Welcome to a Classics Week special on Phoenix Inn, one of the most storied restaurants in Chinatown that went on to spawn one of the most prolific restaurant chains in Los Angeles. Here now, the story how Phoenix Inn has essentially been the same since 1965, but also evolved to changing tastes.
There's a reason that everyone was so up in arms about the possible demolition of Norm's Restaurant on La Cienega. The well-honed building is among Los Angeles' most recognizable, a stand-in for a time and place that helped to make Los Angeles a globally recognized destination.
Chef Katai Chang and his wife, May Chang, opened Chinatown's Phoenix Inn in 1965, and it hasn't moved since. Now both in their nineties, the Changs still visit the very first Phoenix Inn once a week for "quality control", they say.
For 30 years, Katai Chang worked the woks, his wife worked the books, and they provided for their children by staying open until the wee hours of the morning during the weekends. Somehow, through simple perseverance, Phoenix (as well as Hop Li, Mayflower, Yang Chow, and other Chinatown stalwarts) lasted through the Chinatown mass exodus of both the Chinese and their wealth during the Eighties and Nineties.
In 1997, 10 years after visionary realtor Fred Hsieh developed Monterey Park into the new Chinatown, Monterey Park's mainly Anglo and Latino residents attempted to ban the Taiwanese flag from its city hall during Taiwan National Day. In 1998, even the Los Angeles Times noticed the mass influx of Taiwanese tourists looking to possibly resettle in Monterey Park instead of Chinatown, which caused the local city council no small amount of consternation.
The most successful Chinese restaurant empire in LA, Panda Express notwithstanding.
By 1990, more than 158,000 Chinese resided in the San Gabriel Valley while Chinatown's population continued to dwindle. Somehow, Phoenix Inn managed to completely bypass the racial tensions, finding a way to finally ride the migration into the suburbs, and became the most successful Chinese restaurant empire in LA, Panda Express notwithstanding.
Tom Chang, a CPA by trade and now the chief honcho of Phoenix Restaurants, didn't decide to expand his family restaurant brand until it was 30 years old, at a time when Chinese relations reached new lows in West SGV. Chang, himself an SGV resident, pivoted the Phoenix brand towards the Valley, tapping into the now wealthier suburbanites instead of expanding in Chinatown.
The food at the new Alhambra branch, opened in 1997, is essentially the same as Chinatown's, but with heavy injection of what is considered "current" in Cantonese cuisine. The menu, designed to appease the old but attract the new while touting an entirely new dessert genre designed by Tom's wife, became a success. It became the new brand of Phoenix Inn.
Chang, with his wife onboard as the culinary director, began to also open new dessert concepts known as Phoenix Dessert which featured very traditional Hong Kong-style desserts. Essentially modeling itself after Coca Cola, Phoenix then opened restaurants at different price points to thoroughly penetrate the market: there are full sit down restaurants (Alhambra, Chinatown, and the new Temple City flagship), there are fast-casual branches focused on take-out, and there are tiny dessert "boutiques". In total, there are now 14 Phoenix restaurants in Southern California, with more on the way.
Meanwhile, back in the Chinatown branch No. 1, Phoenix Inn has tried to stay in the year 1965. The signage remains original and remains a source of pride. The renovations a few years ago by Schism Design brought in modern restaurant equipment, and was essentially a head-to-toe nip tuck. However, new patrons still have no problem recognizing Phoenix Inn as a culinary relic. Interestingly, Chang was able to quantify the change in taste since ‘65, saying "85% of the flavor" remains true to the original menu as the entire family (which now involves nieces and nephews) still strives for that "authentic taste".
According to Chang, the most popular traditional dishes are salted anchovies in steamed ground pork (ham yue jing yuk bing), fried chitterling, cold boneless steamed chicken, lettuce cup, and thousand year old egg porridge with pork. All of these items have been around for nearly 5 decades.
Despite having operated the new Phoenix for 20 years now, Chang feels the brand is still building its foundation, and hesitates when asked about franchising nationwide. Still, this does not mean Phoenix is stalling. There are plans for more branches in the East SGV, and possibly expansion throughout California.