Before you head to Bamboo Inn, a weathered lunch counter in Westlake that has been serving Chinese-American food since 1951, a brief disclaimer: The food itself isn't that great. The chop suey, a gloopy stew with bok choy and strips of pork, is pretty bland, and you've probably had crispier versions of sweet and sour chicken at pretty much any spot around Chinatown.
The fact that a lunch plate combo costs around $5 makes these flaws a bit more forgivable, and I'm sure there are people who have frequented Bamboo Inn for decades who would heartily insist on the deliciousness of the food. Of course, in Los Angeles, we know that the food is often only half of a restaurant's strange and compelling appeal.
The real reason to visit Bamboo Inn is that it feels like stepping into a time warp. A sign on the window outside promises “Genuine Chinese Food” and “Chinese Chop Suey,” a throwback to when the majority of Angeleno palates weren't familiar with mapo tofu and xiao long bao. Most of the daytime foot traffic on this block is headed across the street to Langer's — Bamboo Inn is located a few blocks east of MacArthur Park on Seventh Street — but on any given day most of the red booths inside Bamboo Inn are filled with diners, mostly young Latino families and couples, sharing large plates of chow mein, egg foo young and barbecued pork. When the waitress delivers your plate, one of the chefs will saunter out from the kitchen offering a colander filled with avocados — they sell for $1 extra and are a popular DIY topping among regulars, who scoop out chunks over brimming bowls of wonton soup.
The Chinese family that runs Bamboo Inn has done so since the 1970s or so, according to the head waitress, a friendly grandmother sporting an orange baseball cap. The pace of service is leisurely here, and it's a smart move to bring cash — a large antique cash register sits on the counter, still somehow operating with loud clanks and dings whenever a sale is rung up. If you'd like a beer, a Budweiser will cost you $2.50, though you won't find cans of Hamm's, as a dusty sign above the register promises.
The best way to experience Bamboo Inn, one could argue, would be to nestle into one of the red booths and order the egg rolls. They're fatter than usual, resembling what is sometimes referred to as the New York style, with a thick, crispy dough wrapper and a finely minced mush of pork and cabbage. The dipping sauce is more like cocktail sauce than duck sauce, but it somehow works. The only thing left to do is enjoy the fleeting ambiance — and wonder how Quentin Tarantino managed to never film a scene here.
Bamboo Inn, 2005 W. Seventh St., Westlake, (213) 483-6938.