Monday, August 28, 2006
Chop Suey Cafe opened about a month ago with hopes of rekindling the charm that made it a community institution in the latter 20th century.
Following WWII, the restaurant—then called Far East Cafe—served hot meals to Japanese Americans just released from some of the nearly dozen internment camps throughout the West Coast. For those who couldn't pay, the owners gladly accepted IOU's.
Decades following, Japanese Americans flocked en masse to the restaurant for everything from birthday parties and anniversaries to funerals and farewells (Why are JAs such sticklers for Chinese after funerals?). Everyone had their favorites but the most memorable dishes included pressed almond duck, oh-so crunchy panfried chow mein and homyu—a hefty pork-fat patty speckled with microscopic morsels of meat. I've only had it once and as gross as it sounds it's sinfully good.
The nearly century-old Far East building was condemned in 1994 after the Northridge Earthquake knocked it off its feet. But now over a decade later, through the charitable efforts of the Little Tokyo Service Center, it's open again.
I love my two grandmas. Even though they're far too polite to criticize my restaurant choices, I can tell exactly how they feel just by the flow of conversation at the table. If they're reminiscing about pre-war days and how one of them used to be a jitterbug queen then the place is a bonafide winner. But if they're mute and comatose, the food ain't so hot.
I got a response somewhat in between when I took them to Chop Suey cafe the other day. They chose the orange chicken, which should have have a chili pepper symbol next to it because who woulda thought orange chicken would be spicy? Though like nice grannies, they stayed quiet and set it aside against my better judgement. Still, if you like spice, the dish is fairly decent.
We also had the sauteed string beans which was a bit bland but surprisingly fresh and crunchy. As an appetizer we tried the shumai plate (see top). One word: uninspiring.
One thing Chop Suey cafe has going for them is the ambiance. The front room retains the old school feel with the original layout and fixtures. There's a great little pub in the back with alleyway seating and an overhanging fire escape apparatus. Feels like a piece of New York.
With the best of China (incl. Taiwan) in SGV, it's really hard for neighboring Little Tokyo to compete. But maybe, just maybe, through a lot of comments and kind advice, the new Chop Suey proprietors can chisel their own little niche in LA's burgeoning culinary scene. Either that or it'll remain as a simple reminder of years gone by.
fyi-I'll be rooting for them.