But the Chinese characters on the street signs removed any doubt — I was a resident of Chinatown.
To be in your mid-20s — paying a very lenient landlord named Mr. Yip an amount of rent that was well below market rate, and situated between one neighborhood known for its bar scene and another known for its late-night dining options — seemed ideal. There was no laundry, so I hauled my grandparents' portable Montgomery Ward washer up a flight of stairs and hooked it up to the sink. There was a clothesline in the alley for drying. My neighbor, an artist, occasionally would have loud arguments with her boyfriend and would plaster our shared hallway with Banksy-esque political art and neo-Gothic tapestries. It wasn't the worst setup.
As much as I enjoyed the cheap rent, it would be a lie to say that I moved to Chinatown for anything less than the food. It began with weekly visits to Eastside Market, where my friend who was interning at the district attorney's office would pick up marinara-soaked pastrami sandwiches for his co-workers (the deli was popular enough with civic employees to turn my street into a gridlock of fire trucks, cop cars and various utility vehicles every day at noon). Later it was Keung Kee BBQ, where bargain-priced dim sum and sugary milk tea packaged in Styrofoam became my breakfast staple.
Culinary temptations appeared in less obvious forms, too: the strips of meat hanging from balcony windows to dry, the front yard gardens sprouting bok choy and bitter melons. Then there were the smells. One day it might be the toasty aroma of hot sesame oil drifting into a window, the next it might be the pungent, semi-noxious scent of fish sauce (which hung heaviest on trash day). After a month or so I had accumulated a thick collection of crumpled takeout menus that had been shoved under my front door. With that looming stack of challenges growing larger on my kitchen counter, I decided, in a more or less perfunctory way, that I was going to eat at every single Chinese restaurant in Chinatown — 30 places in all, including a few that have since closed (RIP, JR Bistro). And that's not counting the takeout.
After three decades of slow but steady decline, Chinatown is reversing course.
I worked my way through the easy ones first. There was the slippery shrimp at Yang Chow, easily the most famous dish in Chinatown, served in a dining room decked with the portraits of celebrities, newscasters and local politicians. There were late-night sesame balls and dumplings at Won Kok, the tattered dim sum cafeteria that stayed open until 2 a.m. There was the mediocre food at Hop Louie, housed in its iconic, five-tiered pagoda building — where the real reward was its dive bar downstairs, which poured a deadly scorpion bowl that for years was the closest thing the neighborhood had to a cocktail culture.
The first eye-opening dish I remember having after moving to Chinatown was at New Dragon. As with most restaurants in Chinatown, you could find Chinese-American staples on the menu, like walnut shrimp and orange chicken. Beneath that veneer were a few Hong Kong dishes (cooked by a Guangzhou chef who, like many Chinatown residents, later moved to Rosemead), including a wonton noodle soup stocked with stewed beef tendon and leafy greens. The wontons were soft and comforting, and it was easy to down a dozen or more in a sitting.
As I ate at more places in Chinatown, some restaurants seemed to bleed together. If I hadn't documented what I ate at CBS Seafood and ABC Seafood, or at Golden City and Golden Palace, it would have been hard to pick out the food in a lineup. But other places were idiosyncratic in ways both memorable and unexpected. At Chinese Friends, a closet-sized restaurant just north of where Pok Pok L.A. currently sits, the most popular dish was the House Special Shrimp, a combination of deep-fried popcorn shrimp and a sticky glaze that's unashamedly heavy on the ketchup. It's as addictive as it is kitschy. Just as unforgettable was the house special beef at Mayflower Restaurant, where walls filled with Manny Pacquiao memorabilia suggested that he probably had eaten there at some point. The beef arrived resembling the Vietnamese dish bo bu lac, better known as "shaking beef": slightly sweet, seasoned with an ungodly amount of garlic and served with a stack of steamed buns. My strangest meal might have been at J&K Hong Kong Café, where $10 will get you a Western-style, mixed grill plate loaded with a pork chop, short ribs, baked chicken, a hot dog, corn, broccoli, spaghetti, a fried egg and a gravy boat. There's warm Coca-Cola with lemon and ginger to drink if you're sick (it's a favorite cold remedy in Hong Kong).
When I'd stay up late working on a writing assignment, I'd pick up porridge with roast duck at Phoenix Inn or black bean spare ribs with noodles at Zen Mei Bistro. When an old karaoke den on Hill Street called Melody Lounge flipped into a dark and divey craft-beer bar, I'd end a night of too many pints a few doors over at Master Chef, with fried pork chops in spicy salt. If it was past 1 a.m. and Master Chef was closed, the salt-and-pepper fried shrimp at Full House wasn't a bad consolation.
I remember when Empress Pavilion, the gigantic dim sum hall that commanded spectacular views of downtown but was always mostly empty, finally closed in 2013 (it later reopened as a tepid facsimile), and when they opened the Walmart, which some people protested at first but later seemed to always have full checkout lines. If there's a reason for Chinatown's decline, it might be a simple matter of numbers. As its population ages, many families are moving east to the San Gabriel Valley. As L.A. Times writer Frank Shyong put it in 2013, "Today the aging community has the feel of a museum."
A sign still hangs outside the now-bulldozed Grandview Gardens restaurant.
But after three decades of slow but steady decline, Chinatown is reversing course. George Yu, the executive director of Chinatown's Business Improvement District, has been instrumental in the redevelopment of Far East Plaza, an odd little two-story pedestrian mall that even the most bullish civic booster might have once described as outdated. It now houses Roy Choi's rice bowl restaurant, Chego; a hip ramen joint; ice cream and coffee shops; and a casual outpost of Pok Pok that specializes in phat Thai noodles. The resurgence hasn't been limited to that particular plaza. Little Jewel, a New Orleans deli that took over a faded Chinese seafood restaurant, and Burgerlords, a takeout serving classic cheeseburgers and fries, have both attracted young, hip followings. Less than two blocks away, the finishing touches are being put on a larger apartment complex, which is expected to open this spring. Where hip restaurants go, hip apartments follow.
One of the last restaurants I visited before I moved last year from Chinatown to Silver Lake was actually closest to me, overlooked because it sat at the ground floor of a medical office in the same building as a Chinese pharmacist, optometrist and hair salon. Jade Wok is basically a bare, linoleum-floored dining room with a tiny window to the kitchen; the vibe veers toward retirement-home cafeteria, and it's not uncommon for elderly diners to wait until their preferred table opens up in an otherwise empty restaurant. It wasn't until my third visit that I tried the homemade bean curd, a dish that's not only the best thing I've eaten in Chinatown but also probably one of the best tofu dishes in Los Angeles. Two large squares of soft bean curd are deep-fried until they develop a shaggy crust and their insides turn to molten pudding, then smothered in wonderfully thick and salty sauce made with minced pork and preserved black beans. It costs $6.50 and comes with rice.
If someone tells that you there is no good Chinese food left in Chinatown, don't believe them. It's just not where you'd expect to find it.
Braised pig tail at Jade Wok
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