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Encouraging a healthy take on Chinese cuisine in Monterey Park

A Monterey Park doctor aims to help his Chinese immigrant community focus on healthy eating with a revamped restaurant and education efforts.

November 30, 2013|By Frank Shyong
  • At Farm Cuisine, an organic pan-Asian Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, owner Jonathan Tam is hoping to spark a focus on healthy eating.
At Farm Cuisine, an organic pan-Asian Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park,… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Politicians and businessmen mingled amid mint-green tablecloths as cups of locally sourced red butter lettuce salad circulated. The night's keynote speaker, a county public health official, spoke warmly of the restaurant's offerings.

It was an unusual restaurant opening for Monterey Park's Garvey Avenue, a largely Chinese immigrant neighborhood populated mostly by ginseng shops and cheap restaurants and bakeries — most of which have B letter grades from the county health inspector.

Behind a Bank of America and next to a Chinese dance studio, Farm Cuisine is an incongruous slice of Santa Monica chic. The restaurant serves pan-Asian Chinese health food out of a tranquil dining room decorated with artfully overturned vegetable crates and hip chalkboard menus.

Restaurateur and obstetrician Jonathan Tam is on a crusade to change the way the San Gabriel Valley eats. He wants diners to think about where their chicken and fish come from, eat more vegetables, cut back on salt and consider paying a few bucks more for organic produce.

"I'm here to down-regulate your taste buds," Tam said.

But his targeted demographic has highly specific tastes, and it's been a rocky year for Farm Cuisine, which opened in late 2012 and has not yet attracted a large audience. The 626 area code boasts more than 500 restaurants according to industry publication Chinese Restaurant News, and competition is fierce.

Tam cut Monday from his hours of operation, added $10-lunch combos to the menu and relaunched his restaurant last week.

"It's all a work in progress," Tam said. "We are more focused now on the food, what's popular. Salmon, sea bass, quinoa salad."

His relaunch was equal parts health convention and restaurant. Booths manned by wellness consultants offered protein shakes, juice diets and gardening strategies. A community-supported agriculture project, which delivers locally grown produce to neighborhoods that lack it, was recruiting members.

Community leaders appeared in force to support the restaurant, including four members of the Monterey Park City Council. John Man, president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, said the restaurant is unique for the area.

"Monterey Park is known for food, but there just aren't a lot of places like this in Monterey Park," Man said.

Terri Williams, assistant director of the Environmental Health division of the Department of Public Health, said her department is trying to be more supportive of local restaurants that promote healthy eating.

"Sometimes the health department can be unproductive," Williams admitted. "But this is our future. We want to make it easier for places like this that are creating healthy communities."

Tam teaches classes on general wellness at his doctor's office in Monterey Park on Wednesdays, and he plans to publish two books and hold local health seminars on the possible harmful effects of industrialized food production.

His restaurant may not be popular yet, but the food is a platform for his education efforts, Tam said, adding that people may think they're eating healthy until they learn better.

"What you eat may not be what you think," Tam said.

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