Before talking about what might be the best Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, we first need to make it clear that we're talking about a "Tallest Midget in the Circus" type of topic. It's been 30 years since the best Los Angeles Chinese food was located in Chinatown, and over 15 years since there has been a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Still sometimes you want a Chinese meal and it's too late or traffic is too bad to trek on over to the San Gabriel Valley, so knowing the best Chinese food around Chinatown is a useful thing.
That last destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown was ABC Seafood, which opened up in 1984 as the first high quality Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in the Los Angeles area, and for the first decade of its existence was the best Chinese restaurant in the United States. Indeed, we probably showed up there for Saturday night dinner three times a month. While ABC Seafood is still there, the owner-chef retired in 1999, selling it to a group headed by one of the waiters, Jackie Liao. Two or three changes of ownership later, ABC Seafood is an also ran in the very pedestrian collection of Chinese restaurants operating today in Los Angeles Chinatown.
Now when the new owners took over ABC Seafood in 1999, they tried to continue to operate the business as usual. The menu was completely unchanged, and visually the dishes were identical. But the old owner took his recipes with him, and the food was not the same. Apparently a couple of the cooks from ABC landed at the sister NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, so the food there was the next best thing to the old ABC, though it wasn't quite there. A few months later in 1999, a larger group of former ABC Seafood waiters got together and bought the Dragon Inn location at Spring and Ord, christening their new enterprise CBS Seafood. They declared that they were the true successor to ABC Seafood, and indeed their menu was also completely identical to that of ABC Seafood, except that the menu covers were green instead of red. But they didn't have the original ABC recipes either, and while we continued to dine there regularly for a while, it was because we knew the waiters, and not because of the food. And as the food began to spiral downward, we stopped going there altogether.
Well actually we never stopped going to CBS Seafood completely. You see it has one thing that no other Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown has--a large and convenient self-parking lot. So once in a great while when parking is the most important consideration, we end up at CBS Seafood. This was the case last month, when we went there for dinner, perhaps for the first time in four or five years. A couple of the old waiters and manager David Ho were still there and they greeted us like the long lost friends that we were. We ordered with little expectations, though we wondered why the prices were equal to or greater than in the San Gabriel Valley. But guess what? The food was pretty good. Not San Gabriel Valley good, but a fairly decent imitation. Indeed, the French cut filet mignon ranked with the best, and a number of other dishes were quite good. A return visit a couple of weeks later confirmed the tallest midget classification.
As far as a runner up restaurant is concerned, it's even more retro than CBS. Phoenix Inn may have been the first Hong Kong style restaurant to open up in Los Angeles Chinatown in the post-1965 immigration reform era. They subsequently opened up in Alhambra, and then a few years ago started the pioneering Phoenix Boutique dessert chain in the San Gabriel Valley. The Chinatown Phoenix Inn seems to have revived itself by patterning itself after the San Gabriel Valley operations, including a display case full of dessert items. The Chinatown branch also has the greatest concentration of millennial aged Chinese clientele of any Chinatown eatery aside from the boba shops, certainly a good sign.
And for those of you who are wondering about the revived Empress Pavilion, my assessment is that the old Empress Pavilion closed in part because the food wasn't very good, and the new owners really haven't improved on that. Hopefully the need for a banquet facility of that size in Chinatown is so great that Empress will survive. But I certainly can't recommend anybody go there for anything other than a banquet where somebody else is paying.