Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When Chinatown Dominated the Los Angeles Chinese Food Scene

These days it's a very rare occasion for us to eat in Chinatown.  The Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is so much superior, and unless you're traveling during rush hour, it isn't that much further away.  But there was a time when Chinatown was the place to go for Chinese food, and I don't just mean the time period before the Chinese started moving to the San Gabriel Valley.  As I previously discussed, the first noticeable movement of Chinese residents into Monterey Park occurred in the early to mid-1960s.  The Chinese population in the Los Angeles area began to swell in the late 1960s as the change in U.S. immigration policies took effect.  Yet, it wasn't until the mid to late 1980s that the San Gabriel Valley overtook Chinatown as the preferred locale for Chinese food.

As discussed before, the first traces of Hong Kong style Chinese food landed in Los Angeles Chinatown in the 1960s, shortly after the new Chinese immigrants started to arrive from Hong Kong.  In contrast, my recollection is that modern authentic Chinese food did not come to the San Gabriel Valley until the 1976 opening of Kin Kwok on Garvey Ave. in Monterey Park.  Other notable San Gabriel Valley openings in the late 1970s included Nam Tin, in Monterey Park, probably the first banquet sized restaurant to open, and House of Louie, also in Monterey Park.

Meanwhile, things were hopping in Chinatown.  1979 marked a significant step forward with the opening of the Food Center, the street to street, all food mall that opened between North Broadway and Hill St.  Patterned after "Sihk Gaai" in Hong Kong, the Food Center was stuffed top to bottom, end to end  with new restaurants offering the best Chinese food in the metropolitan area.  And these weren't Hong Kong  Low or Lime House restaurants.  These were brand new restaurants, with the large anchor spaces taken by Szechwan Palace and Great Shanghai, pioneering restaurants for their genre in Los Angeles. 

This is not to say that the San Gabriel Valley wasn't evolving.  The first Hong Kong style seafood restaurants opened up around 1980.  Sea Palace, which opened up in Monterey Park in 1980 may have been the first in the San Gabriel Valley.  Other  Hong Kong style seafood restaurants followed in Monterey Park, such as Sea Dragon, Champagne Restaurant and Fortuna Seafood.  But these were matched in Chinatown's Food Center by Hong Kong Jade Garden and Manning Seafood, later followed by Diamond Seafood,  and Regent Seafood on Main St. 

But it was Chinatown which brought us the first superior Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in 1984 with the opening of A B C Seafood.  Replacing the venerable but boring Lime House, this was the first knock your socks off Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  This was the quality of Chinese restaurant that Angelenos used to drive to San Francisco to find, or even fly to New York City, only better.  For more than a decade, Chinatown's ABC Seafood would represent the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the entire United States.  And in the ultimate ascendancy of Los Angeles to claim the title of having best Chinese food in the U.S., the opening of A B C Seafood was the initial round.

Ironically, the success of A B C Seafood in Chinatown also ultimately led to the San Gabriel Valley eclipsing Chinatown as the locus of Chinese food in the Los Angeles area.  A B C Seafood was  a rollicking success but its fewer than 30 table capacity limited its potential  Consequently, a sister restaurant christened N B C Seafood opened up in palatial sized premises in Monterey Park just two years later in 1986 in the space formerly occupied by the Golden Shark buffet, likely providing the tipping point for the San Gabriel Valley to become the premiere Chinese dining area in Los Angeles.  This was followed by the opening in the late 1980s of several shopping centers housing dozens of Chinese restaurants on Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel, including large numbers of non-Cantonese style restaurants, which would turn the city of San Gabriel into the epicenter of Chinese food (amazingly  until around 1983 there were no authentic Chinese restaurants in the city of San Gabriel); the opening of the first large Chinese mega shopping center in Rowland Heights in 1990, setting the eastern San Gabriel Valley up as a major player in the world of SGV Chinese food; the opening of Ocean Star Seafood in 1992 amidst unbelievable hype as the ultimate Hong Kong style food palace; the mid-1990s ascent of the SGV as the locus of the best Chinese food in the US, as Angelenos completely stopped driving to the Bay Area on weekends to get better Chinese food, and Bay Area eaters started coming down here to get their Chinese food fix; and the 2002 opening of Vancouver's Sea Harbour restaurant in Rosemead, marking the start of high level Chinese dining and widening the gap between Los Angeles area Chinese food and the rest  of the country.

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