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From chop suey to Chiu Chow

February 21, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Chinese immigrants and their descendants had dominated vegetable farming in Los Angeles since the 1870s. In 1909, because of ill treatment by the old produce market, Chinese growers transferred their business to the new City Market at 9th and San Pedro streets downtown. A neighborhood known as Market Chinatown grew up along San Pedro across from the market. Merlin Lo, whose family has run the Hong Kong Noodle Co. on 9th Place since 1913, believes there had previously been two Chinese restaurants at its address.

During the 1920s, there was a general craze for ethnic food, and more Chinese restaurants opened than any other kind. For the novice, their menus offered set dinners with, say, egg drop soup, chow mein, a meat dish such as pork stir-fried with snow peas, rounded out with fried shrimp, rice and egg foo yung.

If you felt adventurous, there would be grander dishes such as almond duck, sweet-sour pork and soy sauce chicken; fish was rarely served. Many places offered a mix-and-match scheme: Pick one item from column A, one from column B and one from column C, all for a single price. Though the food was still Americanized, the dining public was tolerating novel ingredients such as yard-long beans and "white mustard" (bok choy).

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.

In the 1930s, Hollywood started patronizing the top Chinatown restaurants, and you might see Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Walt Disney or the Marx Brothers showing off their chopstick skills there. In gossip columns and movie magazines, Tuey Far Low was mentioned alongside showbiz hangouts such as the Brown Derby, Sardi's and the Coconut Grove. (One attraction was that it stayed open till 5 a.m.)

Celebrities also flocked to Man Jen Low and the Dragon's Den. Mae West's favorite was Man Fook Low in Market Chinatown, one of the first places to feature the dumplings we now know as dim sum.

These were all grand places -- Tuey Far Low resembled a pagoda -- but serious Chinese food lovers also sought out humbler eateries. A 1937 story about an unnamed restaurant (probably Yee Hung Guey) recorded that "day after day and night after night, people who could afford to eat in luxurious and lovely places drive down into one of the dingiest parts of town, stand in line in a queue which stretches around the corner, slowly shuffle their way in through the kitchen and finally, after half an hour of standing in line, rejoice at being allowed to take their places on stools at oilcloth covered tables."

These were the last years of L.A.'s original Chinatown, because the owner of the land had sold it to the railroads for building Union Station. Some Chinese merchants and residents relocated in Market Chinatown, but more moved into the formerly Mexican neighborhood on upper Broadway and Hill streets where the ethnic mall known as New Chinatown opened in 1939.

In the '50s and '60s, Cantonese food saw a revival under a new name -- "Polynesian" cuisine. Top-rank Polynesian restaurants such as Trader Vic's and the Luau, both in Beverly Hills, sometimes offered Peking duck alongside the usual sweet-and-sour pork, lobster Cantonese, fried rice and pupu platter. (And the rum drinks and hula music, of course.)

Setting the standard

OTHER elegant presentations of Cantonese food were appearing outside China- town. In 1954, when Panorama City was a raw new suburb, Korean American actor Phil Ahn opened Moongate, serving upscale Cantonese food in a serene setting dominated by its circular entrance gate. Arthur Wong's Far East Terrace drew customers from nearby Universal Studio in North Hollywood.

But New Chinatown still flourished as a dining destination. "General Lee's was cutting-edge in those days," recalls Eugene Moy, vice president of programs for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. "It had Rudi Gernreich design sharp waiters' jackets for it." Gernreich's fashions epitomized the jazzy, swinging California style of the '60s.

Around 1963, Angelenos started hearing rumors about something called Mandarin cuisine. The Shanghai Inn, a tiny place on Hollywood Boulevard around Western, made a big splash, starting your meal with sizzling rice soup and ending it with deep-fried snapper, and it was known for its Peking duck too. Hollywood flocked there. The next year, Peking Mandarin Cuisine opened in Inglewood, and we had a trend on our hands.

Food writers in L.A.'s newspapers and magazines of the era could tell Mandarin food was not Cantonese, but they couldn't put their fingers on the difference. It was said to involve more meat and spices and pay more attention to color, but it largely seemed to be about that sizzling rice. It was a category that glossed over the differences between all non-Cantonese styles of cooking, just as "Northern Italian" would later lump together a number of regional cuisines in the 1970s.

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