It’s no secret that Los Angeles has a flourishing Chinese American community, one of the largest, most expansive in the United States. Before the gated, sand-colored, and stucco dwellings of Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar in the San Gabriel Valley came interethnic settlements with Latinos in Monterey Park and Alhambra. Concurrent to that was an influx of moneyed Chinese into Arcadia, with its plush, green lawns; in the 1980s, it was aptly marketed as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.”
And then there still is L.A.’s actual Chinatown. Few know that this Chinatown wasn’t always where it is now. As with all Chinatowns in the United States, discriminatory laws and unspoken hostilities displaced Chinese immigrants into segregated areas. Old Chinatown, where 18 Chinese were killed in 1871 in one of the worst lynchings in U.S. history, existed from the mid-1800s to the 1930s slightly south of where it stands today. Part was leveled to make way for Union Station, the rest, for the 101 freeway.
Today’s Chinatown, squeezed between the 110 and the 101, has been there for 80 years — and is now full of art galleries, multi-use spaces, restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, and the souvenir shops of old dot the streets, a hodgepodge of cultural capital. Yet the neighborhood continues to face wave after wave of gentrification, with rising rents threatening the livelihoods and housing of elderly, low-income Chinese American residents.
Today, it’s not enough to know that the majority of L.A.’s Chinese restaurants can be found where Chinese American communities are. The city’s riches lie in the diversity of regional Chinese cuisines, which reflect the great diversity of its immigrants. Whether Cantonese, Sichuan, Hong Konger, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, or more, there is a lot of ground to cover when it comes to Chinese food in L.A. We asked eight prominent Angelenos to name their favorites.
Pearl River Deli
For the first century of Chinese cuisine in the United States, Chinese food was mostly Cantonese in style. Until the arrival of Taiwanese immigrants in the 1970s and non-Cantonese immigrants from Mainland China in the 1980s, there wasn’t much regional diversity.
Chef Johnny Lee, like myself, descended from Toisanese migrants (Taishan is 80 miles south of Guangdong, the city once known as Canton). His pop-up in L.A. Chinatown’s Far East Plaza opened in February before converting into a permanent restaurant two weeks before lockdown. He cooks a variety of traditional Cantonese and other kinds of dishes as a way to keep the culinary tradition alive.
Five months in, Pearl River Deli has become one of the top Chinese food takeout places amid the pandemic. Lee’s renditions of char siu rice, mushroom chow fun, Hainan chicken, and scrambled egg with shrimp are among the best around. He also offers a vegan “tsoong” (bamboo-wrapped, sticky rice bundle filled with chestnuts, mushroom, peanuts, and mung beans). But, if you’re an omnivore, don’t miss the pork-jowl char siu, the Macau pork chop on a pineapple bun, or the mango sticky rice. Pearl River Deli’s menu rotates in new gems all the time. There’s nothing not to love. // 727 N. Broadway, #130, 626-688-9507.
San Gabriel Valley food blogger extraordinaire
My late father was born in Shanghai and my mother was born in Ningbo, just south of Shanghai. I’m not suggesting that’s why my family and I keep coming back to a place called Shanghai Restaurant, though the generic name is one of the many reasons I love it. It’s not to be confused with the more atmospheric Shanghai No. 1 just down the street, with its ornate wood paneling and smell of incense. I’ve happily eaten there many times, too, but there is something about Shanghai Restaurant’s comparative anonymity — the lack of frills, or any ambience to speak of — that’s crucial to its appeal. You’re getting comfort food, plain and simple and very well cooked. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve ended up there over the years after a fit of dinnertime indecision. We never leave disappointed.
The staff is chatty and attentive and always happy to move us to a table that isn’t located directly beneath an air-conditioning vent (it sometimes takes a try or two). From there, we start with a wonderfully refreshing cold vegetable dish that consists of spiced tofu and ma lan tou, a very fragrant Chinese green. Other constants: smoked duck, crystal shrimp, pea sprouts with garlic, fried yellow croaker with seaweed (my three-year-old’s favorite, and one of mine, too). And there are the traditional starchy staples, of course, like Shanghai fried noodles, rice cakes and soup dumplings. There are more adventurous choices on the large and lavishly illustrated menu, to be sure, and I imagine we’ll get around to them on one of our many future visits. //140 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 212, San Gabriel, shanghairestaurantsangabriel.com.
Film critic, Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Fresh Air
Taipei Bistro is one of those legit finds I discovered during the pandemic. The first time I ordered [food from here] was literally on the day Mayor Garcetti issued the Safer At Home order. I got the scallion pancake and the sesame- and peanut-sauce mixed noodles combo dinner, both of which were very good. I also got the spicy braised beef noodle soup, which was solid.
Since then, I’ve ordered it five times. I love the oyster omelette, which is not a common thing outside a Taiwanese restaurant. The ratio between the batter and the oysters is done just right. I also enjoy their bento box, which includes pickled vegetables, a little egg, some tomatoes, pickled mustard greens, and your choice of meat, which I enjoy on top of the rice. I really love their spicy braised beef tendon — a dish I love in essentially any Asian culture. People don’t usually think of it as a delicacy, but it’s my kind of comfort food that really has me fiending.
The thing about Taipei Bistro is that their food tastes like home; it tastes like Taiwanese aunties made it. I was born in Taiwan but moved to Southern California when I was five years old. But because my dad worked for China Airlines, I was able to go back to Taiwan every summer until I was 14, so I have a very deep-seated emotional food memory associated with Taiwanese food, and Taipei Bistro recaptures that for me. // 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, 626-293-8128.
I love Little Fatty because of the Taiwanese food; it is so close to my heart because my mom is Taiwan-born and raised. I grew up eating her homemade scallion pancakes, braised chicken legs, and beef noodle soup. (My mom’s beef noodle soup is second to none; we’ve been trying to get her to start a beef-noodle soup food truck for ages.) To find a spot so close to my L.A. home where I can get the Taiwanese faves like zha jiang mian, but also some fusion-y concoctions, is such a win.
I live on the Westside, which is not exactly known for its Chinese cuisine. So unless I’m trekking it to Monterey Park or those environs, I knew the Taiwanese fare I love would be hard to come by. When I first moved to L.A., my friend Kyle suggested I try [Little Fatty], only a few blocks from my house, and I loved it. It made L.A. immediately feel like home and that I was fated to land here. It’s become a regular place to get takeout for me and my family.
I order the marinated cucumbers, scallion pancakes, beef noodle soup or dan dan mian, mapo tofu, Hainan chicken, and the rich and intense Taiwanese Sunday gravy. I am so hopeful we get to the other side of this crisis, so I can saddle up to the bar and eat food and drink beer at the restaurant again. //3809 Grand View Blvd., littlefattyla.com.
NPR international correspondent
I really like Joy because the food is delicious and always hits, the space is thoughtfully designed, and the staff is so incredibly sweet, warm and caring. I can never get sick of eating their food!
I think I’ve had nearly every item on the menu, but my favorites are the dan dan noodles, spicy shrimp wontons, layer pancake with egg & cheese (of course with basil & chili oil), seasonal veggies, wood-ear salad, minced pork on rice, and all the beverages. You really can’t go wrong at Joy. It’s not fussy. It’s approachable, thoughtful and delicious.
I love that Vivian [Ku], the owner, and her incredible team are putting up food they grew up with and care about. They are very inspiring, and the concept and brand they created are things that I admire. They brought their sensibilities and that Taiwanese deliciousness into Highland Park, making their restaurants part of the neighborhood fabric. It’s just smart: The price range, the approachability, the vibe, and model are such great fits for York Boulevard. I respect what they do. As an operator trying to showcase my culture and food, but from my own personal perspective, I find so much inspiration in what they do. I really look up to them. They’re Asian American, women-owned. Joy is so badass. //5100 York Blvd., joyonyork.com.
Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House
Hui Tou Xiang is so good, simple, satisfying, and consistent. The couple who runs it are great; the wife is the chef and the husband runs the back while the charming, pleasant son runs service. I believe she has no formal chef training; she just likes to cook and make her guests happy. They are terrific on a wide variety of dishes.
I order both the pork hui tou (pan-fried dumplings) and boiled dumplings, with their thick dumpling skins, which I happen to love. I also get the scallion pancake, which I think is one of the best versions in the San Gabriel Valley. I also like their spicy wontons and tasty, unique pork shumai with extremely thin skins. To mix it up, I also enjoy their cold spicy noodles and pork-hock appetizer seasoned with a super garlicky sauce. Their xiao long bao are pretty nice, too. The beef stew is also a hit and so are the cucumber salad and the marinated tofu skin.
The ingredients in each dish always are proportioned well, so it achieves a great balance — such as their addictive spicy noodle salad, with a heat that is so subtle.
I like to visit early on weekdays, around 11 a.m., so it is not too crowded. Wait too long, and they’ll get packed because they only have a few tables. Right now, they only do takeout, and I recommend buying their frozen dumplings, which cost $50 for 5 dozen. // 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, huitouxiang.com.
Chef, LQ Foodings
Alice’s Kitchen serves traditional and authentic Cantonese items, including almost everything you need to taste at cha chaan tengs. These Hong Kong-style cafes are known for their affordable and diverse menus. They include pineapple buns with butter, milk tea, French toast, congee, curry fish balls, and much more.
You can get a daily Chinese breakfast set, complete with congee, fried noodles, and milk tea, for only $8 in the morning. At noon, they feature a Hong Kong-style cart noodle with pork intestine, pork rind, and chicken wings that comes with a choice of flat rice noodle, rice vermicelli, or instant noodles. Order the Hong Kong-style stir-fried spare ribs, chicken with chili oil, and clay pot rice for dinner.
The milk tea and lemon tea are staples on the menu, but give the crushed ice with red bean a try. As we are always there, don’t be shy and come say hi if you see us! // 580 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park. 626-898-1828.
Justine and Jocelyn Wong
Co-founders, Hangry Diary
Dolan’s Uyghur Cuisine
I was living and working in Beijing about 20 years ago when I was first introduced to Uyghur cuisine, so when Bryant [Ng, Cassia’s chef and Luu-Ng’s husband] and I heard about Dolan’s, we were really curious. Uyghur cuisine is really hard to find in the United States, but at Dolan’s, it’s just really delicious. You would think that it’s heavy, but it’s very well balanced without being overwhelming, so I can just keep eating it all day.
Their cooking is so good, it’s just as if I were back in China — the food and flavors are so authentic to that Uyghur identity, and open the doors to people here to another kind of Chinese food. Most people only know about Han Chinese food, but this is a non-Han Chinese cuisine created by a Muslim people. //742 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, ladolans.com.
Co-owner of Cassia and
immigration and human rights lawyer