Uncle John’s is a popular Chinese-American diner in downtown Los Angeles that has been an important part of the downtown life since its opening in 1975, serving lunch to almost three generations of government and warehouse workers. It's a quick, daytime spot, but the restaurant's new owners have added another element: It's open for dinner, which is strictly a Cajun-style seafood boil.
Uncle John's is known for its hearty portions and breakfast platters presented with a runny egg on top. The classics are the spicy pork chops with fried rice, or steak and eggs for just $11. One can opt for iced tea or Thai tea. On every table, Sriracha and ketchup sit side by side.
When the current owner, Shirley Ng, took over a year ago, she added dinner, deciding to split the daytime and dinner menus into two different concepts. Her approach is simple: shrimp, crawfish, mussels, clams and king crab legs are heavily seasoned and served out of a bag.
It’s a detour from the Chinese-American daytime specials, but the evening menu was a strategic decision. Ng used to be a supervisor at a Boiling Crab and saw how popular that type of eating has become over the past few years. The franchise is in Texas, Nevada, Hawaii and California, and most locations usually have lines out the door.
During the daytime, the restaurant reverts back to a diner, which is still the soul of the space. In addition to the breakfast sets, Ng recommends the Uncle John’s chicken, a sweet and sour deep fried poultry, and the slippery shrimp, coated in corn starch and then fried in a savory sauce. The wonton egg noodle soup and the honey shrimp over noodles are other customer favorites.
When Ng and her family took over the restaurant, they brought in a long-time San Gabriel Valley chef who spent considerable time cooking in Hunan-style restaurants. While a good portion of the menu does appeal to more Western tastebuds, Ng says she hesitates to label it as such.
“I wouldn’t say it’s Americanized Chinese,” she says. “People here in Los Angeles are conscious of what real Chinese food is, and we take that into account.”
Ng, who used to own a Mexican food truck in Germany, doesn’t like to adhere to labels. She prefers to stick to what she thinks people likes.
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And right now, that's the seafood boil side of the business. The Uncle John's special is three solid pounds of shrimp, crawfish, clams, mussels, sausage, corn and potatoes. Though the theme of the restaurant may be inconsistent, the portion sizes of all the dishes on the menu remain consistently large.
“I like to call it all comfort food,” Ng says.
834 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 623-3555.