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Pearl River Delta, one of L.A.’s best pop-ups, is going permanent in Far East Plaza

Pearl River Delta Chinatown restaurant
Photograph: Stephanie Breijo

L.A.’s underground chicken and char siu king came back in a big way last year. After returning from a stint in Chicago, chef Johnny Lee reprised Pearl River Delta, his pop-up ode to Cantonese food, and then launched a newer pop-up devoted to Japanese breakfast. In 2020, it looks like he’s going even bigger.

On Wednesday, Lee announced that Pearl River Delta has a permanent home, taking up residence in the former Baohaus spot inside Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. The space originally served as a short-term landing pad for Lee’s char siu, boiled chicken, noodles, rice, and scrambled eggs served on pineapple bolo buns, but extended week by week until a month passed and, finally, a more enduring arrangement was made.

Now six days a week the counter-seating spot next to Howlin’ Ray’s will serve as an entry point to Cantonese food for all—especially Cantonese youth.

“The main motivation [for Pearl River Delta] was the realization that people of Cantonese descent who are younger than me are no longer familiar with the food,” Lee says. “That’s because a lot of the restaurants are starting to close and not being replaced, and a lot of home cooking isn’t completely reflective of Cantonese cuisine as a whole, so the ability to learn is very limited.”

Photograph: Stephanie Breijo

Before Lee worked in L.A. kitchens such as Rivera and Sticky Rice, he himself was one of those young Cantonese descendants trying to learn at home. A son of farming lineage, even in early grade school he would watch as his mother slaughtered chickens, learning the process and studying as his grandmother cooked up more rustic dishes. 

After college he turned to restaurants and eventually launched his Hainanese-style chicken concept, Side Chick, and about two years ago, the occasional char siu and other Cantonese classics took on a life of their own. Pearl River Delta was born and became a mainstay of neighborhood events like Far East Plaza’s monthly Chinatown After Dark series.

Now, one floor below his monthly pop-up tent, he’ll phase fan-favorite items from his menu in and out, but once he staffs up, Lee hopes to add more vegan and vegetarian options such as mapo tofu and a stir fry of tomato and egg. Hours will remain more or less the same as they’ve been for the last month, though Lee’s toying with earlier hours on weekends to launch Hong Kong-style breakfasts (read: congee, steamed rolls and Chinese doughnuts).

He’s also hoping to play around with other formats, including the private kitchen, a popular concept in Hong Kong that lands somewhere between a ticketed tasting menu and a dinner party where the chef can vouch for their guests. “You might find a chef that’s retired but wants to make some money here or there, so he’ll do a pop-up in his own apartment,” Lee says. “Some people say that private kitchens are the best dining in Hong Kong.”

These ticketed events would allow for more intricate dishes and high-cost ingredients you wouldn’t normally find on the Pearl River Delta menu, such as abalone. Unlike some of the more famous examples, like TOTORAKU, where you have to know someone who knows the owner to get in, Lee’s private kitchen would be much more approachable.

And for those who need another taste of Lee’s Japanese breakfast pop-up, Gatsu Gatsu, he’ll be using Pearl River Delta’s space to host it—or at least just for the next event, which takes place on Monday, March 9.

In celebration of it all, please look at the jaw-dropping lacquering on Pearl River Delta’s char siu, then stop by to taste some for yourself:

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Find Pearl River Delta inside Far East Plaza (727 N Broadway) from 11am to 8pm Tuesday to Saturday, and from 11am to 6pm on Sunday.

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