In the eastern San Gabriel Valley’s City of Industry, a new modern Chinese restaurant called 19 Town opened in early January 2023 from Sichuan Impression chef Yang Liu. Liu, who previously used Lynn as her English name, was one of the driving forces behind the Sichuan culinary wave that took the San Gabriel Valley by storm in the early 2010s, bringing Chengdu-style takes on boiled fish with rattan pepper and Leshan bobo chicken. Though the head chef of the Eater Essential 38 restaurant for over a decade, Liu decided it was time to cook beyond the traditional.
Instead of more precise renditions of the classics, Liu is hoping to push beyond preconceived notions of Chinese cuisine with 19 Town. Here, the mapo tofu comes laced with cheese while the oxtail soup uses a tomato base. Sour and spicy seafood pasta was inspired by Liu’s appreciation for Italian gnocchi con le cozze (gnocchi and mussels), while lamb shank paella uses gardenia fruit, a Chinese spice, in lieu of saffron to achieve the Spanish dish’s patented yellow color.
“When people talk about Chinese food, they like to debate over what is authentic versus not authentic,” says Liu. “People have a very specific impression of what Chinese food should look like. We want to break out of traditional stereotypes.”
The restaurant’s sleek and urbane interior designed by Jialun Xiong features steel-backed booths framing a dining room accented by green chairs and black tables. The minimalist design is Liu’s way of challenging what people think a Chinese restaurant should look like — there are no bright-red paper lanterns or lazy Susans for family-style dim sum. On the heated outdoor patio, a lounge area and cocktail bar accommodate drinks. The limited seating, which requires reservations, allows servers to cater attentively to each table in a way one would expect of a fine dining restaurant. Three small rooms, which fit about a dozen people each, are set aside for private parties and special events.
The name of the restaurant is a play on words — in Mandarin, the word “nineteen” is shi jiu. Shi is a homophone for the Chinese word for “food” while jiu is a homophone for “drink” — 19 Town is a gathering place for food and drink, a space for people to come together and experience a new kind of contemporary Chinese cuisine.
Liu says she picked the City of Industry for 19 Town’s location because of its proximity to Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar, sizeable Chinese American communities, though the restaurant is within a half-hour drive of other Chinese American neighborhoods, from Alhambra to Irvine.
According to Lu Huang, the brand designer for 19 Town and Sichuan Impression, young people in the Rowland Heights area who want cocktails or a semblance of nightlife often have to drive all the way to Los Angeles for those experiences. Even in a strip mall setting, 19 Town has created an aesthetic that would impress Angelenos in West Hollywood, Silver Lake, or Venice.
Alex Feng, the bar manager behind the cocktail menu at 19 Town, says that Asian people in the area are not necessarily as experienced with intricate cocktails, but she aims to create better drinks that befit an upscale restaurant. “We want to make better cocktails for Asians. We know what the people are thinking and we’re trying to create drinks for them.”
Feng’s drinks include the Weird-O, a baiju-based cocktail that blends a pleasantly bitter base with aromatic notes of elderflower. Feng says that younger Chinese people today view baiju as an old man’s drink, but her cocktail reintroduces the high-proof spirit, typically served in tiny half-ounce glasses, in a refreshingly bright herbal mixture. Similarly, the Foggy Plum Grove features hand-made plum juice, a notable Sichuan beverage, in a vodka-based concoction.
Even on weeknights, 19 Town is packed with groups of stylish diners digging into Liu’s assorted baskets combo of Sichuan-style snacks, like imported Sichuan mushrooms, a spinach ball with black sesame paste, and pickled vegetables. Hip-hop bumps overhead as people sample the flaming pork jowl, a popular dish that servers set on fire at the table.
The cheese mapo tofu retains the rich silkiness and spiciness of the original delivered in a fondue-style dip. Slices of bread are pulled through a mozzarella and tofu mixture for a playful vegetarian update on the Sichuan staple. Peppercorn-infused steak tartare, topped with sprinkles of ou dai (baby lotus root), packs a delightful mouth-numbing punch. The wok-tossed lobster tails retain a bright and pure tenderness inside a fried crispy exterior, served atop a springy bed of tea tree mushrooms. Dry-aged trout comes with crackly skin, which can be dipped into peppercorn powder and chili sauce.
But not everything is rooted in Sichuan flavors. The slow-cooked oxtail, featuring melt-off-the-bone beef, is reminiscent of a Zhejiang pickled mustard pork belly dish. One of the most notable standouts is the gnocchi con le cozze, which fuses Chinese pickled-pepper sour and spicy sauce with mussels and pasta. The gnocchi’s chewy consistency works as the ideal vehicle for Liu’s umami-rich sauce.
Liu knows this menu could be risky in this area where diners might be used to more old-school fare. But she’s confident 19 Town will thrive among open-minded Angelenos. “If you go back to China and go to big cities like Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangzhou, you’ll find that Chinese food doesn’t have just one style. There’s already been a lot of mixing of cuisines,” says Liu. “In America, in a welcoming and diverse city like Los Angeles, why not do the same?”
19 Town is located at 18065 Gale Avenue, City of Industry, CA, 91748. The restaurant’s grand opening is on February 17, 2023. Reservations are required.