When Hong Kong Immigrants Want A Taste Of Home, They Come To This San Gabriel Cafe
It isn't the cups of milk tea on almost every table or the big red wall that pays homage to Hong Kong pop culture. The first thing I notice whenever I step into Delicious Food Corner (原味店, translation: original taste shop) in San Gabriel is the noise — the punchy, animated elocutions of Cantonese as spoken by a room full of Hong Kong natives.
The San Gabriel Valley has no shortage of Cantonese dim sum houses, wonton shops, markets and cafes but none generates the cult-like adoration of Delicious Food Corner. I once heard someone compare a visit there with a pilgrimage to Mecca. Sure, they had their tongue planted firmly in their cheek but people do drive all the way from Orange County to get their fix.
THE RIGHT TASTE
The original Delicious Food Corner, in a stripmall that straddles the border of Monterey Park and Montebello, was founded in 2008 by a couple from Hong Kong. The place was a hole-in-the-wall that kept odd hours and served amazing Cantonese breakfast dishes such as porridges, noodles and fried dough.
One of its ride-or-die patrons was William Kwan, a lanky, soft-spoken Hong Kong native who frequently made the half-hour trip from Alhambra to eat at the joint. "The owners were from Hong Kong. I was from Hong Kong. The food just tasted right," Kwan tells me in Cantonese.
Kwan isn't just any foodie. He's the co-owner of Delicious Food Corner and an important part of the San Gabriel Valley's Cantonese food scene. Not that many years ago, he was clearing tables and refilling drinks at various restaurants in the area.
Kwan had worked his way up to restaurant manager by 2014, when he and a friend had a chance to become part-owners of Delicious Food Corner. He jumped at the opportunity. The first thing he did after he bought into the business? Overhaul the kitchen staff and expand the menu. Alongside traditional Cantonese fare, he added Hong Kong versions of Western favorites like steak, pork chops and pasta. Kwan said business shot up by 35% and word spread — all the way to Jonathan Gold.
The restaurant critic left multiple messages for Kwan, requesting an interview. "I really didn't know who he was," Kwan says, so he never called back. Still, Gold and his crew showed up unannounced one day at the Monterey Park location. The resulting Los Angeles Times write-up, like so many penned by Gold, brought Delicious Food Corner to the rest of Los Angeles.
"Many foreigners [non-Chinese and non-Cantonese] showed up at the restaurant after the review," the bespectacled 40-year-old says. "And they knew to order Hong Kong milk tea and Cantonese porridge. It was impressive."
READING THE LEAVES
Delicious Food Corner takes its inspiration from Hong Kong's cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳, translation: tea restaurant), everyman diners offering fast, cheap Cantonese and Western eats. They've been been ubiquitous in the former colony since their first iterations sprung up in the 1950s. At the time, Western restaurants were prohibitively pricey and often unwelcoming to locals so residents opened their own places. Tea, coffee, toast and egg tarts, reinvented to fit local palates, became staples. Hong Kong milk tea, instead of Earl Grey with whole milk, is a mishmash of tea leaves steeped for hours resulting in a bitter brew that's cut with condensed milk.
The menus of these tea restaurants soon expanded to include Cantonese dishes such as porridge, beef chow fun, fried rice and steamed whole fish. In time, the culinary blend of East and West, old and new, became a badge of Hong Kong identity. Immigration brought this aspect of the culture to Los Angeles and, more specifically, the San Gabriel Valley. JJ Cafe, Garden Cafe and other restaurants are all stateside manifestations of the cha chaan teng.
Kwan's journey to restaurant impresario began in the early 2000s, when he left Hong Kong to study finance at Cal State Los Angeles. To help put himself through school, he worked at Cantonese restaurants. By that time, Hong Kong-style cha chaan tengs were becoming commonplace in the SGV.
"I got yelled at all the time but slowly I learned the trade," he says.
Kwan had planned to return to Hong Kong after graduating but at one of his gigs bussing tables, he met his future wife. He ended up staying in L.A., and in the restaurant business, after they married. By the time the Delicious Food Corner deal crossed his path, Kwan knew he was ready to run a business.
Eventually, DFC's multiple owners went their separate ways. Kwan and one business partner bought the original location in Monterey Park. The other former partner opened locations in Rosemead and Hacienda Heights
In early 2019, Kwan's team opened their second branch, 5 miles north of the original location From locking down the location to unlocking the front door on opening day, the process took less than two months, a Usain Bolt-level of haste for anyone who knows how long it takes to open a dining establishment in L.A. County. As for the original DFC in Monterey Park, it's still standing — and as busy as ever.
The new DFC, airier and fancier than the no-frills original, is filled with nods to Hong Kong culture. An entire wall features drawings and paintings devoted to the city... a caricature of the former colony's undisputed king of comedy, director/actor/producer Stephen Chow... a scene painted from the Wong Kar Wai film In the Mood for Love... a lovingly rendered image of a cup of milk tea... another drawing that catalogues the city's signature street foods. The idea for the decor, Kwan says, belongs to his wife.
I told Kwan about my experience eating at Delicious Food Corner, about the beautiful discombobulation of walking into a room of surround-sound Cantonese. To me, it feels different from other Hong Kong-style restaurants. In some intangible but profound way, it feels a little bit more like home. I'm not the only one.
"If you ask me, it's because the people working here are from Hong Kong," Kwan says. "So we know how Hong Kong people think, what they want, how they want their food to taste."
That sensibility has brought generations of Hong Kong expats to Delicious Food Corner. Twentysomethings talking mahjong strategy, the woman who waited an hour for an egg sandwich while I shared a table with her, parents with kids too young to have known the city — all united, for an hour or so, in their craving for a simple pineapple bun and a cup of milk tea.