Everything’s Changing in L.A.’s Chinatown, Except It’s Not
Modern family-owned restaurants like Lasa are writing a new chapter, but old-school family-owned restaurants like Phoenix Inn are holding their own.
It’s close to 6 p.m. on a Thursday in L.A.’s Chinatown, and, as usual, there’s a long line snaking around Far East Plaza for the city’s best hot chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s. Down the corridor from Howlin’ Ray’s is the modern Filipino restaurant Lasa, where there’s a buzzing but happily chill crowd, drinking natural wine and enjoying fantastic happy-hour specials like pork belly sisig sandwiches, crab fried rice, grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, and crispy chicken wings with sinigang powder. I sip some San Miguel beer and dunk the deep-fried head of a shrimp into sawsawan, a dipping sauce made with palm vinegar. I’m supposed to be at another restaurant for dinner in less than an hour, but I’ve already decided that I want to linger at Lasa and show up a little late.
“We’re just trying to be a little haven and a little getaway from all that’s happening around us,” says Lasa general manager Chase Valencia. “You come to a place like ours and get a different experience and get to relax with us and try some good food and good wine. Our idea is just being that little hideaway right now.”
It sounds like a refreshingly straightforward idea. But a few months ago, this happy-hour experience would have been impossible at Lasa, which chef Chad Valencia and his brother, Chase, started as a pop-up in 2013 and turned into a restaurant in 2017. After jumping through “a lot of hoops” to get a license, Lasa began serving beer and wine this past April. So now when you visit for Lasa’s new weekend brunch, you can eat pan de sal French toast and country-fried tapa (air-dried steak) with black-garlic-gravy smothered rice and a fried egg while drinking pitchers of cava with calamansi juice.
It’s important to remember that Lasa, despite all its critical acclaim and its status as a 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year, was born as and continues to be a small family-owned business. And it’s finally starting to feel like a restaurant in full. For an independent venture like Lasa, selling beer and wine can be the difference between barely surviving and thriving.
“Beer and wine is that make-or-break,” Chase says. “It helps us out dramatically to find the support that we need to grow.”
Getting beer and wine has allowed Lasa to hire its first assistant general manager, Vi Nguyen, who was part of Lasa’s opening team and worked in the restaurant as a runner and a server. She had also helped out in the kitchen. Nico de Leon, who used to drive from San Francisco to cook at Lasa pop-ups, has been promoted from sous chef to chef de cuisine. The Valencias now have more time to think about collaborations (an event with Chinese restaurant Woon in Historic Filipinotown is one possibility that’s been discussed) and other ways to grow their business. They can take a little more time to be with their families (Chase marvels at how he got back-to-back nights off during the week of July 4) while Chase studies wine and prepares to take the introductory course for sommeliers. He’s not sure if he’ll actually become a sommelier, but he’s happy he has the headspace to consider the option.
A lot of Chinatown, where new-school family-owned spots like Howlin’ Ray’s (run by chef Johnny Ray Zone and his wife, Amanda), Lasa, and cookbook store Now Serving are bringing people to Far East Plaza, is changing in dramatic ways. Other notable newcomers around the neighborhood include Okiburu House of Tsukemen, Hong Kong-style café East Garden, wine bar/bistro Oriel, an outpost of cocktail lounge Apotheke, and, of course, David Chang’s Majordomo.
But there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed in Chinatown. There’s still a crowd, with a wonderfully diverse cross-section of Los Angeles, waiting outside Yang Chow, which opened in 1977 and still dazzles with its famous slippery shrimp and its namesake fried rice.
Over at Phoenix Inn, where I enjoy excellent wonton soup, Peking duck, and what’s accurately described on the menu as “mayonnaised shrimp with glazed walnut,” proprietor Elaina Chang serves Hong Kong-style Cantonese food to a diverse crowd that “is not mainly Chinese.” The guests are old and young. They’re white and Latinx and Thai.
The restaurant opened in 1965. In 1967, Kai Tai Chang, an immigrant from Hong Kong who had a wife and four children to support, started cooking at Phoenix Inn.
“At the time, he was the only financial anchor for the family,” Elaina says.
He also worked at a farmers’ market and at another restaurant. A few years later, he had saved enough money from his three simultaneous jobs to purchase Phoenix Inn, says his grandson, Nick.
The restaurant has been run by the Chang family ever since. Kai Tai died in 2015. Nick, who was previously in finance, joined the family business this past January. He’s helping his parents, Tom (Kai Tai’s son) and Elaina, with strategy and marketing while also attending business school.
Elaina says that Phoenix Inn opened as a place with “more village-style cooking.” It was a restaurant where immigrants with limited income feasted on big plates of food.
“We still have some dishes that have remained the traditional way, like anchovies with minced pork,” Elaina says. “And the pork stomach, very thin slices with ginger and scallions. Nobody else makes those anymore because it’s labor-intensive. It takes four pork stomachs to make one plate of those delicacies. Those kinds of dishes are only appreciated by the older generation.”
It turns out, though, that the Chang family is also as modern as any restaurant group. They now have 15 restaurants, including dessert boutiques and fast-casual spots in the San Gabriel Valley. Their newest venture is Panasia Sweet & Savory in Alhambra, which serves a huge menu of Southeast Asian food like bak kut teh (Malaysian pork-rib soup), Hainan chicken, and laksa along with Korean-barbecue sliced prime rib, Chinese fried rice, a soup of the day, and an extensive selection of Instagrammable beverages and desserts.
Panasia is a passion project for Elaina, who has family from Singapore and Indonesia. She’s focused on high-quality ingredients like antibiotic-free chicken. She adds that she’s proud of how her Phoenix dessert shops are different than boba stores that use pre-made syrups.
“We actually make our strawberry syrup from California strawberries,” she says. “We buy organic kumquats from San Diego to make our kumquat syrup. We use fresh mangos. We buy cases of lemongrass to chop up and cook with rock sugar. I believe that customers can tell the difference.”
A similar kind of attention to detail is what sent Chase Valencia down the path of finding the best wines to pair with the high-acid, high-fat Filipino food at Lasa. He worked with his friend Geno Tomko of Lucid Selections to create a tightly edited list of whites (including albariño and falanghina), skin-contact wines, and light-bodied reds. He looked for wines that are “a little bit more coastal” and made an effort to select natural, biodynamic, and small-batch wines from family-owned producers.
“Being a Filpino-California restaurant, I wanted wines that kind of reflect our sensibilities,” he says.
Chase recently went to New York and visited some longtime friends, Alvin and Anthony Cailan, the Filipino-American brothers who opened The Usual with “American comfort food by immigrants” and a deep wine list. The New York trip included “a wine tour” with stops at The Four Horsemen, The Ten Bells, and La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. Chase ate at Atoboy and immediately texted a friend, 2018 Food & Wine Best New Chef Jon Yao, about how wonderful that experience at the family-run modern Korean restaurant was. (Chef Junghyun Park became a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef at Atomix, his follow-up to Atoboy.)
Yao, who serves Taiwanese-leaning tasting menus at a West L.A. strip-mall location that was rented by his parents, recently got a Michelin star but still doesn’t have alcohol at Kato. He recently told L.A.’s Air Jordan podcast that he’s looking to open another restaurant where he can serve tasting menus with cocktails.
“All of us, with our families, we just take what we’ve got and try to make it happen, and we just keep going,” Chase says.