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From chop suey to Chiu Chow

February 21, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

AT Mission 261, in the century-old building that once served as San Gabriel's first city hall, waiters in suave gray suits are taking orders for steamed chicken breast rolled around bamboo pith and custard-filled dumplings shaped like tiny rabbits -- a very au courant sort of dim sum in Hong Kong.

Now that a quarter of a million people of Chinese ancestry live in this area, our local Chinese food scene is buzzing with energy. From Monterey Park and the Alhambra-San Gabriel-Rosemead corridor to Rowland Heights and beyond, suburban Chinese neighborhoods are home to a lively, ever-changing crop of restaurants and talented chefs.

"Trends among Chinese restaurants often mirror with what is going on in Taipei, Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, mainland Chinese cities," observes Carl Chu, author of "Chinese Food Finder: Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley." A recent wave of overseas-owned restaurants, including hand-pulled noodle shops, sweet shops and seafood houses, he says, "illustrates a focal shift from the mom-and-pop eateries of yesteryear."

To say the least, it wasn't always like this.

And so it begins

OUR first Chinese restaurants, probably opened in the 1860s, when L.A. was a cow town of about 5,000 inhabitants, didn't have all the rare ingredients available now. There were no trained chefs, either -- the cooks were just men who had come here to be gold miners or railroad workers and decided to open chow-chows (cook shacks marked with a traditional yellow banner).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant history: An article in Wednesday's Food section on the history of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles said that after the original Chinatown was torn down, the New Chinatown shopping district opened in 1939 in a formerly Mexican American neighborhood. In fact, it was built in Los Angeles' Little Italy.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant history: A Feb. 21 article on the history of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles stated that after the original Chinatown was torn down, the New Chinatown shopping district opened in 1939 in a formerly Mexican American neighborhood. In fact, it was built in Los Angeles' Little Italy.

L.A.'s original Chinatown had been a single block of cheap lodgings just south of the Plaza. In the 1870s, it started growing and spread eastward but in 1882, anti-Chinese zealots managed to get a national Chinese Exclusion Act passed. As a result, Chinatown's population stagnated at around 2,000 from 1890 to 1920.

The earliest restaurant known by name is Man Jen Low, simply because it survived down to 1987 (by then known as General Lee's Man Jen Low). In the 1950s, its menu gave the restaurant's founding date as 1890.

What sort of restaurants were they? Many were humble noodle shops, but Yong Chen, co-curator of the exhibition "Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America," which has appeared around the country in recent years, says they weren't all holes in the wall: "Some 19th century restaurants were very grand inside, with carving and traditional furniture. Others were just a booth extending into the street from the shop front.

"Very early menus show shark's fin and bird's nest, important luxury items for the Chinese and the Cantonese in particular. But they quickly found that Americans weren't interested."

Early on, in order to please non-Chinese customers, restaurant owners developed bland, often sweet versions of Chinese dishes. Somewhere along the line, some cook introduced an inoffensive stir-fry he called chop suey (from Cantonese tsa sui, meaning various pieces): meat, celery, onions and bean sprouts, well doused with soy sauce.

"Chop suey is in a way American," says Chen, "but it is also Chinese peasant food -- a very simple dish, like a way of using leftovers." He points out that you can still find it on Chinese menus, because many Cantonese restaurants have continued to serve cautiously Americanized food to non-Chinese.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles started "discovering" Chinese food. Newspapers published chop suey recipes, over the years working in Chinese ingredients such as bean sprouts, "suey" sauce and "Chinese potatoes" (water chestnuts). But outside Chinatown, such ingredients were hard to get, and one newspaper article suggested that readers talk their Chinese laundryman into selling some of his personal stash.

By 1904, L.A. already had its first Chinese food snobs -- eager, smug and tragically less sophisticated than they hoped. A non-Chinese society woman was said to visit a chop suey joint where many of the customers were hookers and opium smokers. She would sweep in wearing a white opera cloak and a corsage and imperiously proclaim, "Pigs! All of you, pigs!" apparently miffed that the diners did not appreciate the gastronomic masterpieces they were eating. She genuinely loved the cook's chop suey, putting away two or three bowls a night. But after all, it was just chop suey, not at all a dish for connoisseurs.

As another sign that Chinese food was joining the mainstream, Chinese American restaurants started opening in the downtown business district around 1905. The menus were literally Chinese American -- you could get steak or roast chicken there as well as chop suey. But Chinese dishes must have been an attraction, because that year a downtown French restaurant started advertising that it had chop suey.

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