When Pearl River Deli first appeared at Far East Plaza in Chinatown in February of last year, it was the culmination of a trip for Chef Johnny Lee.
Lee had been quietly working in the background of LA’s wildly percolating pre-dinner scene for several years. He consulted with the group behind Side Chick, the Hainan Chicken Rice Specialists in Arcadia. Lee was also a chef for Alvin Cailan, when Eggslut moved to Grand Central Market.
Lee’s first independent business – Pearl River Deli – quickly took pride of place in Far East Plaza. Sharing the spotlight there with other downtown food stars including Howlin ‘Ray’s, Cailan’s Amboy Quality Meats & Delicious Burgers, and Lasita, Lee’s Pearl River Deli was the perfect fit.
Lee spent his early years in Lincoln Heights and Highland Park. His uncles and other family members worked in restaurants in Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley, but they did not own them. Lee graduated from UC Riverside in 2008, at the height of the economic downturn.
“I graduated at a pretty terrible time when the housing accident happened,” Lee said.
“I ended up working for a family friend who had opened a restaurant in the state of Colorado. It lasted less than a year, but I really enjoyed working in the hotel industry. I decided to come back to LA and pursue the cooking side.
Pearl River Deli started out as a pop-up in its space at Far East Plaza. Opening in anticipation of the Chinese New Year, just weeks before the start of the pandemic, Lee thanks Far Eastern owner and property manager George Yu for supporting the fledgling operation and helping revitalize Chinatown .
“He kept Chinatown alive,” Lee said.
“George offers resources, help and support. It helps navigate the legacy businesses out there to stay relevant, stay alive. I spent much of my youth in Chinatown. My parents and I noticed that everyone had left for SGV. It took resources and a community outside of Chinatown. There hasn’t been a lot of reinvestment from the community itself.
Yu maintained flexible terms with Lee during the launch of the business.
“We appeared around the end of February,” Lee said. “We went from month to month. We didn’t know how it was going to play out. Once we understood the pandemic, we had a little more confidence to sign a lease. “
Apparently the strategy is working. Lee and his colleagues at Far East Plaza all seem to be thriving.
The Cantonese menu at Pearl River Deli is sparse but attentive to classic dishes. Lee’s irresistibly succulent preparation of char-siu barbecue kicks off the show with the char siu neck plate ($ 12) served with steamed vegetables – typically yu choy (Chinese broccoli) – and a choice of rice or noodles.
If pork isn’t the plan, the Soy Sauce Chicken Platter ($ 12) features chicken thighs prepared in classic Cantonese fashion with an embers of seasoned soy sauce and is served with vegetables and rice. or noodles.
The two-item combo plate ($ 15) features generous paired portions of char siu pork and soy sauce chicken, served with the same choice of sides.
The aptly named chow fun ($ 11 / $ 14) toss beef or mushroom in a stir-fry with large rice noodles and can be made for vegans.
Wonton Noodle Soup ($ 12) combines yu choy and egg noodles with five handmade wontons stuffed with pork and shrimp. The Macau Pork Chop Bun ($ 10) is the only sandwich option.
Pork can also be purchased in half-pound ($ 9) portions to take home. Two servings of chicken thighs and chicken thighs in soy sauce are the same price. Mapo tofu ($ 11) prepared with beef or mushrooms is also available a la carte. A recently added offering is Hainan Chicken Rice ($ 16), available Saturdays and Sundays only. Considering Lee’s background with Side Chick, it’s probably worth a weekend in the plaza.
In addition to local adulation for his food, Lee has a reputation for being a fair employer who maintains an ethical workplace.
“I worked at a few other restaurants where there was toxic management,” Lee said.
“They never supported the cooks. I’ve always been the type to stand up for line cooks because we are the ones who prepare the food. If you pay them a respectful salary, you will get a respectful product in the end. These days, I have seen too many people burn out and leave the industry. I want to make sure that we all have a certain quality of life, a work / life balance.
Ultimately, he recognized the interest and support of the downtown scene and its vibrant community for his success.
“I just want to express that I’m very grateful that Downtown has been so supportive and open-minded to us,” said Lee, highlighting the challenge of opening a new Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown.
“Everyone comes with preconceived ideas about what food should be like. We don’t make fried rice and we don’t have spring rolls. We just don’t want to do these things and we don’t have the capacity to do these things, even if we wanted to. This can be seen and reflects the diversity of diners in the city center and the surrounding area. I have met so many people from all walks of life and from all professions. For me, this is the most interesting group of people to see. They come because they really want to eat the food.
Specializing in neat and slightly elevated but accessible versions of classic Cantonese cuisine, Pearl River Deli has been so successful that Lee is looking to expand.
Lee recently announced that he will be opening a more formal sit-down restaurant on nearby Mei Ling Way, in the space previously occupied by Vivienne Ku’s popular Taiwanese breakfast pop-up, Today Starts Here. Lee confirmed the move with a reservation.
“We will also keep our space at the Far East Plaza,” he said.
As for the name and approach of the new venue, there is still a lot to see.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Lee said. “At the start we’re just going to do a few tries and get a feel for the space, before we decide how we want to score it. It will be more of a restaurant for dinner, a place where you can actually sit people down and serve alcohol.
He cited Ku’s Pine & Crane as a service model for more informal counter orders.
“We’re probably not going to take possession of the space until next month (October),” Lee said. “At the earliest, I would estimate that in November we will start to do a smooth opening or limited testing.”
The menu at the new venue will continue to focus on Cantonese cuisine, but Lee hopes to take advantage of a larger kitchen and an indoor dining area.
“When we were preparing our Friday dinners outside of Pearl River Deli, we realized the challenges of managing this type of menu from that space,” said Lee.
“It’s a bit difficult because we have a very small kitchen. The exterior (format) was not ideal for what we are trying to do with the common common space that we share with the other tenants. I just want a space, where I can more closely control the experience and provide an aesthetically pleasing, truly air-conditioned environment.
“There were some things we avoided serving outdoors in the summer because no one wants a boiling, bubbling clay pot in the middle of summer. Having more space and a bigger kitchen allows us (to expand the menu). It gives us more confidence to serve special dishes like lobster and crab.
Charcuterie from the Pearl River
727 N. Broadway, Los Angeles