What Yelp misses about Chinatown

by Frank Shyong

LOS ANGELES—You’ll hear a lot about how the Chinese food sucks in L.A.’s Chinatown.

The Yelp reviews for restaurants there are like foodie dog piles, with pages of commenters complaining of dry chicken, gristly dumplings and MSG headaches. They’re not wrong: L.A.’s Chinatown is only a culinary destination in the pages of clueless New York Times travel books and the distant memories of first-generation Chinese Americans who were alive to see its founding in 1938.

For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Chinatown has been a place that falls short of people’s expectations. But I never felt that this was fair to the area — and I never listen to Yelp commenters.

One of the first things I did after moving here seven years ago was board the No. 2 Metro bus to Chinatown, hungry for a taste of home.

Veteran Angelenos, of course, know this is a rookie move. The San Gabriel Valley has been L.A.’s de facto Chinatown for decades. But I have low standards. I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., where the best Chinese food came in lukewarm buffets, and the nearest Chinatown was three hours away, in Atlanta.

I boarded the bus on a summer day and took a seat by the window. We lurched out of Westwood, through Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Silver Lake, then Echo Park, my window flashing from ivy green to neon rainbow to strip-mall pink and gray.

When Sunset Boulevard becomes Cesar Chavez Avenue near downtown Los Angeles, a giant bronze arch announces Chinatown’s entrance, two dragons lunging for a lit globe like some game of celestial Hungry Hungry Hippos.

The arch is perhaps Chinatown’s most imposing landmark, and as an introduction to Chinatown, it’s misleading. This is a dusty collection of strip malls and swap meets pushing the same portfolio of back scratchers and potted bamboo you’ll find in any Chinatown in America.

Back then the city was new to me, and even this motley sprawl of commerce was worth exploring. I ducked the hostile stares of shopkeepers and lingered over meditation balls, bonsai and paper fans. I bought a nylon tapestry of Bruce Lee and two baby turtles, both of which I still own to great chagrin. I wandered into Yum Cha Cafe on Broadway Avenue and ate mushy hargow and shumai studded with pea-size gristle, three for a dollar and each the size of a clenched baby fist.

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These turtles cost $5. Buy them and you will be financially enslaved for the rest of your life.

I got back on the bus with a full belly and a lingering feeling of emptiness. Chinatown had the components of a Chinese community but none of its life, like some amusement park during the off-season. Shopkeepers and restaurant employees welcomed visitors with the dead-eyed disinterest of teenage ride operators. At night, the place, totally deserted, lit up with neon.

Still, over the years I kept finding myself back in Chinatown, eating the supposedly inferior Chinese food and buying trinkets I didn’t need. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t looking hard enough — that somewhere underneath that tacky veneer, I’d discover something real, perhaps a piece of what prompted my parents to drag my brother and I on all those childhood road trips to Atlanta’s Chinatown.

Chinese New Year's celebration at Thien Hau Temple. Photo by Tiffany Cheng.
Chinese New Year celebration at Thien Hau Temple. Photo by Tiffany Cheng.

I grew to appreciate that Hop Woo Seafood Restaurant was open 24 hours a day. Phoenix Bakery’s egg tarts were pretty decent if I was in the area. Thien Hau Temple was a good place to ring in the Chinese New Year away from home. And the weekend dim sum service at Empress Pavilion became my favorite way to to start a Sunday.

Empress Pavilion was the largest of three or four dim sum restaurants in Chinatown. It opened in 1989 on the second floor of a then bustling commercial building called Bamboo Plaza, serviced by thrumming escalators and right above the storefront that would house one of the first 99 Ranch grocery stores in California.

The restaurant’s insane ambition quickly drew a lot of attention. It was a 600-seat dining room manned by 100 employees and with almost 200 items on the menu. Ruth Reichl, then a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, was impressed:

“There it sits, a huge spanking new shopping mall filled with the fresh smell of damp cement. It’s hard to believe it’s Chinatown,” she writes in a 1989 review. “In the daytime diners sit back and watch the carts filled with dim sum passing by, stopping one whenever a particularly delectable tidbit floats into view. Was it my imagination, or were there more carts than are usually found in a dim sum palace?”

If you grew up in Los Angeles, it’s a good bet that your first taste of dim sum was at Empress Pavilion. It’s also a good bet that dim sum at Empress was your first Chinese meal that didn’t come in a plastic bag with a smiley face, accompanied by egg rolls and soy sauce.

The restaurant played a huge role in introducing greater Los Angeles to a kind of Chinese cooking they’d never seen before — a cuisine of professional chefs rather than family recipes half-remembered by immigrants scratching out a living.

Empress developed a fiercely loyal following. My girlfriend’s parents live in Redlands 50 miles to the east, and for years, they drove right past dozens of cheaper and more highly regarded places in the San Gabriel Valley to Chinatown for a meal at Empress Pavilion. Jewish people and travelers with no place to go at Christmas made a holiday meal at Empress Pavilion a local tradition.

It was one of my favorite restaurants. The menu was affordable, the restaurant was freeway-accessible and parking was easy. Waits were short. And every day, the staff suited up like it was still 1989 and a food critic could come by at any minute. I always felt underdressed there.

The quality of the food, I’m told, declined. But in my mind the Empress never lost her swagger, the lady at the bar who has gotten old but refuses to dress her age.

Bamboo Plaza changed hands several times over the years. The 99 Ranch left, and the escalators broke and were never fixed. A few months ago, Empress closed, behind on rent, plagued with plumbing issues and struggling to find weekday customers. For a lot of people, it was the end of an era.

I mourned its closing like the rest, but Empress Pavilion’s closing barely registers on broad sweep of the area’s history. Chinatown, like much of Los Angeles, has been repeatedly reimagined over the years.

The original Chinatown, founded in 1880 in a neighborhood to the east, was demolished in the 1930s to make way for Union Station. Parts of Old Chinatown became Olvera Street, which is now a Mexican-themed dining and shopping alley. Some Chinatowners colonized a neighborhood in the Produce district around San Pedro Street, where a grimy old lunch counter called Paul’s Kitchen (a onetime hangout of famous Dodgers shot-caller Tommy Lasorda) is its only remnant today.

The Chinatown you see today was created by a group of community planners in 1938 and built with heavy influences from Hollywood, erected right on top of what was then an Italian community. It has this hokey theme-park mentality — totally contrived, but built for the tastes and demands of the time.

A campy, corny Chinatown served multiple purposes. Back then just a few thousand Chinese people lived in Los Angeles. They faced hostility but also a great deal of curiosity. Chinatown indulged and exploited that curiosity. Immigrants sold out to survive, committing acts of cultural cannibalism that popularized all that junk you see at Chinatown’s stores and restaurants today.

It’s the same with Chinatown’s Chinese food — inauthentic, starchy, perhaps oversweet, but made for different palates in an era with different demands.

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Hop Louie in Chinatown’s Central Plaza. I’m told this used to be more of a restaurant, and now it’s more of a bar.

We have lost interest in Chinatown as ethnic enclaves have formed in the suburbs and in college towns. Hundred-year-old storefronts go empty, second- and third-generation kids leave, and foodies led by Yelp go elsewhere.

But both Chinese suburbs and Chinatowns are important parts of the same immigrant story.  Before there was the San Gabriel Valley, Chinatown was like this blinking neon sign saying: “we are here.” New immigrants could be around other Chinese people, speak their own language and order off the secret menu. But all the signs were in English and non-Chinese were welcome. Our Chinese suburbs have better food, but they say something different: “We’re staying. We’re prospering.” And it’s easy to feel lost in the San Gabriel Valley if you’re not Chinese — or even if you are.

I still eat in L.A.’s Chinatown, though less often now, with Empress gone. I am probably too easily satisfied. My biases, my knowledge of the area, how hungry I am, the way my mother makes it — all these things unavoidably combine to color my experience of eating.

Abstracting away from all of that feels unnatural. Context is an important ingredient to any dish. Nothing is more satisfying than a McDonald’s Big Mac when you are homesick and overseas. Authentic Korean food in the middle of nowhere tastes better than it would in the middle of Koreatown. And my Sundays won’t be the same without dim sum at Empress Pavilion.

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