A brief history of L.A.’s Chinese food scene
Los Angeles came to the Chinese food forefront in the 1990s, surpassing San Francisco and New York. As the 21st century progressed, Los Angeles continued to pull further ahead of the competition. Most recently, L.A.’s advantage has been reinforced by numerous Mainland China-based restaurant chains deliberately locating their first US branches in Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco or New York.
In the 1990s, Cantonese was L.A.’s dominant subcategory of Chinese food, and the best dim sum was purveyed at area restaurants such as Ocean Seafood, NBC Seafood, ABC Seafood, and Ocean Star. But the best was yet to come when Vancouver-based Sea Harbour Seafood opened in the San Gabriel Valley community of Rosemead 15 years ago.
Sea Harbour was a game changer as the first menu- and check sheet-driven dim sum palace in the United States. Over the next few years, Sea Harbour’s newfangled cook-to-order, high-quality, delicate style of dim sum triggered a string of similar restaurant openings in Los Angeles. First, a second Sea Harbour opened in Rowland Heights, which eventually morphed into today’s Happy Harbor. Then, Mission 261 opened (and has since closed), followed by New Concept (now Elite), Triumphal Palace (now Lunasia), and King Hua. Though San Francisco’s cart-driven Koi Palace continued its reign as the nation’s top dim sum dog, the opening of these new-style dim sum restaurants collectively propelled Los Angeles dim sum far ahead of the rest of country, where dim sum continued to be offered only on carts.
Dim sum differences
Los Angeles continued to dominate most categories of Chinese food in the United States, but when it came to dim sum, San Francisco snuck back into the picture to retake the lead. How did this happen even as Los Angeles was extending its overall Chinese food dominance?
Well, as I previously wrote, Chinese food continues to evolve and get better. But innovation and improvement come from new players, as opposed to existing restaurants which may be lulled into complacency by their success. The dim sum scene is a perfect example of this principle in action: Los Angeles dim sum effectively stopped evolving almost ten years ago. After King Hua’s 2008 opening, no new dim sum restaurants upped the ante. True, there have been new contenders since then, particularly Shi Hai, which opened in Alhambra in 2014 with the expressed goal of becoming Los Angeles’s new #1 in dim sum. But only two years later, the restaurant rebranded as World Seafood, settling for a lower quality and price point. Other dim sum menu-driven restaurants have also opened, including Shanghai #1 Seafood Village, Grand Harbor, Pleasure Ocean, and Capital Seafood, but of the newer arrivals, only Arcadia’s China Red has managed to barely break into the top tier of the local dim sum.
L.A. vs. the Bay
Meanwhile, restaurant openings in the San Francisco Bay area such as Hong Kong Lounge, the now unrelated Hong Kong Lounge II, Lai Hong Lounge, and most recently, Dragon Beaux, brought menu/check sheet dim sum to Northern California. More recently, with the adoption of cooked-to-order dim sum by the big dog Koi Palace, these Bay Area dim sum purveyors have added new and innovative dim sum varieties and propelled the Bay Area’s best dim sum past that of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
For example, in the past three years, all of these Bay Area restaurants have added excellent versions of crispy baked barbecue pork bun to their menus. This dish was invented and popularized by Hong Kong restaurant chain Tim Ho Wan, helping it to earn a coveted Michelin star, the first ever given to a restaurant in Tim Ho Wan’s price range. At the time, Tim Ho Wan was the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world. In Los Angeles, the crispy baked barbecue pork bun has only been sporadically available in the area’s leading dim sum parlors. In fact, Sea Harbour took it off the menu for a while before recently reintroducing it.
The Bay area dim sum restaurants have also introduced a wide array of outstanding new dim sum items, such as coffee ribs, red rice noodle crepes, squid ink dumplings, rainbow xiaolongbao, molten lava cheese tarts, and glutinous durian rolls, among many others that haven’t been seen in Los Angeles. Just five years ago, a listing of the U.S.’s elite dim sum restaurants would have been made up mostly of Los Angeles area restaurants, but with these innovations, that list today would be dominated by restaurants in the San Francisco area.
Signs of hope
Still, in just the last few months, Los Angeles has shown signs of awakening from its dim sum slumber. In late summer, Xiang Yuan Gourmet opened in Temple City. With items such as crispy bamboo shoot paste balls, mushroom-filled buns, pork blood jelly with chives, and green tea baked barbecue pork buns, not to mention the whimsically decorated taro buns, we get to enjoy the type of dim sum innovation missing in Los Angeles for nearly a decade. This fall, Longo Seafood opened in Rosemead, bringing with it more dim sum varieties closer to the new San Francisco standard. Its selection includes lobster dumplings at $20 an order, black truffle shumai, shrimp dumplings with foie gras, bird’s nest tart, and wagyu beef rice noodle rolls. Of course, Xiang Yuan Gourmet and Longo Seafood are too new to be crowned as game changers. Who knows if they can consistently produce high-quality items and whether they will survive the competitive San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant market? However, it appears that the dim sum wars are starting to heat up again in Los Angeles, and we diners will hopefully be the real winners.