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A recipe for change

Hoping to establish a laboratory for the area's Chinese restaurants, an Alhambra businessman sets his standards -- and his prices -- high.

April 22, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Over a plate of rice noodles packed with shrimp and scallops, David Gong stabbed his index finger at an advertisement on the front page of a local Chinese newspaper. A rival down the block from his Alhambra restaurant was promoting $1.88 dim sum.

"It's crazy," he said.

At Gong's new restaurant, the Kitchen, dim sum items go for up to three times that much. But he knows that with seven other restaurants within two blocks, his pricing strategy is risky.

"There's too much competition," he said. "The quality of their food can't be any good."

The cutthroat Chinese restaurant world of the San Gabriel Valley may be reaching the saturation point. According to the industry journal, Chinese Restaurant News, there are 645 Chinese eateries in the 626 area code, most of them in Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Alhambra.

And as the businesses battle for customers, they've turned to price gimmicks like 99-cent lobsters and live shrimp for a penny a pound. Three-course lunches can be had for less than $5. And a bountiful dim sum brunch for four wouldn't equal the cost of lunch for one at many Westside restaurants.

With such thin profit margins, competitors seek every edge. Spies are sent to sample dishes at other restaurants, and popular items are quickly copied. Owners attempt to lure good chefs from rival kitchens, to both improve their own restaurants and harm their competitors.

Gong, president of the American Chinese Restaurant Assn., believes the intense competition has triggered a steady decline in the Chinese dining experience, from the quality of the ingredients to the service to the atmosphere.

For years, he has insisted that it doesn't have to be that way. Now, with the Kitchen, he's set out to prove his point. Gong created his restaurant in part as a laboratory for the Chinese restaurant of the future, with the intention of demonstrating that Chinese restaurants can survive while providing quality service, good ingredients and healthful dishes.

He hopes to show that it's possible for Chinese restaurants to stay in the good graces of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, to attract customers willing to pay more for high-quality food and to avoid high staff turnover by treating employees well.

"I want to elevate the status of Chinese food," said Gong, speaking in Cantonese. "There are too many restaurants. Chinese cuisine is losing its value."

When Gong arrived in the U.S. in 1994, he sold Chinese calendars and printed menus for Chinese restaurants. He decided to publish a magazine that would unite the disparate restaurant community.

"Many of the restaurants were doing poorly because they didn't have good chefs," Gong said. "There was no organization to connect them to a chef pool in China and Hong Kong."

Gong's connections with chefs and restaurants eventually led him to join the restaurant association. After opening a restaurant in the San Francisco suburb of Millbrae, he decided he was ready to tackle the tougher prospect of opening the Kitchen in the San Gabriel Valley.

Some of Gong's closest friends thought the venture was doomed to fail.

"David came to my restaurant and asked me if [the Kitchen] was a good idea," said Sam Wong, who has opened 10 restaurants in the last three decades. "I told him, if he hasn't signed the lease yet, not to do it."

Wong said he thought his friend's idea would quickly come into conflict with a basic assumption of Chinese immigrants who've poured into the region over the last quarter century: that authentic Chinese food should be both abundant and affordable.

"It's imprinted in the Chinese character that you should never overspend," Wong said. "They'll buy a new Mercedes, but they have to feel like they're getting the best possible price."

So why, he asked, would people elect to pay more when they can "get a decent sit-down meal with a drink, tax included, for $4?"

Undaunted, Gong last September began preparing his dream in a 5,000-square-foot space in Alhambra that had housed three other Chinese restaurants before his.

One primary goal, he said, was to build a restaurant that would shed the stereotype that Chinese restaurants have to settle for ratings of B or lower from the health department.

Chinese restaurant owners have long insisted that proper Chinese cooking techniques conflict with health codes. They say they use too many ingredients to keep everything at the correct temperature and that their customers don't worry about health department grades.

Gong was confident he could buck the trend. He enlisted the help of fellow association member and contractor George Liu, a former restaurateur certified in food safety preparation.

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