Most Angelenos know by now that the San Gabriel Valley is the epicenter for Chinese food in Los Angeles County. But what many don't realize is that cities such as Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Rosemead are going out of vogue in terms of new Chinese restaurant openings. While restaurant oversaturation is one of the factors, another is that the Chinese population is shifting.
They're heading east to cities like Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, West Covina and Diamond Bar — and they're taking their food with them.
“The move eastward coincides with the growth of the Greater Los Angeles area," says Gordon Chow, a longtime Hacienda Heights resident who bought his first house there in 1980. "You have to go east to find newer and cheaper homes. The growth in the Hacienda Heights-Rowland Heights-Walnut-Diamond Bar area is due to the attraction of the newer and cheaper homes.” Chow's first house was in Hacienda Heights, his second in Rowland Heights; he's now in Walnut.
And the food is moving with folks like Chow. The first Chinese restaurant east of the 605 freeway in the San Gabriel Valley was Lok Tin in Hacienda Heights, which opened in 1984. By the end of the '80s, there were fewer than a dozen authentic Chinese restaurants in the eastern portion of the San Gabriel Valley. In the '90s, the region began to see considerable growth.
But how much growth?
We analyzed the data of David R. Chan, the man who has eaten at more than 6,500 Chinese restaurants, and divided the San Gabriel Valley into two broad sections (east and west*) to find out. (Note that growth does not equal health, because we don't have data on restaurants that closed.)
What we found: From 1990 to 1999, there were 112 new Chinese restaurants in the eastern potion of the San Gabriel Valley. From 2000 to 2014, that area saw the opening of 278 more. In the western San Gabriel Valley region, from 1990 to 1999, there were 373 Chinese restaurant openings in that area. From 2000 to 2014, there were 828.
While volumewise the west San Gabriel Valley still has the most Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, the rate of new restaurant openings in the east is significantly higher than in the west. In 2014, the rate of Chinese restaurant openings in the east hit 12%. On the west side, the rate of new Chinese restaurant openings is 2.8%.
The east side has had a more significant exponential boom in terms of new Chinese restaurant openings, while on the west side, growth is nearly stagnant. Over the last 25 years, the west has been displaying relatively flat but slightly declining growth, while the east side has been enjoying a steady, exponential increase in growth.
"Simplistically, the west San Gabriel Valley has more new places replacing old places at existing locations. The east San Gabriel Valley has more new construction," Chan says. According to San Gabriel Valley real estate developer and restaurateur Sam Wong, the Asian food scene in the east used to be predominantly Korean.
"Korean-Americans were the main Asian population there before the Chinese found those new modern communities with big houses on huge lots attractive in the '80s," Wong says. "Rowland Heights was then nicknamed Yang Ming Shan after Taipei's affluent residential grove in the '70s and '80s."
In the beginning of the Chinese-food boom in the east, the area was primarily dominated by the Taiwanese. In fact, some of the most popular Taiwanese restaurants (Tofu King, Sinbala, MonJa TaiKer, Class 302, Yi Mei Deli) are either based there or have opened branches there.
And the move east is only continuing. On Facebook, there's a entire group in Chinese called "Taiwanese in Southern California" with more than 2,000 members. In a very informal survey conducted this year by a moderator, the bulk of the members in Los Angeles County said they lived in Diamond Bar.
Mixing in with that population is a heavy mainland-Chinese presence. "The mainland Chinese population has grown big time within the last two decades. Many of them love the spacious countryside feel there, and a very highly rated school district does not hurt," Wong says.
You can see this move in the food. "The mainland influence is rapidly growing," Chan notes. "There's Silk Road Garden, Zheng’s Fusion and Southern Gourmet are doing upscale Sichuan. There’s a branch of Shen Yang that just opened up, a Flushing-based Dongbei restaurant took over Maxim Café’s location, and there's Dongbei Hometown on Colima. There’s also Xi’an Kitchen, a Guizhou-style restaurant, top-notch Shanghai at Shanghailander Palace, there’s Cantonese food at H&G on Fullerton Road, and a branch of Shi Hai is coming to Hacienda Heights."
Even food fans are taking notice. There's a private Chinese-only food group on Facebook which translates to "Eating Everywhere California." It has more than 4,800 members and folks post their food finds from across the state. Interestingly, most of the posts are based in the east San Gabriel Valley.
The difference between the two regions is also physical. In the west San Gabriel Valley, on main streets such as Valley Boulevard, restaurants are mostly worn down and plazas are dotted with potholes after years of wear and tear. The east is completely different. Everything seems new and shiny, large and grand.
Head on over to Rowland Heights and cruise Nogales Boulevard, and you might notice a colossal plaza tucked discreetly on Labin Court. The plaza is called Pearl East, and among the current tenants are 101 Noodle Express, a noodle and dumpling specialist; Sno-Crave Tea House, a brick toast and boba tea shop; and Southern Gourmet, a tribute to Sichuan food. Foot traffic is sparse, but there are a handful of grand openings that have yet to happen.
At the front of the plaza is Lobster Bay, a Cantonese seafood restaurant. Employees shuttle in and out carrying chairs. "We open on Jan. 27 — come back then," a waitress says. The inside looks grand, and men are huddled over stacks of papers, under newly installed chandeliers, talking logistics.
Adjacent to the plaza is a three-story parking garage. It's currently empty, but developers are clearly anticipating crowds.
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*Data has been derived from the spreadsheets of David R. Chan, who has been documenting the opening of Chinese restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area since 1975. According to Chan, he's hit up about 95 percent of all San Gabriel Valley openings. East San Gabriel Valley: Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, Industry, Diamond Bar, West Covina, Walnut. West San Gabriel Valley: Monterey Park, Arcadia, San Gabriel, Rosemead, Alhambra, Temple City. The data is only considering newly opening restaurants and not the net health of the region, meaning we did not take any restaurants that are closed into consideration. Growth represents the amount of people attempting to open a restaurant in the respective region. Whether or not their establishment succeeds is not considered.
**Since West SGV has larger raw number of restaurants, both sets of data were normalized so direct comparison could be done. The amount of newly opened restaurants each year were tallied up and then divided by each respective region’s grand total over the last 25 years, then each region’s data were compiled into a cumulative graph. A sloppy curve fitting is then performed to get a rough equation for each of the curves. Sloppy meaning that while they probably wouldn’t do a good job at predicting future growth, they are fairly accurate at representing the growth we’ve already plotted. Special thanks to Daniel Hsu for crunching numbers.