These days, Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles is known for housing some of the best dining concepts in the city. Egg Slut’s runny egg burger has become an Instagram feed must and the team at G&B doles out some of the most sophisticated coffee pours in the Southland.
The market, which is Los Angeles’ oldest food hall at 100 years old, got a makeover in 2013. Today, it’s virtually unrecognizable, with a selection of completely new vendors.
Yet, in the heart of the market is a 60-year establishment that, to this day, draws consistent crowds. That mainstay is China Cafe, known for its delectable wonton soup — one of the best versions in the city.
“I really like the noodle soup,” says Maurice Lopez, a long-time customer who works as a construction worker nearby on Broadway. Lopez and his co-workers are usually at China Café for their breakfast fix and they almost always order the wonton soup.
It features pork wontons wrapped in a delicate wheat-based wrapper served with shrimp and barbecued pork. All of that comes simmering in an umami-heavy broth, graced with a sprinkling of minced scallions.
“A lot of people come here every single day, some people since they were babies. It’s a constant routine,” Rinco Cheung, the owner says.
The cafe shut down for five months last year for a full re-model and recently opened in April, to the delight of the regulars.
“We were desperate for the re-opening,” says Vincent Martinez, who has been frequenting China Café for 15 years now. “We were so relieved when they opened back up.”
“I had people texting me, wondering when we would open,” Cheung says. The entire kitchen and seating space got a full revamp to match the rest of the upgraded market; they kept the iconic neon signs though.
“We got a lot more young people now after the remodel,” Cheung says. Cheung has been the owner of China Café since 2012. The Hong Kong-native got his start in Chinatown, working as a bus boy in local Chinese restaurants, eventually being upgraded to manager at the now-defunct Empress Pavilion.
He bought China Café because it already had an established customer base and when he took over the reins, the regulars welcomed him with open arms.
“They call me dad,” he says. “We have people coming here every single day for lunch and dinner.”
He estimates that the majority of his clients are of Hispanic descent.
“I used to come here just for the Mexican grocery store,” Martinez says. “Then my friends told me about this place and I’ve been hooked ever since. I always get the same thing: chicken vegetables with tea and rice.”
George Romero, who has been coming to China Café for 25 years now, agrees.
“It’s good and cheap food. It’s my favorite Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and it’s stayed consistent throughout the years,” he says.
“We’re great at having long time customers,” Martha Luna, who has been working as a waitress at China Cafe for 35 years says. “I’ve seen people’s sons and their grandkids.”
On any given day, you’ll see folks from all walks of life eat at the café. There’s the millennial office worker, the retired grandfather who lives nearby; construction workers are also a popular demographic. They all come to sit on the candy-apple red chairs and congregate around the matching countertop, where they dine on wonton soup, chow mien, or the egg fo yeung.
“It’s Chinese food,” Cheung says, shaking his head is disagreement when I ask him whether or not he classifies his food as American-Chinese.
“Old-style,” he emphasizes.
He points out that egg fo yeung is simply just a take on dan bing, an egg omelet that's frequently found throughout the Cantonese-speaking regions of China. The difference is that the rendition at China Cafe is deep-fried and served with a thick gravy. Sure it's a dish that is unique to America, but that doesn't make it any less Chinese.
I see this often in my interviews with owners of so-called Americanized-Chinese joints. Restauranteurs often reject the term “Americanized-Chinese” because it implies a lesser class of Chinese food, a Chinese food that isn’t purely Chinese, which to them, is quite offensive.
Cheung was born and raised in China; his Chinese chefs, who come from the southern province of Guangdong, have over 30 years of restaurant experience under their belt. Their style of cuisine, he insists, is simply a different variation, not less than.
Chinese food, after all, is not consistent and even within China, changes with time. For example, chili peppers, which are now considered an integral ingredient of Sichuanese cooking, is actually a New World ingredient, introduced to the Chinese via maritime trade routes by the Portuguese. Also, Chinese people seldom ate beef and dairy products until modern times.
“Old-style chow mien is heavy on the bean sprouts,” he says. “And the egg fo yeung is deep-fried in oil and you have to make sure it’s crispy.”
In fact, Cheung says that he prefers older chefs because they are the only ones left that know what old-style Chinese cuisine is supposed to look like. And in a market where the vendors are perpetually changing, China Café remains a comforting constant. It’s an eatery that has graced Los Angeles for six decades and counting; they appeal to the nostalgic and are tasty enough to satisfy newcomers. Old-style Chinese, Cheung stresses, works.
Top Image: China Cafe sign at Grand Central Market | Samanta Hernandez Helou