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Parking Lot Dining and Sudden Closures Are the New Normal for SGV Restaurants

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SGV’s once-vibrant food scene is trying to navigate the pandemic after six months

Three Hilton Plaza in San Gabriel with outdoor tables and red signage
Hilton Plaza in San Gabriel
Kristie Hang

After months of government-mandated shutdowns and regulations, the San Gabriel Valley dining scene has settled into its new normal. In the last two months, restaurants and businesses have done their best to follow Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ever-changing rules regarding COVID-19 safety for dining in.

With the continuing decline in new COVID-19 cases in the state, indoor dining is looking like more of a possibility in the near future. At the beginning of the pandemic, a number of San Gabriel Valley restaurants shuttered or temporarily halted service, but now — almost seven months into the pandemic — most restaurants that have even a little bit of a walkway space or parking lot have begun offering outdoor dining in hopes of attracting customers.

Much of Pasadena has been converted to alfresco dining. Take a ride down Valley Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare that connects much of the SGV, and you will see makeshift pop-up tents and foldable chairs propped up through every major plaza. In the evening, some tents add hanging string lights for ambience.

It seems like customers are responding well to the outside tent options despite the recent heatwave and the ash from the nearby Bobcat Fire. Even in record heat and ash-filled air, diners can be seen sitting outside enjoying their food at multiple establishments.

Liu Wei, a diner at the Hilton Plaza in San Gabriel, says she enjoyed the tent experience. “At night, especially with a little breeze, it’s relaxing. It reminds me of being in Asia and having night markets and outdoor restaurants,” she says. “It’s comforting to be able to share a meal at a restaurant with friends and family again, even if it is outside in the middle of a parking lot on plastic chairs.”

Outdoor dining setup in parking lot in San Gabriel Valley
Outdoor dining setup in parking lot in San Gabriel Valley
Kristie Hang

Just like in March, when the pandemic began to hit the LA area, most people in the SGV are masked up in public. Although everyone is still wearing their face coverings, it seems as though not as many people have face shields and gloves unless they are in the service industry. Whereas before, a majority of the general public shopping at markets or out and about were covered in extra PPE, people seem to have relaxed a bit, perhaps signaling that they are not as worried as they once were.

Early bouts of xenophobia and COVID-19 fears led to permanent closures of many well-known SGV establishments. Popular Korean shaved ice shop Hooshik closed. Hot pot restaurant Jazz Cat closed its oldest San Gabriel location. Class 302 in Rowland Heights, famous for its Taiwanese shaved snow, also shuttered, to the surprise of many. Tea Station, the oldest boba franchise in California, closed all of its outlets. Beloved Cantonese restaurant New Lucky, which has been around for decades, also shuttered.

Other restaurants couldn’t make up their mind: They closed, then came back to life, only to close again, like Harlam’s Kitchen, Sinbala, and Henry’s Cuisine. Henry’s Cuisine is now open for the third time. Beijing Pie House, a celebrated northern Chinese meat pie restaurant, has closed its Alhambra location temporarily.

Although not everyone is ready to dine in a restaurant parking lot, many people have come to terms with it. After dealing with shelter-in-place orders for months, even those who had considered themselves cautious diners have ventured out to eat. Pat M., a mother of five, recently had her first pandemic dining meal at Din Tai Fung to celebrate her 36th wedding anniversary. “It felt great to be eating at a restaurant again,” she says. “It felt somewhat normal again. We needed this. It gave us a reason to dress up, too.

Pat and her husband felt safer going out now that restaurants are more mindful of social distancing. Din Tai Fung, for instance, requires a temperature check and asks diners to use hand sanitizer before entering the seating area. The workers here all wear face masks, face shields, and gloves, and they sanitize and wipe down all chairs and tables between guests. Diners each receive a paper bag to store their masks and are asked to pull up digital menus on their cellphones. On-site dining is only available with a reservation.

Pat did mention a negative aspect of the experience: The prices have gone up. Many dim sum restaurants, which are known for serving the daytime dishes at modest prices, are now charging almost twice as much, and some diners are not happy. Previously, dim sum plates were as low as $2.88 apiece.

Parking lot dining in SGV
Parking lot dining in SGV
Kristie Hang

A worker who goes by Kay at Garden Cafe, a Hong Kong cafe that has been very popular for its outdoor dining, says that diners still want a deal but ingredients are simply more expensive. Other restaurant staff from popular eateries mentioned that many landlords have not given a break to their restaurants, so their owners are still paying full rent. Staff also said that many customers don’t tip for takeout, adding insult to injury for service workers who are already risking their health.

Another negative aspect of outdoor dining has been waste. Influencer Hung Tu, who runs the popular Foodatory account on Instagram, mentioned that although he feels safer dining out now, he’s been seeing a lot more plastic waste. A recent meal at Hai Di Lao was a clean and hygienic experience, but because silverware and condiments are sealed up and disposable, more things are used once and then thrown away.

Luckily, not all news has been bad. COVID-19 proved to be the extra push for some to start food businesses from home. A number of Chinese home cooks have created WeChat groups where patrons visit various parking lots throughout the SGV to pick up home-cooked food.

Single dishes or sauces have turned out to be the most successful formula. Gigi Nguyen started Mama Nguyen’s two months into the pandemic with her husband when they both lost their jobs. She makes a specialty Da Nang-style bánh bèo (steamed rice flour cakes) that is not available in any restaurants. Guests order via Instagram on Google Forms and pick up at her residence in San Gabriel, or have it delivered. She has been inundated with orders.

Focusing on desserts is another way to attract customers and provide sweet relief during the pandemic. Ăn Vặt LA, which translates to “eating snacks” in Vietnamese, is a home business focusing on refreshing drinks and sweets. What started in April as a passion project between two Vietnamese-American foodies has become a popular quarantine pickup. The duo, who declined to give their names for privacy reasons, takes orders through Instagram and Google Forms, serving an array of fresh Vietnamese fruit yogurts, panna cotta, black sesame milk, corn milk, pennyworth drinks, and more.

The home business hustle gets entire families engaged in the effort. The Spicy Mamas garlic chili oil, which initially began as a means to cope with the pandemic shutdown, has been another popular quarantine business in the SGV — all thanks to Instagram. Five members of a multi-generational Chinese-Cambodian family pulled together to make their family’s spicy garlic chile oil recipe available to the public.

Angeline Lam founded Better Together Sweets during the pandemic and has sold out every run of her variety of banana puddings. Not only has her business been successful, but Lam has gotten major companies like Sony to match her donations to notable causes. She’s contributed over $10,000 to COVID-19 relief, Black Lives Matter, and funds for victims of the Beirut explosion.

SGV husband-and-wife team Zin and Andrew Lee have become so successful making their spicy garlic chile sauce during the pandemic that they had to transition from making it at home to producing it in bulk at a commercial kitchen. The sauces have been in such high demand that Andrew does pop-ups from the trunk of his car in popular shopping plazas throughout the San Gabriel Valley, in addition to selling them to many local restaurants.

Apart from these home food entrepreneurs, businesses that had plans to debut before the pandemic have since opened within the last few weeks. Chickenteria, a Korean fried chicken restaurant, opened to much fanfare in San Marino. Killer Noodle by Tsujita, which first opened in Sawtelle Japantown, expanded to a San Gabriel location. Randy’s Donuts debuted in Pasadena. Klatch Coffee opened in Rosemead, and its Pasadena location is coming soon. Esdras Ochoa just opened his second Mexicali Taco location in San Gabriel, and the Glendora Market food hall, which was hit with multiple delays, is planning to start business on September 26.

“We can’t wait to open back up,” says Carol Lin, general manager of Bistro Na’s, the SGV’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. “So much of what we do is food. But here, it’s also all about the experience. We miss our customers and it’s not the same having our unique Imperial-style food in a takeout box. We’re standing by awaiting the rules, but we don’t know anything until we see it on the news.”

Small outdoor dining area at Mexicali San Gabriel
Small outdoor dining area at Mexicali San Gabriel
Matthew Kang