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Please direct all media inquiries to Jim Yeager at breakwhitelight public relations.
Written by Michael Y. Park
Photographed by DYLAN + JENI
Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
Around lunchtime nearly every weekday for the last 38 years, Maria Gonzalez has taken a bus down from her home on Pico Boulevard and gotten off at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. She finds one of the stainless-steel tables—one of the bigger ones, which can accommodate as many as six diners comfortably—and pulls up enough chairs for at least five people.
Longtime friends join her. Mostly women, all middle-aged non-English-speaking immigrants from Mexico, who sit for an hour or two with Maria to chat and trade jokes over wonton soup.
Behind Gonzalez, the historic funicular known as the Angel’s Flight climbs its way up to Bunker Hill, once the redoubt of L.A.’s wealthy and established families. And in front of her looms the neon sign of the China Cafe, where Maria Gonzalez and countless other customers have had lunch regularly for decades. If Grand Central Market’s her home away from home, the China Cafe is her kitchen table.
The China Cafe opened in the market in 1959, opened by a Chinatown resident who passed on the business to a Hong Kong family after about 20 years. That family sold their business in 2012 to a distant cousin and her husband, Susie and Rinco Cheung, who own the place now. The menu and the neon signs are the same that have floated over the 22-seat counter since it opened.
“Believe me, Rinco gets up on a ladder and cleans it every day—that’s how it stays looking so nice,” Susie Cheung says.
Rinco Cheung had owned Chinese restaurants before, but they were 700-seat banquet places that catered to Chinese clientele, not a historic lunch counter with mostly Spanish-speaking clientele and a long legacy.
“China Cafe has always been so popular with the Downtown workforce and their families that we’ll have people who’ve been coming here for three generations, with their moms and their own kids, telling stories about how they first came here when they were little,” Susie Cheung says.
Taking over a place with such an established clientele is a challenge, and the Cheungs made a point of not making drastic changes. The menu has stayed the same (with the off-menu addition of egg rolls and fried wontons), but they tweaked some of the recipes, responding both to customers suggestions and their own culinary experience.
“We used a different seasoning with the wonton filling, not too dry and a little more water to make sure the meat is juicy,” Rinco says. “Just salt, sesame oil, and the meat paste.”
And they pepped up the kung pao sauce with a spicier, more pungent, more vinegary punch. Instead of using slices of chicken, which tended to dry out, China Cafe now uses chunks of chicken meat. For the fried rice, Rinco Cheung insisted that on a large wok, so that the rice could be fried Hong Kong-style, with every individual grain getting toasted–no sticky clumps of rice. And Cafe starts a fresh pot of chicken broth going every morning.
The tweaks have been subtle, respecting longtime patrons’ nostalgia for generations of their families’ traditions while balancing it against the Cheungs’ culinary sense. And the customers are still flooding in, with the early-shift workers of the neighborhood filling up counter seats as soon as the market opens, and keeping the place busy till it closes at night.
“Once the gates go up, the workers all rush the counter and take up all the counter chairs at 9 a.m. for that hot bowl of wonton soup,” Susie Cheung says.
“The clientele at my other restaurants used to be so picky,” Rinco Cheung says. “But at the China Cafe, the guests are so friendly, very nice, very casual. They come over and order what they want, then eat with their family and friends, and go out and enjoy the rest of the day.”
The menu’s scarcely changed in 56 years, but patrons make their own tweaks. Many put generous dollops of the Cheungs’ homemade chile sauce on their food, while other buy their own avocados and plantains from one of the produce vendors nearby and layer on slices to their own liking.
“There are clients who come here every day, get the same thing every day, even in the summer when it’s hot, and the wonton soup’s hot, and they’re pouring on the chile oil and sweating and drinking their Coronas and having a great time,” Susie Cheung says.
And Maria Gonzalez still gets to hold court over her stainless-steel table between the Angel’s Flight and the China Cafe neon gate, armed with a battery of quips to trade with the the counter workers and friends she’s seen every midday meal for years and years. And spiced with chile sauce exactly as she likes it, her favorite lunch meal is always waiting for her at the counter of the China Cafe.
“I love the wonton soup,” she says in Spanish. “Those little balls of joy.”
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