“There’s no good Chinese food in Chinatown.”
It’s a refrain you hear every so often from those who insist that real Chinese cooking is only found east of downtown, in the San Gabriel Valley. And sure, maybe they’re half right: The SGV is an jaw-dropping place filled with wonderful dumplings and noodles and clay pot stews from across China, often cooked by chefs who recently left their home province.
But perhaps we underestimate L.A.’s original — albeit aging — Chinatown. The chefs and restaurateurs who arrived during Chinatown’s heyday adapted their Cantonese style to a shifting American culture that was obsessed with orange chicken and egg foo young, and given the widespread popularity of those dishes, they managed to do a pretty good job of it.
Of course, you don’t need anyone to tell you about the slippery shrimp at Yang Chow or the BBQ pork buns at Ocean Seafood. Those dishes are as iconic as the dragon gate stretching over Broadway. But there are several restaurants in Chinatown that haven fallen through the cultural cracks, serving specialties that deserve a share of the spotlight. Here are a few you might have missed.
Roast Duck & Thousand Year Egg Porridge at Phoenix Inn
There’s no better solace on a chilling day than a hot bowl of congee, the restorative rice porridge that does double duty as breakfast or a post-bar snack. The stuff at Phoenix Inn, which has been ladled out since Lyndon Johnson was president, arrives just below boiling, seasoned with ginger, scallion and a touch of soy sauce. It’s a blank canvas for toppings, the best being crispy shreds of roast duck and a gravel-colored preserved egg. Don’t forget the savory doughnut, you tiao, for dipping. 301 Ord St., Chinatown; (213) 629-2812, phoenixfood.us.
Homemade Bean Curd at Jade Wok
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 the whole thing is smothered in wonderfully thick and salty sauce made with minced pork and preserved black beans. “Best tofu in town,” the menu rightly proclaims. 625 W. College St., Chinatown; (213) 628-8288.
House Special Shrimp at Chinese Friends Restaurant
A few years ago, while writing an article on slippery shrimp, I asked George Yu — the local business leader who’s sometimes referred to as the Godfather of Chinatown — for his recommendation. We were both deep into a few scorpion bowls at Grand Jazz Club, but I recall him speaking fondly of Chinese Friends, a small restaurant on the neighborhood's northern fringe. It wasn’t technically slippery shrimp, but the House Special Shrimp was the stuff of stoner fantasies: crispy butterflied shrimp that puts Long John Silver to shame, tossed in a sticky-sweet-spicy sauce with a tangy jolt that might suggest ketchup and a handful of crushed chili. Utter bastardization never tasted so good. 984 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 626-1837, chinesefriendsrestaurant.com.
Wonton Noodle Soup at New Dragon Seafood
The Chinese name for New Dragon — a garishly adorned spot on a high-traffic strip of Hill Street — is in fact “wonton noodle,” although I didn’t learn that right away. I had a bad cold on my first visit and saw some Yelp photos that looked enticing. The specialty here, it soon became apparent, was egg noodles swimming with bouncy little wontons, Chinese broccoli and chunks of beef brisket (they’ll add chewy bits of tendon if you ask, and you should). The broth is plain and comforting, the noodles are slightly al dente, and the wontons possess some type of slippery magic that makes you crave them by the dozen. 934 N. Hill St., Chinatown; (213) 626-6050.
Cold Special Chicken at Fortune Gourmet Kitchen
Far East Plaza, the weathered Chinatown shopping mall that’s been ground zero for the neighborhood's new arrivals — Chego, Pok Pok, Ramen Champ and Scoops are all located there — has a handful of old-school Chinese restaurants left, including Fortune Gourmet Kitchen, a Cantonese dining hall hidden on the upper level. Its bargain lunch specials are the main draw, and the highlight is probably the supple poached chicken chopped into rough sections, paired with an addictive ginger-onion relish and a cup of MSG-laden stock. You might not think of yourself as the type to pick a half chicken bone-clean in one sitting, but here you won't be the only one. 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 628-8188.