The 9 best shops in Chinatown
Part cookbook store, part lifestyle shop, Now Serving is one serious destination for boutique kitchenware, international food magazines, aprons, and cookbooks representing more than 20 countries. Curated and owned by husband-and-wife team Ken Concepcion and Michelle Mungcala—the former a past chef for Wolfgang Puck—this shop within Far East Plaza draws upon more than a decade of kitchen experience to curate some truly special wares. It’s also become a major fixture of the community thanks to its regular cookbook-author talkbacks and signings, not to mention congenial and welcoming customer service.
One of the original stores in L.A.’s Chinatown, this mainstay, with its iconic neon storefront, holds center court at Old Chinatown Central Plaza. Opened in 1938 by K.G. Louie, the traditional Chinese gifts, art and crockery store is still owned and operated by multiple generations of the Louie family. Browse through the oft-dusty store for treasures such as Chinese cookbooks, traditional jewelry and furniture as well as vintage goods such as Chinese tea sets, silverware and porcelain wares.
Founder and tastemaker Wendy Yao packs her boutique with books, zines, graphic novels, mixtapes, art and other treasures you’re not likely to find elsewhere in L.A. The clothing selection includes cult brands like Nancy Stella Soto, Bless and Slow & Steady Wins the Race (most of which is also available at Ooga Booga’s online shop). Be sure to follow the stairs up to the second floor when you arrive—the tiny shop is well-hidden enough to prevent just any old schmo from stumbling in off the street.
Be transported to China through this dusty store in the heart of Central Plaza. Find unique gifts here, such as the glass case with vintage daggers and other collectible items, though the real diamond in the rough is toward the back of the store. Skip past the heaps of clothing and accessories and head straight to the back row of clothing in the far right corner. Here you will find a treasure trove of traditional vintage Chinese dresses packed tightly together on the rack as well as inexpensive Chinese sandals—perfect for those looking to take a piece of this neighborhood home.
One of Chinatown’s best-kept secrets for more than 20 years, Rainbow is a haven for the bargain-minded plant shopper. Lush fiddle leaf figs, a variety of succulents, jasmine flowers, bird of paradise and ready-to-plant persimmon trees can all usually be found here, and at absurdly low prices. Want to accessorize? Rows and rows of stylish ceramic and metal planters—some with Mid-Century-inspired wooden stands—provide an array of homes for your new potted darlings.
When looking for sophisticated housewares, books and gifts, stop into this contemporary design store filled with Asian-inspired and -sourced home objects and accessories. The shop stands in the same space that first opened in 1934 as a Chinese restaurant and bar, and later a café frequented by punk bands in the ’70s. Opened in 2004 as part of Chinatown’s revitalization, the airy store is a cool place to retreat from the bustling streets or take in a local art show. Browse the bookcases in the back for titles on mah-jong, sake, gardening, Kama Sutra and traveling.
Enter this music store decked out with guitars—namely Caraya Guitars—for a peaceful respite from the more bustling and cluttered neighboring shops in Central Plaza. Classical and electronic guitars hang from the walls, as do other instruments including banjos, drums, erhu, dulcimer, mandolins, classical and electric violins, ukuleles and Chinese instruments such as the Chinese Zither. Just a beginner? The shop even offers pro guitar lessons.
Lined with vibrant Chinese lanterns and stacked with traditional Chinese hats, the storefront at this gift shop may seem overwhelming. Step inside and you’re greeted with friendly staff who’ll help you navigate it all, and aisles lined with cheesy, cultural chachkies. The kitschy store offers wholesale and retail products including traditional Chinese knickknacks such as parasols, fans, feng shui products, lucky plants, party accessories and mini figurines of Chinese symbolism. Geared toward tourists to the neighborhood, this is your one-stop-shop for souvenirs and Chinatown trinkets.
As art critic, curator and editor of the Coagula Art Journal since 1992, Mat Gleason certainly knows a thing or two about the L.A. art scene. The 2012 opening of this contemporary exhibition and performance space in Chinatown has been an underground sensation, shooting a fearless blast of energy into a sometimes-tired scene. Exhibition openings are sometimes followed by stand-up comedy nights, where funny folks perform in the hip venue space, sometimes using the art on the walls as fodder for their act. (It goes without saying, brave artists show here.) For these and more low-key events, look to the gallery’s social media for info on artists’ talks and walkthroughs.