Saturday, September 5, 2015

Déjà Vu All Over Again for Los Angeles Chinatown Dining

With the arrival of Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok Thai, and Champ Ramen and the forthcoming large Pok Pok, Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food.  But this is not Los Angeles Chinatown’s first dining renaissance as once before it had emerged from its dining slumber to be a culinary hot spot.

While it is natural to lump Los Angeles Chinatown with other historic core city Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and many others, in reality Los Angeles Chinatown is uniquely different.  That’s because today’s Chinatown in Los Angeles began as a Hollywood set like tourist only attraction with wishing wells, touristy restaurants and gift shops in a plaza like setting, but virtually no Chinese people actually living in the area.   Yes, Los Angeles did once have a real historic central city Chinatown, but that was leveled in 1933 to make way for the Union Station.  While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two separate suitable replacements in New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, virtually all of old Chinatown’s residents moved out of the downtown area, leaving Los Angeles without a real Chinatown for a good three decades.  From its opening in the late 1930s through the 1960s, New Chinatown dining was largely tourist oriented.  As I kid the only time I ever went to Chinatown was for an occasional banquet at one of New Chinatown’s or Spring Street’s (the two districts had not yet merged to form today’s Chinatown) larger restaurants such as Hong Kong Low, Lime House, General Lee’s, Grand Star, New Hung Far, Golden Pagoda or New Grand East.  We otherwise didn’t go to Chinatown to eat.  Rather whenever we ate out it would be in one of the San Pedro St. City Produce Market (the real Chinatown of that era that few outsiders know about) Chinese restaurants such as New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen or Moon Palace (which subsequent became On Luck).

Then came the game changer, the 1965 repeal of the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States.   With the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, New Chinatown saw its first critical mass of Chinese residents, and restaurants serving a more modern type of Cantonese food sprang up in Chinatown in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Phoenix Inn, Won Kok Center and Golden Dragon.  Meanwhile, Grandview Gardens captured the imagination of Angelinos, both Chinese and non-Chinese, who swarmed the restaurant on Sunday mornings for their dim sum service.   Miriwa upped the ante by opening  its newfangled dim sum service on carts in 1976 on the second floor of Chunsan Plaza (currently occupied by Ocean Seafood).    

Los Angeles Chinatown reached its first culinary zenith in the 1980s as restaurants filled the street to street Food Center between Broadway and Hill St.  Mon Kee on Spring Street may have been the first Chinatown restaurant to serve Hong Kong style seafood, though it was soon left to the downtown lunch crowd.   But in 1984 ABC Seafood stepped in and introduced advanced Hong Kong seafood cuisine in the old Lime House location, for over a decade serving the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the nation.   However later in the 1980s Monterey Park, and then the rest of the San Gabriel Valley gradually overtook Chinatown, to the point that there is nothing close to a destination Chinese restaurant in Chinatown today.  Indeed, as far as Los Angeles Chinatown is concerned, the best known restaurant may be the touristy Yang Chow with its slippery shrimp, which annually wins  the "Best Chinese Restaurant" award from downtown office workers.. 

Ironically ground zero for Chinatown’s second renaissance is the old Food Center complex, since renamed Far East Plaza, as over the years fewer and fewer eating places populated the center’s premises.  But now, housing Chego, Pok Pok Thai, Scoops and Champ Ramen (as well as the pop-up cat cafe), it really has become a food center again.  Or like Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.