LOS ANGELES — The zong are treasures, wrapped in bamboo leaves and tucked in the fridge at Pearl River Deli. Warm them up, and each parcel goes tender, the sticky rice shining with a sweet, delicious fat that filters through a cache of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, mung beans, peanuts and salted egg yolk.
This isn’t the only reason I can’t stop going to Far East Plaza, the Chinatown mall built in 1979 as a food court, and its surrounding blocks.
Johnny Lee, Pearl River’s chef, is known locally for his Hainanese chicken and rice. But throughout the day, he makes crisp-skinned roast pork and satiny char siu, slicing it all to go. He sells the kitchen’s own mapo sauce in deli containers, so customers can dress soft tofu for a semi-homemade dinner — a relic of early-pandemic ordering. And every week, as diners’ habits change, he seems to add new, increasingly ambitious specials to the menu, often teasing them on Instagram.
Just behind the plaza, Daniel Son’s restaurant, Katsu Sando, makes Japanese-style curry-and-rice plates, beautifully wrapped soft onigiri filled with spam and egg, or kimchi and pork belly, and sandwiches — the bread airy and sweet, the cutlets crisp and burn-your-mouth hot.
On weekend mornings, if you’re early enough to Bakers Bench, you can catch Jen Yee’s delicately flaky croissants (gone by around 10 a.m.). But her thick, celebratory cookies, wobbly panna cottas and jam cups with edges of caramelized fruit deserve attention, too. Ms. Yee swaps out the fruits week to week, depending on what she finds at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Right now, at her one-woman kiosk, it’s all cherries, blueberries, apricots and other stone fruits.
Until a couple of months ago, the only place to find Ms. Yee’s pastries was at Konbi, in Echo Park. But she’s part of a group of cooks who started new businesses in the old buildings of Chinatown, either just before the pandemic, or during it, bringing a joyful energy to the neighborhood during a grim time for restaurants.
Los Angeles’s Chinatown has been in a constant state of flux and reinvention since it was built, razed to make way for Union Station, and built again nearby. For decades, the needs of its own community have pushed up against the expectations of tourists and the demands of developers.
On one hand, older food businesses like Phoenix Bakery remain landmarks alongside newer attractions, like the hot chicken restaurant Howlin’ Ray’s and the impeccably curated cookbook store Now Serving. On the other hand, small neighborhood businesses like produce markets and hair salons have closed in the last few years, and some spaces still sit empty, adding to the narrative that the nation’s Chinatowns are in danger of slowly disappearing.
But during the pandemic, against all odds, a small group of cooks have turned a few blocks of Chinatown into one of the most exciting and vibrant places to eat in Los Angeles, a place where you’re just as likely to see aunties in floppy cotton sun hats running errands as 20-something restaurant cooks on their day off, shopping for knives.
Lydia Lin and Samuel Wang opened their informal tea shop, Steep, down the street, in Mandarin Plaza, about six months before the pandemic shut them down. They joined delivery apps and expanded the shop’s food menu, but the dishes never seemed like an afterthought.
The simple bowl of superbly chewy boon boon noodles dressed in sesame sauce and chile oil would be reason enough to visit. I couldn’t explain how the noodles were so pristine, every single time, not just when I had the dish in the courtyard, with a cup of tea, under the shade of a sail, but even when I carried it home, and it sat covered in a hot car for 10 minutes or longer.
On the phone, Ms. Lin explained that the kitchen cooks the noodles for various amounts of time, depending on whether they’re ordered to go. If you’re eating in, you’re also likely to form a close relationship with your kettle (assigned to you, and only you, and kept at temperature) and your timer, which comes with notes depending on what you’re brewing. Steep excels at comfort, warmth and informality, but it’s never at a cost to the details.
Though many of the plaza’s other businesses are still sleepy, the shop’s immediate neighbor is Angry Egret Dinette, Wes Avila’s thrillingly anomalous sandwich shop, where the menu can change daily. I got attached to the flautas filled with beef and potatoes and covered with salsa macha, only for them to disappear, then welcomed the spring tart of squash blossoms and zucchini, glazed with duck pan drippings, and the sea urchin-capped scramble.
Mr. Avila, who left his more established business, Guerrilla Tacos, just before the pandemic, still runs the kind of idiosyncratic kitchen that exalts not only the sandwich but also the burrito and the tostada as simultaneously deluxe and comforting forms.
A block away, on North Hill Street, there’s a small building that’s another important hub of deliciousness. Vivian Ku’s Taiwanese breakfast place, Today Starts Here, assembles bowls of preserved vegetables and pork floss, and thick pieces of you tiao that go soft at the edges as they soak up all the freshly made soy milk. But no matter what I order, I always get two daikon rice cakes to eat in the car. They’re hot and sticky-centered and crisp on the edges, and I’m convinced there’s no better way to start the day.
Thank You Coffee, in the same building, will put a touch of MSG in your latte, if you want it. The tiny shop shares its retail space with a stationery store, and has unexpectedly fantastic sweets.
Day to day, if you happen to see the portable case at Thank You filled with Laura Hoang’s Bundt-like corn muffins, speckled with chile oil and green onion, or her dark-edged chocolate chip cookies, don’t hesitate. Jess Wang, another talented, thoughtful pastry chef, announces her pop-up Pique-Nique via Instagram, and sets up on the sidewalk just outside.
There’s a rapport, a sense of mutual support, among many of the neighborhood businesses. Laroolou, Edlyne Nicolas’s pie kiosk in Far East Plaza, makes the desserts for two of her neighbors — the Filipino rotisserie Lasita, and the burger joint and butcher shop AmBoy. Linda Sivrican’s shop, Sesame, carries infusions from Steep.
Sesame is small, but its shelves are packed with condiments, snacks and produce. There’s sticky squid jerky and banana caramels, and plenty of high-quality tinned seafood, but the heart of the shop is the deli case, full of prepared foods made by Ms. Sivrican’s mother, Judy Mai Nguyen.
Ms. Nguyen, a former restaurant chef, often makes vegan fare for Buddhist temples in Southern California, working with other cooks to make vegetarian versions of pâté chaud and selling a homemade vegan substitute for shrimp paste.
Three times a week, Ms. Sivrican’s father delivers all their food — garlicky preserved vegetables and fried sesame balls, delicate coconut jellies and lotus root curries. The pickled eggplant are tiny, crunchy, habit-forming things in a thick, tingling sauce, and they are irresistible. Taken home, they can make a bowl of plain rice feel like an extravagant meal.
This is a good place to mention that tight, intergenerational relationships are a crucial part of many of these new businesses. Ms. Wang, who runs Pique-Nique, often collaborates with her mother, Peggy Wang, at her pop-ups. And she studied her mother’s butter mochi when developing her own. It’s Xiao Wen, Johnny Lee’s mother, who makes the zong for Pearl River Deli.
Ms. Wen cures her own bacon and dries her own fish, but she has always been against the idea of Mr. Lee’s cooking Chinese food professionally — though Mr. Lee is particularly interested in the foods of the Cantonese diaspora, and feels strongly about being part of the community in Chinatown.
“My parents think there’s not much value in me selling Chinese food,” he said, adding that his mother originally wanted him to sell the zong at a lower price, despite the labor involved in making them.
“Compared to the S.G.V., they see Chinatown as kind of dilapidated and going downhill,” said Mr. Lee, referring to the San Gabriel Valley and its much larger Asian American community. “So part of me just wants to prove my parents wrong.”
This past weekend, leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival, Chinatown was quieter than it’s been in the past, but people were still celebrating, and buying rice dumplings to share. After Mr. Lee reported he’d sold out of zong, his mother was quick to make him a second batch of her chubby, flawlessly formed and generously stuffed rice dumplings. That batch sold out, too.
Angry Egret Dinette, 970 North Broadway, Suite 114; 213-278-0987; aedinette.com
Bakers Bench, 727 North Broadway; instagram.com/bakers.bench
Katsu Sando, 736 North Broadway; 213-395-0710; eatkatsusando.com
Pearl River Deli, 727 North Broadway, No. 130; 626-688-9507; instagram.com/prd_la
Sesame, 936 North Hill Street; sesamela.com
Steep, 970 North Broadway, Suite 112; 213-394-5045; steepla.com
Thank You Coffee, 938 North Hill Street; 562-265-8359; thankyoucoffee.com
Today Starts Here, 934 North Hill Street; 213-988-7082, todaystartsherela.com