Chinese food in the United States was almost exclusively of the rural Toishanese/Cantonese variety from the time it came here after the Gold Rush until the 1960s. It wasn’t until the change in American immigration laws in the late ’60s that large numbers of Chinese people with other backgrounds came to the United States and ushered in the modern era of Chinese-American dining. Yet even before the effect of the new immigration laws took hold in the late 1960s, there were watershed Chinese restaurant openings in Los Angeles that signaled subtle changes in local Chinese cuisine: While Chinese immigrants were not assigned an expanded quota until the late ’60s, there was an intermediate period of increased non-quota immigration of Chinese people after World War II.
In 1962, Twin Dragon opened on Pico Boulevard on L.A.’s Westside, where it still thrives today. As the restaurant owners describe it, Twin Dragon brought a never-before-seen style of Chinese food to the city. Though self-described as Shanghai cuisine, the food was dubbed by locals as “Mandarin” or “Northern” Chinese food, so different from the Toishanese/Cantonese food that everyone was used to. Interestingly, its original menu shows dishes you'd more likely find in the San Gabriel Valley today; they're not on its current menu, which evolved to fit better with its Westside location and clientele.
Another pre–immigration reform, game-changing opening was the 1965 debut of Phoenix Inn in L.A.’s Chinatown. Though it opened before the impact of the new immigration quotas hit the Chinese community, it was a pioneer in the shift from the rural Toishanese-style Cantonese food still then associated with Americanized Chinese food to the modern, more diverse and urban Hong Kong–style Cantonese food. Phoenix Inn has shown amazing longevity and ingenuity. Not only is the original Los Angeles location still busily in operation but the owners subsequently opened popular branches in the San Gabriel Valley and also started Phoenix Food Boutique, the pioneering Chinese dessert restaurant chain in the San Gabriel Valley.
As new Chinese immigrants flooded into California in the 1970s, the new style of Cantonese food began to displace the old, with a broad variety of new dishes lengthening restaurant menus and dim sum becoming a daytime, sit-down experience. The 1976 opening of Miriwa Restaurant was a landmark event: Though it was not the first dim sum place in L.A., it introduced dim sum on carts to Los Angeles, turning dim sum into an eating experience that we now take for granted.
Perhaps the first brand-new identifiable Chinese restaurant genre to arise in this era was the Chinese deli. Indeed, the complaint in the mid-’70s was that every new eatery in Los Angeles' Chinatown was a Chinese barbecue deli. Though it didn’t open until 1979, a few years after the deli craze hit Chinatown, Sam Woo BBQ did raise the concept to a new level, eventually expanding the chain with branches extending to Las Vegas and Toronto; it still has a major presence in the San Gabriel Valley today.
With the start of the ’80s came the debut of what still is considered to be the quintessential Hong Kong–style restaurant, the seafood palace with tanks of live seafood and lunchtime dim sum service. While the first self-proclaimed Chinese seafood restaurants hit California in 1980, it was the 1984 opening of ABC Seafood in Chinatown that marked the revolution of this style of food in America. ABC’s combination of Hong Kong–style seafood and non-seafood specialties made it perhaps the top Chinese restaurant in the United States for the next decade, and the 1986 opening of its much larger sister restaurant, NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, marked a major step in the ascent of the San Gabriel Valley to national Chinese-food hegemony. This was followed by the 1992 opening of Ocean Star in Monterey Park, which represented the zenith in this genre, a giant dining hall with a capacity of nearly 1,000 seats; with the decline of the influence of Cantonese food in America, it will never be duplicated again. The fact that ABC, NBC and Ocean Star are still around today, but are afterthoughts in today’s conversations about local Chinese food, shows how things have evolved.
The 2001 opening of Sea Harbour in Rosemead began the meteoric ascendancy of Los Angeles in the national Chinese-restaurant pecking order, which powers forward to this day. Sea Harbour brought modern dim sum to Los Angeles — dim sum not on carts but ordered off a menu or checklist, and brought fresh to your table, with new creations adding excitement to what had become the somewhat staid dim sum scene. At dinnertime Sea Harbour brought high-end Hong Kong–style seafood to the local community, eclipsing the type of fare provided by its predecessors.
As Hong Kong–style food has receded from being the dominant authentic Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles, new iconic restaurants have opened. This was clearly marked in 2013 by the opening of Chengdu Taste in Alhambra. Chengdu Taste certainly wasn’t the first popular Sichuan-style restaurant to open in the San Gabriel Valley. But clearly it was the first non-Cantonese destination restaurant, as its arrival led to three-hour waiting times, attracting food critics from all over the country and forcing the restaurant to extend its hours and eventually open new branches.
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Most recently, the late-2016 opening of Bistro Na in Temple City highlights the beginning of a haute cuisine in Chinese dining that never existed previously, as rich Mainland Chinese make their presence conspicuous in San Gabriel Valley dining.
This is not to say that every opening of an ultimately iconic Chinese restaurant necessarily was initially a watershed moment. For example, one of the most influential Chinese restaurants on the West Coast today is Din Tai Fung, the famed xiao long bao maker out of Taiwan, whose shopping-mall locations create a frenzy wherever they open. Some have said Din Tai Fung’s regional mall approach seemingly gives it a license to print money, with each opening being wildly successful. While it certainly developed a cult following when it opened in the Los Angeles area in 2000, it didn’t mark a culinary particular trend, nor did it ascend to the next level of success for almost 15 years.
Good things take time, but L.A. will always find them.