LA's Chinatown may not bear the same pedigree as its massive counterparts in New York and San Francisco, but there's still plenty for your tastebuds to discover here. The Downtown neighborhood is packed with treasures for any pedestrian eager to explore off-the-beaten-path discoveries—from pho shops to a beloved sandwich favorite, dive bars to a famous Thai restaurant from Portland. Rediscover your love of old-school dim sum houses and explore the nabe's present glories with our guide to Chinatown's best restaurants and bars.
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12 Chinatown restaurants and bars
A no frills mom and pop restaurant in the heart of Chinatown, Won Kok is a hidden gem that offers round-the-clock dim sum at hard-to-beat prices. Forget the grand banquet halls or extravagant chandeliers, Won Kok is the quintessential hole in the wall for dim sum. Nosh on the glossy, soft and not-too-sweet baked char siu bao, and sip the complimentary pu-erh tea. While the dumplings are hit or miss, addictive sesame ball with a smooth red bean center is a must and signature favorite. Opt for baked goods—we love the baked coconut bun, rice cake, buttery almond cookies and delicate egg custards that sell out daily.
General Lee’s has all the makings of a mysterious speakeasy—except this bi-level bar is not entirely secret, nor are its cocktails the standard selection of Old Fashioneds and Gin Rickeys you might find in a password-protected bar. The split-level space houses a DJ booth on the first floor, while live jazz is often a top floor staple. It's a solid spot for catching up with friends, and for trying inventive cocktails that employ at least one surprising ingredient: try the Heaven, a Gin & Tonic with green tea syrup or the Thunder, a Rob Roy with oolong-infused vermouth. You can bring in food, too, like an order of spring rolls from Blossom next door.
Andy Ricker's Pok Pok has made its way from Portland to LA, bringing Thai street food to Chinatown. Unlike its nearby sister restaurant Pok Pok Phat Thai, there is liquor here—a full list of cocktails, plus beer, wine and plenty of bourbon, whiskey and scotch. There's also a "Drinking Food" category on the menu, with dishes like Laap Thawt Isaan (deep-fried spicy pork laap with lime leaf) and Plaa Mauk King (char grilled dried Thai cuttlefish)—plus, of course, Pok Pok's famous chicken wings. The Da Chom's Laap Meuang, a plate of spicy hand-minced pork "salad," comes piled high with aromatics, spices, herbs, cracklings and crispy fried shallots. For dessert, the Pok Pok Affogato ($8) is a fun alternative to the usual version, made with condensed milk ice cream drowned in a shot of Vietnamese coffee.
Kogi creator Roy Choi has added 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 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. Don't forget to treat your sweet tooth to a night cap with a crispy, spicy Sriracha chocolate bar for dessert.
In business since 1908, Philippe the Original claims to have invented the French dip sandwich. Whether or not you believe them (Cole's will certainly contest this fact, claiming their own French dip version as the first), there's no denying the eatery has an exemplary sandwich. Savvy customers make their way across the sawdust-covered floor to select a traditional lamb or turkey filling, then ask their server to double-dip the bread in the meaty juice; add some of the sinus-clearing house mustard and you're golden. A bevy of sides include coleslaw, macaroni and potato salad, hard boiled eggs and pickles—all to be eaten in the midst of friendly strangers, who you'll inevitably wind up talking to.
This bustling restaurant is the last stop at the edge of Chinatown before North Broadway turns lonely and desolate, and while prices have recently gone up a few dollars, the pho here still hits it out of the park. The pale, almost clear broth delivers a deep, round beefy taste that coats the tongue and delivers pops of ginger, garlic and an unexpected hint of carrot. The sliced onion holds onto a touch of its crunch, the fatty brisket strikes a hearty note and jagged chunks of tendon keep the game interesting. And if you time your meal just right, you might get to sit near LA Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, a regular Pho 87 fan.
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, Kung Pao chicken, lacquered vegetables, hot pot seafood and fried pork, all prepared at a level of execution that surpasses much of its surrounding competition.
Sweet relief for thirsty beer geeks is now found in the neighborhood's best draft craft beer selection. Karaoke takes 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 Brewery 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.
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, crunchy cachetada tostadas drizzled in gooey cheese and creamy, piquant chipotle aioli, clay-pot broiled, wine-infused queso fundido and garlic-lashed Vampiro quesadilla stuffed with with hand-chopped carne asada.
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, grilled salmon tacos with jalapeño pesto, salads scattered with roasted corn, avocado, and jicama and chile relleno grilled cheese sandwiches served on Homeboy Bakery's own house-baked bread.
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 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.
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.