Sometime in the 1990s, Los Angeles bested New York's reputation for having the best Chinese food in the United States. Of course, even as recently as five years ago most New Yorkers thought the idea preposterous, despite the broader range of regional Chinese cuisines, the inventive new restaurants and the panoply of wonderful new dishes that could be found in Los Angeles but not in New York. New York semi-officially surrendered on whose Chinese food was better two years ago when Mark Bittman of The New York Times admitted that there was no Chinese food better in the United States than Southern California's. (There are undoubtedly still uninformed New York holdouts still out there, just as there are still members of the Flat Earth Society.)
Perhaps the most telling indication of the Chinese food hegemony in Los Angeles is the rush by mainland Chinese restaurant chains to open branches in the Los Angeles area. By opting to open in Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco or New York, these chains recognize that Los Angeles indeed is the Chinese food capital of the United States and this is where they should be. In so doing, they are pushing the quality of Chinese food in Los Angeles even further ahead of the pack.
While the rush to open branches in Los Angeles is a phenomenon that began just four years ago, there were pioneering mainland Chinese restaurants that opened in the past with mixed results. Almost 25 years ago, the legendary Quanjude Beijing Duck restaurant set up shop on Garvey Avenue in Rosemead. However, Los Angeles wasn’t ready at that time for a restaurant that served an eight-course dinner of nothing but duck dishes, particularly at a time when the quotient of mainland Chinese transplants in Los Angeles was much lower than it is today.
Strangely, when the mainland Chinese Little Sheep Hot Pot chain expanded to the United States about 10 years ago, it initially bypassed Los Angeles, for an interesting reason. About five years before, Little Sheep–branded restaurants did begin to appear in the San Gabriel Valley, and they operated without incident until a sharp-eyed diner noticed that the corporate Little Sheep website showed no branches in the United States. A decade before “fake news,” there were three fake Little Sheep in the San Gabriel Valley. They quickly underwent overnight name changes upon being unmasked. The real Little Sheep started its own U.S. expansion shortly thereafter but did not open in Los Angeles for a few years, likely to avoid confusion with the fakes.
The modern era of mainland China–based restaurants opening Los Angeles branches dates back to late 2011 and the arrival of the San Gabriel branch of Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, which had three existing branches in China. Spending what was rumored to be a couple of million dollars on lavish decorations (which some observers say made the restaurant resemble a Shanghai bordello), and with an illustrated menu resembling a coffee-table book, Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village was the forerunner to the recent rush of upscale mainland Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. The 2012 opening of Wuxi specialist Wang Xing Ji in San Gabriel was a head turner, particularly because of its signage proclaiming “since 1913,” given that no existing Los Angeles Chinese restaurant went any further back than the 1940s. It took a while for people to figure out that this was the U.S. outpost of a historic Chinese chain.
But it was the announcements in the spring of 2013 of the upcoming openings of the first U.S. branches of two major Chinese restaurant chains, Meizhou Dongpo and Hai Di Lao, that truly kicked off the wave. Both restaurants, which opened in late 2013, carried major question marks at the time of their debuts. In the case of Meizhou Dongpo, it was the choice of the Westfield Century City shopping center, not the San Gabriel Valley, to establish its American beachhead that raised questions. The skepticism that arose when the plan was announced only grew after multiple delays in the opening. The owners did not realize that much of the nearly $2 million in furnishings imported from China needed to be fumigated and then quarantined for an extended period of time. Nonetheless, Meizhou Dongpo has been a rousing success. Despite its Westside location, it has been serving large crowds of Chinese diners, particularly at dinnertime and on weekends, with a more mixed clientele for weekday lunches. This success has triggered three additional branches of Meizhou Dongpo — full-sized restaurants in Arcadia and Irvine, and a fast-casual branch at Universal CityWalk, which had been looking for an authentic Chinese restaurant to keep Chinese tourists on the premises at mealtimes.
Meanwhile, observers also looked askance at Hai Di Lao’s Arcadia opening. The restaurant chain had developed a quirky reputation in China, such that it was described in the press as “highly curious” and “the Disneyland of hot pot.” Its U.S. opening plans were reported by the Wall Street Journal, which described it as the type of restaurant P.T. Barnum would have opened. Alas, the Arcadia version is more sedate, with the “noodle dancer” presentation of your noodle order the most extreme experience here. But even so, Hai Di Lao was wildly successful right off the bat, with dinner reservations booked months in advance, validating Hai Di Lao’s reputation as the “Ferrari of hot pot” (with prices to match).
With the success of Meizhou Dongpo and Hai Di Lao, the fabled BGBY group opened Chuan’s in Temple City shortly thereafter. Other mainlanders include Greedy Cat, which opened in Industry and Rowland Heights, and H J H Simmer Pot: it has hundreds of locations in China and landed in Walnut, of all places. Of course, not every transplant has been a roaring success. Three Travellers Bone Hot Pot lasted a couple of years in Monterey Park, as did Chengdu Pot in San Gabriel, while Shanghai’s Chicken Papa didn’t last a year in Industry. But the prize for flaming out goes to Singapore Leaf, which went from lines out the door in its first week of operation to out of business in just three months.
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The poster child for the wave of Chinese restaurants currently engulfing us is Bistro Na’s, the first U.S. branch of the famous Beijing restaurant Na Jia Xiao Guan, with its opulent décor and equally opulent menu. Other recent openings include the famed Bian Yi Fang, Beijing’s oldest purveyor of Peking duck, which arrived in Rowland Heights, as has Beijing’s Shangcheng Lameizi Hotpot; the museumlike Chengdu Impression, straight outta Chengdu, landing in Arcadia; and, most recently, Sichuan Kungfu Fish in Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia.
Carrying higher price and quality points than what the San Gabriel Valley had historically been used to, they are filling the previous void in fine Chinese dining locally. And in so doing they have made our local Chinese dining experience that much better than the rest of the country.