Word of Mouth: Chinatown, Los Angeles

Exploring and celebrating the past, present and future of the historic downtown neighborhood

To celebrate LA’s Chinatown, it’s crucial to understand and appreciate its dynamic past. In the 1870s, the original Chinatown began in downtown LA between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia St and expanded east. In 1931, a California Supreme Court decision upheld the construction of the new Union Station on the site of Old Chinatown, leading to the formation of the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association and plans to develop the new Chinatown on Broadway—where it remains today. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, construction of several landmark buildings and plans for shops, restaurants and apartments created the framework for what became Chinatown Los Angeles. The new Chinatown was planned, owned and operated by Chinese Americans to acknowledge culture and progress, and Chinatown Central Plaza was built to be the heart of the community. Today, many of the founding families still own the buildings that make up the vibrant, ever-evolving neighborhood.

by Julie Wolfson

We often walk through Chinatown, enjoying the architecture of the Cathay Bank, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (designed by Eugene Kinn Choy) and Thien Hau Temple—a gorgeous Taoist temple dedicated to Mazu the goddess of the sea. We snack on the famous strawberry cake at Phoenix Bakery, shop for Mahjong sets, and buy plants at Rainbow Nursery and KimThai Garden on Spring Street.

by Julie Wolfson

Fermentation specialist, culinary instructor and baker Jessica Wang of Pique-Nique LA has been planning pop-up events at Paper Please in Central Plaza. Inspired by her mother, grandmother and local California produce, she fills her butter mochi with sweet potatoes and buckwheat pastries with persimmon and umeboshi caramel. When Wang spends the day in Chinatown, she orders her favorite foods from the legacy restaurants in the neighborhood: handmade tofu special and the fried squid at Jade Wok, or salted fish fried rice at Hop Woo, which evokes family memories. “My grandmother was from Wenzhou, where they ate a lot of fish and seafood,” Wang tells us. “This is a beloved dish on many Chinese menus. The preserved fish has an intense umami flavor. It is so satisfying.” Wang also loves to shop at Phoenix Imports, where she has found formal vintage deadstock qipao dresses, raw silk pantsuits and quilted jackets.

All these places, along with some of the more recently opened stores, galleries and cafes, make spending time in Chinatown a feast for the senses. Here we spotlight just some of the many spots that make this neighborhood so special.

by Julie Wolfson

Pearl River Deli

In the southern side of Chinatown, the Far East Plaza is home to Ten Ren’s Tea Time, LASA restaurant where chefs Chad Valencia and Chase Valencia make modern Filipino food, cookbook store Now Serving and delicious coffee at Jack Benchakul’s Endorffiene. At Pearl River Deli (PRD), helmed by chef Johnny Lee, visitors can dine on Cantonese dishes that draw influence from all over Asia. “I am inspired by the cooking of the Chinese diaspora of Cantonese people,” explains Lee. “It’s very diverse. We tend to spread out all over Southeast Asia and America.” Known for his meticulously executed Hainan chicken, Lee changes his menu often but understands his customers’ affinity for this dish: “Hainan chicken is our most popular dish. It’s going to stick around.” Each week Lee also cooks up a rotating and evolving menu of silky egg scrambles, Macau pork chop buns, typhoon shrimp and char siu pork neck over egg noodles. “I am fairly well-traveled in Asia,” he says. “My standards for Asian food are pretty high.”

Courtesy of Today Starts Here

Today Starts Here

Heading north on Hill Street to the Chinatown Central Plaza, Vivian Ku shares Taiwanese flavors at Today Starts Here. Ku had often been asked about adding a breakfast menu to her two other LA restaurants, Pine & Crane in Silver Lake and Joy on York in Highland Park, but it’s here that Ku focuses on what she considers to be the most popular and representative breakfast items in Taiwan. Dan Bing crepes made with eggs, scallions, corn and cabbage; daikon rice cakes with shiitake mushrooms; Fan Tuan with purple rice and more grace the menu. Daily combos feature a few savory items with a choice of hot or iced soy milk drinks, coffee and tea. For sweets, there’s Dou Hua tofu pudding, grass jelly and red bean mochi, which can be ordered with taro, boba and other toppings.

Courtesy of Paper Please

Paper Please + Thank You Coffee

Friedia Niimura and Christine Kim of Paper Please love paper so much they teamed up to open their ideal stationery shop. The concept began as a pop-up at South Pasadena’s Two Kids Coffee, but when they found their colorful storefront in Chinatown Central Plaza, they envisioned a space for shopping but also for workshops and community events. They carry Niimura’s own New Moon Paper Goods and Kim’s accessories line, See Kim Studio, along with stationery and gifts from around the world. Events have included letter writing workshops, art shows and food pop-ups with Pique-Nique LA and Omiso. Also located at 441 Gin Ling Way, Thank You Coffee purveys coffee drinks made with beans sourced with their friends at House Roots Coffee through the Bonaventure Coffee Project, as well as coffee from Ireland’s Calendar Coffee and England’s Colonna Coffee. They also brew matcha and hojicha lattes.

Courtesy of Tierra Del Sol Gallery

Chung King Road

This pedestrian street on the northeast corner of Chinatown was built in the 1930s and now houses a mixture of antique, printing and book stores, as well as galleries. Alex Cheung Company sells jade, antiques and art, and cloisonné vases and ceramics line the shelves. Tierra Del Sol Gallery is part of the Tierra Del Sol Foundation, a non-profit that empowers people with developmental disabilities by providing resources to establish careers in the arts. The current exhibition, Jackie Marsh’s first solo show there, represents the artist’s adoration for animals and flowers through colorful works on paper and ceramic figures. Nearby, Print Shop LA is set up for screen printing, risograph and textile printing services and classes with Press Friends Machine.

Courtesy of Steep

Steep LA

In Mandarin Plaza, Lydia Lin and Sam Wang opened Steep LA, a modern space with the intention of hosting the traditional ritual of tea ceremonies. They source all of the black, green, Oolong and Pu-er teas directly from China and Taiwan and fill the menu with tea drinks to serve alongside sweet and savory Chinese and Taiwanese dishes. Lin shops for produce and ingredients locally in Chinatown, while Wang frequents the legacy poultry shops to buy top quality chicken. “This is a place to drink tea and be physically and mentally present,” Wang explains. “Once people experience the tea ceremony here, they want to be able to buy up tea and teaware,” adds Lin. “They connect with the whole experience of tea.” This beautiful minimalist space with a shop and open courtyard has played host to events for Three Gems Tea and Life & Thyme. Their retail space is filled with brewing equipment from Fellow, leather goods and accessories from Wang’s company The Goods and more.

Courtesy of Angeleno Wine

Angeleno Wine

Spending time in Chinatown offers access to another window of California history. Opening their doors in the northernmost section of the neighborhood in 2018, Angeleno Wine is the first winery to open in the city of Los Angeles since prohibition. Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste welcome visitors currently to buy bottles of wine (which they made with small vineyards in California) and hope to re-open their tasting room to the public soon. The growing list of offerings made in-house include their Superbloom (from Verdejo grapes) and their sparkling California Crackler (from Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc). Angeleno makes a wide range of creative white, rose, orange, red and sparkling wines that pair well with the diversity of cuisine in Los Angeles.

Hero image by Julie Wolfson