At Chinatown’s Pearl River Deli, the menu is always changing — and worth chasing

When enjoying Macao spring roll noodles at Pearl River Deli, the first feeling that makes your taste buds feel clearly: meat. Crispy deep-fried pork belly. It takes about eight seconds before the more complex flavors begin to blend.

Tomato-onion delights, simmering to make jam with garlic and capers, creating a sour, sweet and tangy taste. First, you might notice the sugar sprinkled on top of the bolo bag – also known as pineapple cake because of its saffron color and patterned crown, not because of any presence of fruit – as a grazing texture your palate. It blends in with other flavors and lasts without being overwhelming. To enhance the savory taste, Maggi bursting with umami seasoned with mayo is spread over the pork in a thin layer of oil.

Chops have bones; long end, full of chewy edges, protruding from the sac, like a fish’s tail. If you’re sharing food, you could be in a collarbone situation. One of the two will be luckier.

Two side-by-side photos of paper lanterns and marinated cucumbers.

Red lantern, left, hanging from the front entrance at Pearl River Deli; yes, a side dish with marinated cucumbers.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps each diner should order his or her own. Pork Dumplings are one of the most perfectly designed sandwich constructions in Los Angeles – and, at one of the city’s most innovative and important restaurants, one of the very few. The main menu.

There is no label that clearly identifies the Pearl River Deli, but chef and owner Johnny Lee conceived it first and foremost as a personal expression of Cantonese cooking. It was his childhood dish. His parents moved the family from Taishan, Guangdong, to Los Angeles when Lee was 1 year old. Two decades later, in January 2020, he had the opportunity to try out a pop-up store in Far East Plaza in a store vacated by Eddie Huang’s Baohaus.

Once settled in, Lee followed Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken sandwiches stalls in the square hallways for two months. Then the world became quiet. Pearl River Deli is tucked away in a tiny space, serving takeaway food for nearly two years during the first two years of the pandemic. In late 2021, Lee announced that he would be moving the restaurant down the street a few blocks to a 1930s building long occupied by New Dragon Seafood Restaurant and more recently to a great, short Taiwanese breakfast outlet. Vivian Ku Today Starts Here.

Books are on the shelf.

Various books on food and cooking are on the shelves at Pearl River Deli.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The two dine in a restaurant by the window, with a large mask hanging on the wall.

Patrons dine at Pearl River Deli.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

PRD 2.0, as Lee sometimes calls it, reopened in its larger empty space at the end of March. He and his crew were slowly starting. Concise menus appear weekly on Instagram. Lee once wrote there, “We will continue the ethos of what has driven us since the beginning: We cook whatever we want and feel like.” Short-lived specials disappear quickly, sometimes surprisingly.

However, to paraphrase the words that come to mind when I see an original poster of “Star Wars” among the framed images that fill the back wall of this restaurant, this Death Star is now fully operational. The kitchen has landed on a stream that contains a sustainable combination of ambition, experimentation and consistency.

Red lanterns hang from the ceiling of a keyhole entrance.

The alley in front of the new location of Pearl River Deli.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Before Pearl River Deli, Lee made a name for himself as a chef with Hainanese chicken rice that he mastered while running Side Chick in Santa Anita shopping mall. He poached the bird slowly until the flesh turned buttery and the skin still had a slight crack in it while almost melting into the flesh. The way he polishes the rice with chicken fat makes the rice taste light, not greasy. The flavor of the side sauces, even the acidic hot sauce, registers gently. It’s a calming collage that helps stabilize your mood.

Lee also clearly no longer wants the job of preparing food to control his culinary life. He respects customer needs for it but constantly changes its availability; Currently Hainanese chicken rice is sold as a weekend special, and I have a feeling that it will keep its place for a while.

You can depend on the constant presence of char siu – the richly created pork belly fat, the curved crown of each slice red and caramelized from a glaze glazed with five flavors. A plate comes with rice (ideal for gravy) or egg noodles (which harmonize with their tangled textured contrast). The “tiger shrimp” – sometimes made with crab, or served in a shallow puddle of crabmeat – is a shapeshifter that has recently transformed into a beautifully pale omelet. It’s rich and arguably best enjoyed with other dishes on the table.

Pork and greens on a noodle in a bowl with collard greens.

Plate of char siu with noodles.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The packaging for Macao fish vermicelli is crispier and better structured thanks to pastry chef Laura Hoang; She has provided desserts to many businesses throughout LA but took on the role of culinary chef when Pearl River Deli moved. The rice flour gives the bao dough an appealing consistency, and Hoang uses a masterful recipe to create a constant shift between sweet and savory inspirations: creamed strawberry biscuits made from bao bolo, buns char siu or sausage filling and (especially prominent) the trio of corn oil, cheese and chili.

Hoang’s sharp whimsy matches Lee’s restless imagination. Their combined creation carries a thunderous power.

A man and a woman sit on a bench.

Pearl River Deli owner and chef Johnny Lee, left, and chef Laura Hoang.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

You study the menu at the counter where you order; Lee, Hoang and other staff bring out the food when it’s ready. What else is there to eat? Simple steamed bok choy with oyster sauce, smoked grilled chowfun with mushrooms or pork – and who knows! Lemon fried chicken? It was advertised as a weekend special and sold out in one night.

Lee is an ace with a clay pot tofu casserole and a sausage rice dish, but they take up a lot of kitchen space and time, so they come and go. I always seem to miss Hoang’s seasonal shaved ice recipe, but I came across her wonderful, airy cheesecake finished with mango slices soaked in passionfruit-makrut bushes. I hope you do too.

When I occasionally yearn for a more lasting experience at the Pearl River Deli, I remind myself to step back and consider the context in which it exists.

Two side-by-side photos of a bowl of bok choy and a wall of posters.

A side dish with steamed bok choy, left, and a collage decorate the back wall at Pearl River Deli.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Chinatown – technically the community of New Chinatown, since Old Chinatown was razed in the 1930s on the land where Union Station is located – has become the center of wits in Los Angeles Angeles. High-rise apartment buildings and expensive restaurants pop up in the area, where median income hovers around $22,000 a year. Lifetime residents are being displaced; The grocery stores where Lee and his family went to shop are gone.

As the tastes of generations change, Cantonese cuisine continues to disappear in Los Angeles as well. Large party organizers in the San Gabriel Valley draw fewer crowds to celebrate; Needle, a Cantonese-inspired restaurant that opened in early 2020, closed in Silver Lake last week.

In Lee’s cooking, you can taste the culinary history and evolution in real time guided by his hands and mind. And he doesn’t want to be tied down: Sometimes traditional Vietnamese, Thai and Hawaiian dishes or other regions of China appear in his repertoire. Most of the time they’re delicious, but Lee is a self-corrected editor: I’ve noticed the flat foods disappear quickly.

The world seems to be in an accelerated flow. If Lee’s goal is to make food animated by curiosity and the pursuit of excellence, why hasn’t his menu changed at breakneck speed?

A strawberry cupcake sits on a pink plate.

Strawberry bolo cake, made with Sunrise Organic Farm strawberries.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Pearl River Deli

935 Mei Ling Way, Los Angeles,

Price: Vegetable dishes $6-$11, most palatable $13-$17. Menu changes constantly.

Details: Open Wednesday-Saturday 11:30 am-8:30 pm, Sunday 11:30 am-4 pm No alcohol. Street parking. Take out available.

Recommended dishes: Macao pork rib vermicelli, Hainanese chicken rice, black tiger shrimp, chowfun with pork, Laura Hoang’s special pastry. At Chinatown’s Pearl River Deli, the menu is always changing — and worth chasing

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