Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can The Westside of Los Angeles Support Great Authentic Chinese Food?

One of the factors in my becoming willing to drive significant distances for Chinese food was working for 30 years on the Westside of Los Angeles.   When I first showed up for work there it was a wasteland as far as Chinese food was concerned.  Chinese food was defined by restaurants such as Wan Q, Kowloon, Madame Wu, Twin Dragon and Jade West.  Consequently I became quite used to making the trek from my Century City office to Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley at lunch time back in the days when it was a breeze to drive across town at lunch.

More recently it has been posited that if a signature San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant were to open somewhere in West LA, that they would clean up.  This is based on a perceived increase in the sophistication of Westsiders towards Chinese food, as well as a larger Chinese Westside presence including a large Chinese student population at UCLA.  However, others have replied to the contrary with words like don't be fooled by the number of knowledgeable Westsiders who understand and appreciate San Gabriel Valley Chinese food as indicated by their participation in Chinese restaurant discussions on message boards such as Chowhound.   In reality, the argument goes, there really aren't enough such Westsiders to actually support a branch of a high quality authentic Chinese restaurant on that side of town.  This position seems to be supported by the fact that while there is certainly a large amount of discussion of top San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants by non-Chinese commentators, if you actually walk into any of those restaurants, the presence of non-Chinese diners is negligible.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Newport Seafood, one of the very most popular Chinese (actually Chinese/Vietnamese) restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley was opening up a branch on La Cienega's Restaurant Row.  To Westsiders, the impending opening of the restaurant was earthshaking news, and would prove that the Westside's taste for Chinese food had matured to the point where one no longer had to make the trek to Monterey Park or San Gabriel to get the real thing.  Perhaps New Port Seafood (notice the variation in the name of the Beverly Hills branch) would be followed by other San Gabriel Valley heavyweights.  Din Tai Fung?  Sea Harbour?  Why not?

However, so far, things have not gone as planned.  It was widely expected that when it opened, New Port Seafood would be one of the toughest tickets in town.  But even at the very beginning the restaurant was never full.  In fear of the crowds, I had deferred my first visit until a month after opening.  When I arrived, was I surprised.  Only one or other two tables were occupied the entire time we were there.  Subsequent reports indicate crowds have not improved on weekday afternoons, despite the fact that the food at New Port Seafood in Beverly Hills is quite good.

This is not to say that there is not good authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  Certainly Hakkasan in Beverly Hills is as good as it gets, but it's also as expensive as it gets and seems to be aimed at the expense account crowd.  A number of other authentic Chinese restaurants are doing OK on the Westside--Meizhou Dongpo, the first branch of a Beijing based chain, in Century City, Mandarin Kitchen and Qin West on Westwood Blvd., ROC and M J Cafe Express on the Sawtelle corridor, and Formerly California Wok on Wilshire, to name some of them.    But the disappointing reaction to New Port Seafood still seems to indicate that the Westside still isn't ready for prime time.

Note that about 20 years ago there were similar hopes for authentic Chinese food on the Westside.  J.R. Seafood, a true Hong Kong style seafood restaurant opened up on Santa Monica Blvd., followed by VIP Harbor Seafood (a branch of San Gabriel's Harbor Seafood) on Wilshire Blvd., and Royal Star (a branch of Monterey Park's Ocean Star) in Santa Monica.  Indeed, those three restaurants were of equivalent quality to the existing Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, and in fact observers thought VIP Harbor Seafood was better than the San Gabriel original.   But alas, VIP Harbor and J.R. Seafood have been replaced by watered down successors, and the Royal Star location is no longer even a Chinese restaurant.

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