Best restaurants in Los Angeles: Chinatown's best food and bars

Check out the best restaurants and bars in Los Angeles' Chinatown with our guide to the area's newcomers and old-school favorites.

Photograph: Jakob N. Layman
Kimchi spam bowl at Chego

When it comes to Chinese cuisine in LA, the luster of LA's Chinatown may not bear the same burnish as its counterparts in Gotham, Havana, San Francisco or Melbourne. Nonetheless, the Downtown neighborhood is packed with treasures for the eyes and taste buds for any pedestrian eager for off-the-beaten-path discoveries—from old-school Vietnamese mom and pops, an iconic city sandwich shop, first-rate boba cafes and whole leaf tea markets, stalwart bakeries rich with Chinese and European pastries to newcomers like Roy Choi's Chego and itinerant Southeast Asian sensation Starry Kitchen bringing fresh blood to the neighborhood. Chinatown is definitely ready for a reinvigorated renaissance. To get you primed for its present glories, check out this city guide to Chinatown's best.

RECOMMENDED: Chinatown neighborhood guide

Breakfast

Wonder Bakery

Showcasing the neighborhood's most striking displays of delicate, unique Chinese and European pastries, this 40-year-old veteran outshines its more famous rivals with a cute atmosphere and enthusiastic staff. If you're not seeking sweet stuff with your coffee—we love the salt-studded butterfly cookies ($1.45), a creamy slice of strawberry short cake ($4.50), red bean sesame balls ($1.35), lotus seed moon cakes ($1.35) or daily-made coconut tarts ($1.35)—stick to the mini savory pies enveloped under flaky golden shells and stuffed with fillings such as preserved duck egg, curry beef and barbecued pork ($1.45). Make sure to grab a loaf of the addictive coconut bread ($3.95) to take home.

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Chinatown

Philippe the Original

With its claims to the creation of the French Dip sandwich and its vintage, deli-style ambience, this sawdust-strewn corner storefront is as much a local landmark as neighbors, Union Station or Olvera Street. Grab a lemonade or IPA to pair with your blue cheese and lamb dip ($8.25), served single-dipped, double-dipped, or wet, alongside a pickled egg or dill spear. Retreat to one of the aged wooden booths to complete the full Philippe’s experience. One warning: A cup of Apffels coffee was recently raised to 45 cents after priced for decades at just nine cents.

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Chinatown

Lunch

Golden City

Though most shopkeepers may point you to Foo-Chow—its claim to fame is a close-up in Rush Hour—the food at Golden City across the street makes for a better attraction. Here, you'll find all that you probably came to Chinatown for in the first place—Peking duck ($12.50-$24), Kung Pao chicken ($5.95), lacquered vegetables, hot pot seafood ($9.75) and fried pork, all prepared at a level of execution that surpasses much of its surrounding competition.

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Chinatown

Via Café

Fat, fresh goi cuon, chilly bowls of bun noodles and five filling options for banh mi make this bi-level cafe a refreshing destination for fans of Vietnamese cooking. The clean space, housed inside a prismatic, pagoda-roofed corner of Old Chinatown Central Plaza only adds to the appeal. The menu offers a mash-up of regional recipes offering a flip-side to pho—start with a salad of Manila clams and crispy rice crackers ($8) or rice flour crepe ($8) filled with shrimp and pork or vegetarian-friendly tofu and mushroom, then try the Hainan chicken ($7.50), spicy Szechuan shrimp ($8.75) or pad thai ($8), topped with crushed peanuts, red cabbage, jalapeño and lime. Beers from China, Japan, Laos, the Philippines and Cambodia help elevate the Pan-Asian panache.

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Chinatown

Homegirl Café & Catering

Health-slanted, garden-fresh Mexican food stands as one of the proud pillars of Father Gregory Boyle's non-profit empire. While he helps to transform repentant LA gang members into skilled bakers, cooks and product-makers, your hungry crew will benefit from delicious dishes such as grilled pineapple guacamole ($7), grilled salmon tacos with jalapeño pesto (three for $10), salads scattered with roasted corn, avocado, and jicama ($12) and chile relleno grilled cheese sandwiches served on Homeboy Bakery's own house-baked bread ($11).

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Chinatown

Gigo's Café & Deli

For anyone seeking Chinese food that’s not as syrupy as a Southern breakfast, Chinatown has an abundance of dependable Vietnamese food. Despite its Italian-sounding signage, this no-frills café excels in an excellent filet mignon pho ($5.95) that nails all the clean flavors of the beef broth and its fresh, fragrant accessories. The result is a popular lunch for less than $10 that goes great with a glass of icy, sweet café sua da aka Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.95).

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Chinatown

Dinner

Starry Kitchen

This Southeast Asian concept started in owner Nguyen Tran's apartment and is still buzzing due to frequent relocations, pot-starring pop-ups and a sporadically sophomoric sense of humor á la the popular crispy tofu balls ($6.50). Fortunately, the creative and ever-changing menu of mashed-up regional recipes is seriously on-point. Starry Kitchen is a favorite among critics and cutting-edge diners alike who nearly have to duke it out to secure a table for plates of XO fried rice topped with house-cured pork belly ($15), double-fried chicken wings ($7.50) or the signature Singaporean spicy crab ($MP).

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Chinatown

Mexicali Taco & Co.

This city-wide favorite is favored for flame-kissed steak and small-batch salsas, along with high-quality ingredients delivered across the border from Baja's capital city. Clever and captivating regional recipes include the gluttonous, triple-meat and cheese Zuperman ($5), crunchy cachetada tostadas drizzled in gooey cheese and creamy, piquant chipotle aioli ($3.25), clay-pot broiled, wine-infused queso fundido ($6) and garlic-lashed Vampiro quesadilla ($3.95) stuffed with with hand-chopped carne asada.

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Chinatown

Chego

Kogi creator Roy Choi recently imported what might be the world's greatest drunk/stoner food to Chinatown's Far East Plaza. The chef's big, bibimbap-based bowls of rice ($8-$10) are tweaked and seasoned in his signature LA street style, with mish-mash toppings such as kochujang-glazed pork belly, sour cream sambal chicken and the addictive marriage of kimchi and Spam. Even if the doors are closing, you may be able to plead with the kitchen for one more serving of Choi's beer-battered and pickled garlic and chile–topped Ooey Gooey cheese fries ($6). Don't forget to treat your sweet tooth to a night cap with a crispy, spicy Sriracha chocolate bar for dessert ($4).

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Chinatown

Snack

Tin Bo Inc.

The dusty, sweet smell of arid ginseng surges through your senses the second you enter this huge vault of dried herbs, exotic mushrooms and prized teas—perfect one-stop shopping for the alt-medicine crowd, budding herbalist and Chinese traditionalist. And even if you don't know what to do with that deer antler albumin, fish floss or shark cartilage, you can score family-sized packs of dried goji berries at rock-bottom prices ($4.99), pickled fruits and an extensive collection of whole-leaf tea worthy of its own Dewey decimal system.

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Chinatown

Thong Lo

After getting a whiff of one of Chinatown's live fowl markets, you may need to force sweeter sensations into your mind. Adjacent to the restaurant supply megastore, LAX-C, you'll find Thong Lo, where a matronly soul named Mae Ting hand makes Thai coconut custard tarts, taking her time over a circular griddle pocked with rounded curves like a cast-iron moonscape. Inhale deeply as she forges rice flour into the tiny treats known as khanom krok ($3 for a small bag)—rich and ethereal contenders for the best dessert in the 90012.

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Chinatown

Queen's Bakery

A long-standing staple holding the best of both worlds, this bakery is a great stop to stock up on almond cookies ($1), shredded pork bread ($1.15) and sweet, steamed Mandarin buns ($1.30). Browse the Western-style pastry display for gussied-up fudge brownies topped with cream and a cherry ($1.50), tiramisu ($2.75) and multi-layered, chocolate Vienna cake ($2.50). To take home, loaves of sliced sandwich bread beckon from the shelves, with interesting incorporations such as red bean paste, taro and coconut raisin ($2.45).

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Chinatown

Ten Ren's Tea Time

Jasmine, oolong, green, white and black—the gang's all gathered here in bulk at this bright and modern tea shop. Consider the colossal collection of dried leaves in one of the boba tea blends ($4.50), markedly different than the usual over-sweetened stuff with true herbal flavors, inspired varieties such as passion fruit and red bean and housemade tapioca pearls.

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Chinatown

Late night

Hop Louie

Before this institution gets taken over by some clever entrepreneurs with a more clear-cut concept, you should take it over for a night with your whole gang, who will basically have the building to themselves. Sure, the room smells as ancient as the old guy guarding the door and the drink selection leaves as much to be desired as the surly, conspiratorial service, but you’ll be drinking well liquor in an old chop suey joint and taking smoke breaks under the seductive sway of Mei Ling Way's floating lanterns. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better late-night place that really reminds you that you’re still in Chinatown.

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Chinatown

Melody Lounge

Sweet relief for thirsty beer geeks is now found in the neighborhood's best (and only) draft craft beer selection. Under new owners, the karaoke is taking a backseat to great brews in a tight room of lacquered walls, glowing lanterns and display tables stuffed with the cans of fallen beer brands. Catch labels such as Chimay, Angel City, Drake's, Hangar 24 and Eagle Rock Brewing on the chalkboard tap list, while a fridge holds bottled brews like Ommegang's Rare Vos Amber, Cismontane's Riesling and Pilsner blend, several Belgian beauties and a swell of super-cool locals. Catch an extended happy hour from 5 to 9pm.

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