Why Asian Food In Los Angeles Matters

Words by
Lisa Ling

It surprises people to learn that my grandmother, who ran a Chinese restaurant with my grandfather, was emphatic about not wanting me to ever learn how to cook. For her, restaurant work was solely a means for survival and she wanted better for me. Though my grandfather attended university in America before immigrating, graduating with an M.B.A., when they finally moved to the States in 1948, he couldn’t get hired in finance because he was Chinese. They lived with their two children, my father and aunt, in a converted chicken coop outside of Sacramento, eventually cobbling together enough money to open some Chinese restaurants in the all-white suburb of Carmichael. They worked seven days a week, never closing for the holidays; like so many Asian immigrant families, they found a foothold in America through restaurants and the food of their culture.

I was born years after my family sold the restaurants, and grew up in the still majority white suburb of Carmichael. My grandmother lived with us and did all of the cooking—Chinese cooking, as that’s all she knew. Being one of the only Asian families around, I was teased relentlessly, and grew up carrying so much shame around being Asian. I particularly hated that my home and clothes always smelled like Chinese food—and, therefore, I grew up hating Chinese food.

Then I moved to Los Angeles, to attend the University of Southern California, and a whole new world opened up to me. The diversity of the city, and of its Asian culture in particular, was like a warm embrace and a reeducation in how I thought of my own heritage. With its proximity to Asia across the Pacific, whole communities have sprung up here that boast some of the best ethnic flavors outside of the Asian continent. In my new home, I fell deeply and madly in love with all kinds of Asian foods.

Outside of actually visiting Asia, you will not find better Asian food and stories, in aggregate, than in Los Angeles; and Los Angeles wouldn’t be Los Angeles without its Asian population and restaurants. There’s the San Gabriel Valley, where you can find any kind of Chinese or Chinese-adjacent food imaginable: tongue-burning Hunan sizzling fish, Singaporean Hainan rice, spicy Uyghur noodles, Taiwanese oyster pancakes. In East Hollywood’s Thai Town, considered the unofficial 77th province of Thailand, you can go for a papaya salad with blue crab, fiery curry noodles, and a jolting Thai iced tea to prep you for a rigorous Thai massage where a woman walks all over you and contorts your body into a human pretzel. In the biggest Koreatown outside of Korea, you can cool down on a scalding summer day in restaurants that specialize in Korean cold noodles, complete with crushed ice in the broth, before popping into a karaoke bar for some spicy dried squid snacks and lots (and lots!) of soju. You can check out the night markets in Little Saigon, just outside of L.A. in Orange County, getting blissfully lost and found in a world of sticky rice balls in ginger syrup and a multitude of mung bean pastries. The sheer number of Michelin stars awarded to sushi restaurants in L.A., meanwhile, tells you that the raw fish preparation here rivals what you can even find in Japan.

What the pages of this magazine make clear, and celebrate, is that in each of these establishments, if you take the time, you can learn riveting and heartfelt stories of immigration, resilience, perseverance, triumph, innovation, and the preservation of culture. Today, I eat so much amazing Asian food here, and with such regularity, that the other day, while dining in an Italian restaurant, I noted how weird it felt to be eating in a restaurant with a fork and knife. I missed using chopsticks. I missed eating with my hands. And, just then, I realized the profound effect Los Angeles has had on me, and on so many. The city took what had been a source of shame and transformed into something far more nourishing: pride.

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