The Leon family knew within the first week of opening their Peruvian Chinese restaurant Chifa in late 2020 that a sophomore effort was in the cards. Though no one in the family was especially well-versed in food service or hospitality, the tenacious squad that includes Humberto Leon, the co-founder of fashion brand Opening Ceremony; his mother, Wendy Leon; sister, Ricardina Leon; and brother-in-law, John Liu; navigated pandemic-related hurdles and ultimately found success. Now they’re ready to do it all over again with Monarch, which opens on South Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia on Saturday, January 14.
While Chifa draws inspiration from the family’s first restaurant in Lima that Wendy opened in 1975 with her Peruvian husband, Ricardo José Leon, Monarch takes its culinary cues from Hong Kong, where the family’s history also stretches. (Originally from China’s Tongshan County, Wendy was sent to the former British colony to work as a maid and cook at age 8.)
The restaurant’s location in the San Gabriel Valley also holds important meaning for the family. The Leons initially landed in Highland Park upon immigrating from Peru in 1977 and settled in Rosemead in 1985. “Seeing this Asian community develop alongside this incredible Latin community, there’s just so much richness in the San Gabriel Valley,” says Humberto. “In many ways, it’s hometown pride that we have coming back to Arcadia.”
The restaurant and bar were designed by Humberto alongside architect Michael Loverich. The celestial dining room, awash in pale blues and scalloped edges, seats up to 125. Humberto says that traditional Chinese banquet hall aesthetics, along with a fascination with deities and a personal theory that butterflies can float between worlds, influenced Monarch’s interior design. While the ceiling’s ornate lighting fixtures and robust columns give the space the feel of a formal Chinese restaurant, Monarch’s wallpaper, dinnerware, and artwork — which includes a waterfall mosaic made of hand-painted glass beads by artist Charlie Mai — are thoroughly contemporary.
“Chinese restaurants have a history of being family celebration spaces, so we really want a space where you can celebrate all occasions,” says Humberto. “If you feel like dressing up and wearing heels, you absolutely can. You can also come in sneakers and casual [attire] and feel equally right at home.”
While Monarch bills itself as a Hong Kong-style restaurant, don’t expect to find standard dishes and presentations. Liu’s menu promises to be familiar for those knowledgeable of the Cantonese canon, yet different enough to keep things interesting. “Knowing the techniques gives you room to really push the boundaries,” says Humberto. “There are some classic dishes but the way chef John prepares it gives this kind of interesting twist on what that tradition could be.”
Take, for instance, the Hong Kong cafe staple baked pork chop rice. Under Liu’s care, a pan-seared pork cutlet is served over fried rice with tomato sauce and topped with Gruyere cheese. In a similar fashion, wok-tossed lobster tails get a crush of black pepper usually reserved for steaks. Humberto is most excited about Liu’s spin on dim sum-style panfried turnip cakes made with beets, and a silken steamed egg prepared with fish liver and finished with salmon roe or sea urchin. “I just don’t think people talk enough about Hong Kong cuisine where there is this Western element within Chinese food,” he says. Rounding out the menu are a few specials that originated at Chifa, including the chef’s signature Taiwanese beef noodle soup and a fried rice collaboration with Solange Knowles.
While the menu is firmly rooted in Chinese cooking, the portion sizes reflect the greater trend of small-plate dining ubiquitous throughout Los Angeles. Humberto suggests ordering two to three dishes for a party of two and five to six dishes for a party of four. “Sometimes when you go to Chinese restaurants, the portions are so large they become overwhelming,” he says. “We’re being more cognizant about the ingredients and making sure that you get a delicious meal, but that you can also have variety.”
The theme of Chinese classics done up with a modern flare continues to the full bar serving wine, beer, and cocktails. “How can we bring our Chinese culture into drinks? We try to make cocktails that are less sweet,” says Humberto. “We are definitely bringing some teas and fruits that are particularly Asian, and working with AAPI liquor specialists [Vervet and Sông Cái].” Highlights from the list include the Jade cocktail made with orange liqueur, mint, and rum, and the Hawthorne cocktail with grapefruit, hawthorn berry, and tequila. Monarch’s spin on an Old Fashioned includes sesame oil-washed bourbon, sesame seeds, and orange.
“I think that celebrations of any sort are always the hallmark to happiness and positivity and it’s a way to say how excited you are to be alive and together with people that you love,” says Humberto. “I want Monarch to be that space where you can really share love and joy, and there’s nothing better to show that than through food.”
Monarch is open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday.