Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs, specifically those in the San Gabriel Valley, have long been known for their rich array of Chinese restaurants. The area is studded with Sichuan spots, dim sum destinations, traditional Cantonese bakeries, modern Taiwanese restaurants, noodle soup specialists, and more. Over the last several decades, the breadth of Chinese cuisine has grown in conjunction with subsequent waves of immigration from China, and Angelenos’ increasing appetite for fiery mapo tofu and luscious xiao long bao. While LA hasn’t lacked diversity in cuisine, a historical monotony exists in terms of the types of Chinese dining experiences available: The majority of places serve affordable food in casual environments. Now, that’s starting to change.
In recent months, a handful of upscale Chinese restaurant openings have signaled a cultural shift in the city’s Chinese food landscape. Among these newcomers are Monarch in Arcadia, 19 Town in the City of Industry, and Colette in Pasadena. The current movement emphasizes carefully sourced ingredients, contemporary interior design, and innovative spins on traditional dishes, all in exchange for a higher price tag.
At Monarch, restaurateur and fashion entrepreneur Humberto Leon and his family, who are also behind the Peruvian Chinese restaurant Chifa in Eagle Rock, serve modern interpretations of Hong Kong and Taiwanese dishes in an opulent banquet hall decorated in various shades of baby blue. Further east, 19 Town showcases a sleek, ’90s minimalist interior and innovative cuisine from Sichuan Impression chef Yang Liu, with dishes that include flaming pork jowl with Fresno pepper, peanut butter, and rum; and gnocchi with mussels, eggplant, and pickled pepper. And Colette, helmed by former Embassy Kitchen chef Peter Lai, draws crowds for its laborious and inventive Cantonese cooking, particularly the crispy stuffed chicken, which is deboned, air-dried, and filled with shrimp paste. Its al fresco dining area features a lush Instagram-ready wall marked by a neon script sign bearing the restaurant’s name. All three of these restaurants are located in or nearby Chinese communities and aim to cater to local clientele and beyond.
Historically, Chinese food in America has been associated with cheapness. This stems from a number of factors, beginning with the racial discrimination that Chinese people were met with upon migrating to the United States in the 1800s, according to David R. Chan, a retired lawyer and prolific chronicler of Chinese restaurants across the U.S. As a result, most Chinese restaurants did not prioritize the use of high-end ingredients or extravagant dining rooms, and many utilized family labor and undocumented workers to keep costs down. Owners of Chinese restaurants have operated in lockstep price competition ever since, which has been difficult to overcome, given the solidified American expectation that Chinese food is affordable. Chan further argues that the majority of Chinese immigrants who came here following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 were from a lower socioeconomic class (many of them worked in garment factories and restaurants) and thus tended to be thrifty, contributing to the demand for inexpensive Chinese food.
That’s not to say that the city didn’t have pricey Asian restaurants. High-end dining rooms such as Mr Chow (Beijing cuisine), Matsuhisa (sushi), and Crustacean (Vietnamese fusion) — all located in Beverly Hills — opened in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, respectively, and have been popular ever since.
Banquet halls specializing in Cantonese seafood, such as NBC Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park and Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Rosemead, serve expensive dishes that utilize crab, lobster, and other seafood imported from China and have been operating in the San Gabriel Valley for multiple decades. Bistro Na’s, a high-end imperial Chinese restaurant that opened in 2016 in Temple City, serves Alaskan king crab four ways and dry-braised black cod in a palatial environment; it was one of the first LA restaurants to go beyond the Cantonese banquet hall approach and succeed. The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2019.
Following in Bistro Na’s footsteps, younger, second-generation Asian American chefs have felt more comfortable serving intricate preparations of the cuisines of their upbringing in fine dining atmospheres. It’s part of why Kato’s Taiwanese-leaning $275 tasting menu and Majordomo’s large-format $210 smoked short ribs have been runaway hits.
Concurrently, the rise of China’s economy over the past two decades has led to an influx of wealthy Chinese buying property and spending money in Southern California (estimated at over $3.3 billion prior to the pandemic), who are interested in dining out as they would in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, all major international culinary centers in their own right. This trend buoys the proliferation of expensive Chinese restaurants serving traditional fare. For example, in 2021 the lavish Shaanxi restaurant Chang’An opened in Tustin in Orange County — near the wealthy Asian American community of Orchard Hills — serving roast duck with caviar for $398 and wagyu fried rice for $68. Chan recounts a recent meal there where the clientele was entirely Chinese, and the table next to him included several young kids. “That’s the new type of wealth we hadn’t seen before,” he says.
Monarch, 19 Town, and Colette differ in that although they aim to appeal to the Chinese communities that surround them, they are also designed to cater to all Angelenos. Leon and his family opened Monarch in Arcadia because that’s where he grew up and where he lives now with his children.
“I felt we could contribute something that was missing,” he says. “I think there are a lot of people who are like me and don’t want to drive downtown to LA every day to have a fun little gathering with friends.” Monarch offers crab sweet corn soup, Australian wagyu steaks, and Chinese egg noodles ladled with a Bolognese sauce. It also serves inventive cocktails, like an Old Fashioned made with sesame oil-washed bourbon, and desserts made in collaboration with female Asian pastry chefs, including exclusive ice cream flavors from Lavender and Truffles. The decor, which Leon designed, is a sight to behold, with its marbled periwinkle tabletops, butterfly-printed scalloped plates, and reflective accents.
“As a Chinese person, I feel like a lot of times Chinese restaurants, yes, they offer the food, but they don’t really have cocktails, they don’t have that full picture that you’re looking for when you’re trying to have a fun night out,” Leon says. “The night ends quickly because once you’ve finished your food, you can’t just sit around and have a couple of drinks and chitchat.” The goal of Monarch is to show that you can go to a Chinese restaurant for a celebratory occasion or a fun Friday night dinner instead of a steakhouse or an Italian, French, or Japanese restaurant.
Yang Liu chose the location for 19 Town based on its proximity to the CA-60 freeway so that it would be easily accessible to people from all parts of LA, including Orange County. “We’ve been in the 626 restaurant industry for a long time,” she said via a translator, referring to the area code that encompasses the San Gabriel Valley. “We feel like there’s a lack of appreciating eating and drinking in the way it happens in American cuisine, and think the area deserves a younger, innovative type of cuisine that pairs with alcohol.” Like Monarch, 19 Town flexes its cocktail muscles with drinks like the Foggy Plum, which mixes vodka and plum juice, or the Ink, made with tequila, activated charcoal, and lime.
There is still a long way to go in unraveling Chinese food’s economic typecast. Yet the recent surge of upscale restaurants catering to wealthy immigrants and diners more comfortable with paying more is helping to change the narrative. Additionally, more middle-priced, traditional Chinese restaurants are expanding to open in central parts of Los Angeles, such as Sichuan Impression and Tasty Noodle House in West LA and Northern Cafe and Hui Tou Xiang in Hollywood, where Chan lives. “Just the fact that they opened up those locations and seem to be doing well indicates that authentic Chinese food is really starting to reach the masses in Los Angeles,” he says. “And as that continues to be the case, you have another layer of people that will probably be more willing to pay more for Chinese food than in the past.”
Restaurants like Monarch, 19 Town, and Colette are not only changing the status quo in terms of what Chinese food should cost. Their traction also affirms Chinese American identity within Los Angeles by way of a diversified dining culture with increasingly creative culinary expression and proves that Angelenos are looking for inventive, luxurious, and aspirational dining experiences that aren’t European or Japanese.
“We live in this historical burden of feeling like we need to provide cheap food for everybody,” Leon says. “And it really is a burden, because when you go to China, not all Chinese food is cheap. I think really making sure that we can address the layers of Asian food is important.”