Despite the fact that Los Angeles is the undisputed leader in Chinese cuisine in the United States, it has historically been lacking in one area: upscale Chinese restaurants serving food that would just as easily be found in China. Restaurants such as WP24, Chinois on Main and Mr. Chow may be upscale, but few critics (or Chinese diners) would consider them authentic. Our one true experience with such upscale authentic Chinese dining, the Beverly Hills branch of Hakkasan, folded ignominiously after a relatively short period of time, as did Chi Lin (on the Sunset Strip), which was possibly borderline authentic.
Of course, there is a lot of expensive, authentic Chinese food to be found in Los Angeles, given the large number of well-heeled Chinese residents here. However, these rich Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley and other parts of Los Angeles up to now have not been frequenting dedicated upscale Chinese eateries. Rather, they patronize Chinese restaurants serving the entire spectrum of diners, from economical diners looking for lunch and dinner specials, to deep-pocketed business owners willing to spend $10,000 per table for dinner, such as the pricey special menu at Grand Harbor in Temple City. Indeed, even mid-quality Chinese seafood restaurants have private dining rooms with minimum $500 or $1,000 ordering requirements.
There are at least a couple of reasons for the lack of dedicated upscale Chinese restaurants. First of all, most Chinese restaurants would be loath to ignore the lower end of their market, and they can have it all by appealing to all price points. Secondly, the ultra-expensive Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley has historically fallen into a narrow profile: Hong Kong–style restaurants serving live seafood, quite often imported from the other side of the world. As such, these high-priced meals are made expensive by the cost of the ingredients themselves, rather than by posh settings, a high level of service or the talents of a celebrity chef.
However, there are seeds of change that have recently become to sprout. In the past two years, some new Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have been increasing the price point of the entire menu, often in elegant surroundings not previously encountered. As a result, we are starting to see Chinese restaurants in places like Arcadia, Temple City and Rowland Heights where most entrees go for $20 and up.
One prime example of this new trend is Bistro Na, which opened in Temple City in late 2016, offering the first “Chinese Imperial Court Cuisine” in the United States. Bistro Na is the U.S. beachhead of the Beijing-based Na Jia Xiao Guan, offering opulent food that was supposedly served to the Chinese emperors, in an equally opulent setting. Bistro Na’s top dishes include the $24 crispy shrimp, the $39 prime beef rib, the $36 peppered lamb chop and the $20 “Emperor’s Jar” appetizer. Among its other popular dishes are the beef tenderloin with black pepper and honey, the pork belly, the smoked pork rib and the steamed chicken. And depending what mood the restaurant (and whomever is minding the entrance) is in, you might not be able to get into Bistro Na without a reservation. Strangely, a large portion of the lunch crowd at Bistro Na are women, which leads one to suspect that Bistro Na is a gathering spot for the rich housewives of the San Gabriel Valley.
Also straight out of Beijing is the first U.S. branch of famed Beijing duck purveyor Bian Yi Fang, which opened late in 2016 in Rowland Heights with a high price point, starting with the signature $88 Beijing duck. Of course, if that’s too pricey for you, $48 will get you a half duck, or one of the sea cucumber dishes. Debuting earlier this year in Arcadia was the first U.S. branch of Chengdu Impression, which adds an upscale option to the growing market for Sichuan-style food with a $45 tasting menu. And in La Verne, the newly opened Tamsui River may be located in a mini-mall, and may have lunch specials (though they’re $10), but it does have $89 Buddha’s Favorite, $30 sesame oil chicken soup, $30 Taiwanese stew and $36 duck soup with herbs.
So while upscale authentic Chinese as a separate restaurant category here has been pretty much MIA here in Los Angeles, there are encouraging signs that things are changing.