Sunday, July 09, 2006

Taste test: Chop Suey Cafe


UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for their comments and links. To Linda, the chef: thanks for your input; unfortunately there were no soft portions of the noodles and no discernible gravy. But hey, if other diners like it, then no problem.
To everyone else: I get it, the restaurant has a long historical association in the community and many people who would like to preserve that nostalgia. However, you can't run a restaurant on history alone -- especially a new one -- so the food, service and ambiance will still have to be comparable or better than other restaurants in order to prosper and serve the community.

CHOP SUEY back in Little Tokyo
Little Tokyo's Far East Cafe, which opened in 1935, looks like the set of a film noir, the kind of place where an innocent man could be ambushed by a gunman hiding behind a weathered wood partition, who would escape out the back way while the drunks in the lounge had their attention on the whiskey bottles in front of them. In fact it did appear in the 1975 version of "Farewell My Lovely," but I don't remember ever eating there when it was open. The Chop Suey Cafe has now opened in the old Far East location as kind of a fusiony open-late spot aimed at nearby loft dwellers and college kids who have eaten at Suehiro once too often.
The old Far East Cafe surely had almond duck, orange chicken and chow mein on the menu, and the new one does too. The new menu goes farther afield into the likes of Thai beef salad, Asian burgers with garlic fries, bahn mi-type sandwiches and small plates of fried squid, edamame, etc. The place just opened a few days ago and is still getting its sea legs -- in fact, according to a Chowhound post, the permanent chef is still in Paraguay!
The room: The server told us they couldn't change much of the inside, as it's under some sort of historical preservation, although it's hard to believe they couldn't add a little decor to the decades-old wood dividers and kitchen-table style chairs and tables. It's an odd feeling eating divided from the other diners, kind of like eating in your office cubicle, and lacking the cozy intimacy provided by curtains and booths like at Luna Park.
There's a patio prised into an adjacent space between buildings, and the best part, a hidden bar at the back which will no doubt become quite the place to be when word gets out. But the restaurant itself is an odd bird which may take a while to find itself.
The food: I ordered the Asian burger, which was fine -- a smallish patty with a hint of chiles on a huge glazed bun, with some slightly limp but tasty garlic fries and aioli. Matt tried the special chow mein (pictured below), which like the other noodle dishes, is served "bird's nest style." We were perplexed by the rigid, hard, greasy, noodle hockey puck topped with somewhat cold vegetables that emerged from the kitchen.

When we told the server it didn't seem possible to penetrate the mass with either chopsticks or a knife, the manager came over to rather smugly inform us that it was supposed to be that way, period. (Apparently bird's nest noodles are normally loosened up by the server as well as bt the dish's hot gravy). She did take it off the check, though, and Matt ordered the very average sweet and sour pork instead. Service was friendly, if slightly flustered -- "You guys make me miss my black glasses!" our server winningly blurted at one point.
The verdict: Downtown could certainly use some more late night options, and perhaps if the chef ever arrives, Chop Suey will be a good alternative to Full House or Suehiro. Prices are fairly reasonable -- about $7-10 for most dishes. But the concept needs a little more work -- the fluorescent lights are ugly, the music is awful, and the noodles suck.
Chop Suey Cafe
347 East 1st Street
Little Tokyo

33 comments:

Doran said...

Am I the only one put off by the name Chop Suey Cafe? The way I see it, if they're going to name themselves after fake Asian food, they probably aren't gonna have a whole lot of respect for the real stuff.

I hope I'm wrong and they get it right, cuz there certainly is a need for more decent late night grub.

Pat Saperstein said...

Well, it's an homage to the old name, Far East Chop Suey Cafe. And it's certainly not trying to be super-authentic. Really it just comes down to whether it's good and well-prepared, or not, and I think the jury is still out on that.

Tokyoastrogirl said...

Wow- this place sounds awful. It's too bad since I'm not a big fan of Suehiro at ALL and there aren't many other late-night dining options. And I agree w/ Doran- the name is terrible.

slowrider90042 said...

Far East was originally opened by five brothers or cousins....don't remember....
but if you never went when it was open and want to try what you missed go to the New Formosa Cafe on Soto & Chavez - 2415 East Cesar East Chavez......
It's run by one of the original brothers/cousins and his wife.....
tastes just like the Far East did....exactly......
call and check on hours though......they close early and are closed on Sundays....
Far East was a favorite spot to get cheap grub after an evening at the Troy Cafe that used to be across the street.

briana said...

Well, I love the idea, the location and the building. And I also adore "Farwell, My Lovely"... so I hope they can get their noodles togther soon.

G.Matsuda said...

"Chop Suey" is indeed not Chinese. It is an American invention. However, the term is used here because it was always there at the Far East Cafe, dating back to the 30's when the restaurant opened on 1st St. in Little Tokyo. In fact, the building is part of a National Historic Landmark and because of laws governing historic structures, little could be changed, including the signage and interior...that even includes the decor, to a large degree.

Yeah, you can be put off by "Chop Suey," or complain about the decor. However, these choices were not made for any other reason other than this was the way it was historically, and this was a historic restoration of this building and this particular storefront.

carter said...

Adolfo Henry Ramirez and Donald Ryo Tahara are the registered owners of the restaurant as shown on their liquor license.

Kathy said...

The history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese American Community there is tied with the Far East Cafe (now Chop Suey Cafe). That was the place to go for almost all family get-togethers in the early years. So besides the historical constrictions, there are some community expectations put on this cafe. The chow mein is expected to be an old style chow mein that was served at Far East. The JA babyboomers really hope to find the old restaurant back even if they hadn't really eaten there in years. Nostalgia.

Linda said...

Hi, thanks for your feedbacks. I am the Sous Chef at Chop Suey and the person who made the noodles. I am not sure what Matt was expecting but this is authentic Hong Kong style pan-fried noodles in which the noodles are pan-fried so that the surface is crisy but still has a soft and chewy texture. The hot gravy from the stir fry will also soften the "hockey puck." Perhaps we should call this dish something else rather than "chow mein" in that chow mein is known as soft stir-fried noodles in some restaurants. This is a deliberate dish, which is typical in Cantonese restaurants. Perhaps we need to add "chow mein" in addition to pan-fried noodles on our menu. Please bear with us as we continue to fine tune the menu. Thanks, Linda

Terila said...

I am a fan of the original Far East Cafe and support it being called the "Chop Suey Cafe" with the original decor.

There is a place for WELL PREPARED Chinese-American food. Sounds like they tried to do too much by adding Thai, fusion and other stuff to an otherwise good idea.

For those who cook Ken Hom did a marvelous cookbook of good renditions of what those of my generation remember as Chinese-American. Recommended.

Anonymous said...

Well, my mother-in-law is very excited now about this place. I forwarded this to her, and she remembers going there as a little kid, and for every celebration or funeral. She said Raymond Chandler used to write in one of the booths--anyone know if that's true?

I love Hong Kong style pan fried noodles, so I guess we'll be making a family trip soon!

Anonymous said...

Dear Saperstein:

It was never called "Far East Chop Suey Cafe." I was just "Far East Cafe" with the caption "Famous Chinese Food" under their name. If you go to this website, you can see their menu from the 1920's:

http://dbase1.lapl.org/dbtw-wpd/exec/dbtwpub.dll?AC=GET_RECORD&XC=http://dbase1.lapl.org/dbtw-wpd/exec/dbtwpub.dll&BU=http%3A%2F%2Fdbase1.lapl.org&TN=menus&SN=AUTO17398&SE=1163&RN=0&MR=20&RF=web+tab+report+maya&DF=web+report+maya&RL=0&DL=0&NP=3&ID=&MF=&MQ=&TI=0

Anonymous said...

As this was the site of my first date with my husband, we were curious to see it reopened, but we required another meal altogether after eating here just to get the taste of the weird food out of our mouths. And we're adventurous diners. The place was empty on a Saturday night, and that was a bit unnerving; even so, our server seemed less than interested in us, his only table. We could still be waiting for our white rice, if we hadn't had to go. Our meal was neither "good" nor "well-prepared," authentic or not. I would say, "not." I rather like the environment and appreciate the historical significance of the building, but I have to say, I really hated the food and couldn't wait to get out of there.

Anonymous said...

What exactly did you order that was so bad? I've heard many good things about the restaurant. A lot people seem to order and like their pan fried noodles from what I've hard.
- Joe

weebie said...

Was there Sat night and thought the Chow Mein was pretty good. Lots of veggies, some pretty good char siu, etc. The noodles were a bit mealy compared to the Chinatown Sam Woo [my standby for this dish], but overall I had a great meal. When I was there, many older JA's and their families were trying the place out after so many years. It was cool to see and be a part of that re-connect...

Anonymous said...

Dear Saperstein,

If you were stupid enough to go to a "chop suey" restaurant and order an "Asian Burger," you deserve to get bad food. Now, I do not think this place can possibly be any good, but you did it and the memory of the old Far East Cafe a disservice by ordering a burger. If you want old Far East food, go to Boyle Heights. I will not tell you the name of the restaurant. Use some investigative techniques.

Ciao

foodiepatoodie said...

Yeah, its really too bad, their opening was highly anticipated, they have what most new restauranteurs would die for.. a captive audience.. but unfortunately, they've missed the very basic essentials to dining, ambience and tasteful food. The tables are set with a hodge-podge array of condiments/holders of cheapo chopsticks and napkin holders no doubt left from the 1930's. The service, well, let's just say, they are friendly enough, but this place no finese.. the bar has some, but would be nice if the restaurant had some of that too! Now.. onto the food.. while I thought the Chow Mein was actually tasty, I found the Asian Alfredo to be dull and nothing to write about, the Napolean.. is this layered pork barbequey thing that basically tastes like pork sloppy joes.. the fried rice is the WORST fried rice I've ever had and how can you really screw up fried rice??? But to be fair, the scotch eggs were tasty and
seems like the bar food menu has more fusion trendy flavor than the actual menu..oh yeah, the menu..mispellings, no descriptions just really unattractive.. I guess that pretty much sums this place up so far as.. unattractive.. no reason to ever go back..

Anonymous said...

I had a visit to chop suey recently & found that it was not as bad as described. Though it is different from the old far east.. i would say i had quite a visit. The noodles was tasty...just what i was hoping for, i did not like the pork but other than that the service was great and the servers were very friendly..

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not supposed to be like a melrose restaurant... This place does what it's supposed to-it offers the old style (read Americanized-chinese food) that an older generation of JAs remember and actually liked. It's got the genesis of a fusion menu-give it some time. I liked it!

Anonymous said...

hmm. my father and i passed by little tokyo on our way home the other day and we were surprised to see the old marquee lit, so we drove by and to our amazement we saw the cafe was open. that's what started our interest in finding out what the story was. i remember eating at the orignal Far East Cafe with my family as a child and into my early 20's before the earthquake forced the closure. it was always a joy walking down first street from our parking spot and looking into the markets and stores before we reached the restaurant.

i that ms. saperstein is missing the point with the reopening of the cafe. the cafe was THE place in LA to get good chinese food and i've been to a few before and since, with none measuring up to the Far East Cafe. ever. to her companion that ordered the dish and was put off: you must not have had much exposure to true Asian cuisine if you're put off by fried noodles with soft centers. get out more often and try something other than the bland offerings at the local "hip" spot.

i viewed the Huell Howser spot on the reopening of the cafe and i was disappointed to hear that the menu offerings are going away from what the original menu had, although they are keeping a few of the original dishes. i actually have a menu from the 1960's, from the time my parents were dating and first married, and i was hoping that, along with the interior decor, the menu would be kept mostly intact.

i do want to visit the cafe soon, if for no other reason than to reminisce about times past.

Pat said...

Wow, I seem to have hit a nerve here! As I said at the top, nostalgia is great, but I evaluate all restaurants on exactly the same criteria -- does the food taste good, or not? Apparently I was there on nearly the first night though, so perhaps sometime I'll try it again. I'm not sure how it's "missing the point" though to not like the taste of the food you ordered.

Anonymous said...

Authentic Cantonese chow mein is supposed to be crunchy on the outside and chewy/soft inside the "nest." Being from the east coast, I grew up eating real Cantonese food, something seriously lacking in LA. Oh, and I'm of Chinese (Cantonese) descent, so I know what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

On Sat 11/5 at 6 pm there was hardly anyone there & after ordering food I can see why. Homyu did not taste at all like before, sweet & sour terrible (sauce not right color or consistency), chow mein not tasty, pressed duck undescribably awful.Went w/my family and we all remember good food there before. Not now! Service slow and awful.Had to ask for napkins, twice for rice,tea,water.Back to Paul's Kitchen for me.Have to tell my family about the place in Boyle Heights that someone else mentioned. This is one of the biggest disappointments ever. The cook is not even Chinese! We were told he was Filipino.Maybe his other items taste better, but the old items I remember were awful!

Anonymous said...

We ate there recently after seeing Huell Howser visit the place. We used to eat there regularly with our nisei parents growing up in ELA. I missed seeing the green painted glass in the storefront which was very characteristic of the exterior of the restaurant. I was glad to see they kept the shoyu-colored dividers. Missed the big juke box out in front. But the important thing we came for was the nostalgia of eating the old style Cantonese food. It was never great food but it was good. With the influx of Taiwanese and proliferation of Mandarin and Szechuan style food now, I don't really miss the old Cantonese style restaurants, but we get a craving for it once in a while so we were really looking forward to eating there. We only ordered the old Cantonese style dishes - homyu, sweet and sour pork, almond duck, tomato beef, chasu and chow mein. Boy were we disappointed. The homyu was nothing like it should have been - it was just a pork patty with some ginger flavor - none of the distinctive flavoring and texture that homyu is supposed to have. The almond duck was so crispy you couldn't even taste the duck inside. And there was no brown gravy on top and it was sitting on shredded cabbage - not shredded lettuce. The chow mein was actually not bad. And the chasu is the one thing that was better than I remember as the old Far East always had chasu so dry that it sucked the saliva out of your mouth. I don't know what the new menu items (Asian fusion style) are like but the Chop Suey Cafe is definitely not going to get repeat business from us former customers who were looking forward to the return of the Far East Cafe and its familiar flavors.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Chop Suey is in an excellent restraunt. I enjoyed the atmosphere and how everyone was so friendly there. The food was fantastic especially the "Thai Beef Salad", "Tomatoe Beef", and the "House Special Chow Mein". I loved the fact that they kept the restraunt the same. My family and I used to go there many years ago and it was nice to bring back the good memories. The patio was a very nice touch to what is already a beautiful and historic place. The bar was great and had many different selections of beer and "specialty drinks". They kept the upstairs the same and the host said they still have parties there like the old JA's did. He said you can reserve it anytime. I would definetly recommend this restaraunt. Anyone who enjoys a GREAT atmosphere and friendly people with GOOD food... THIS IS THE PLACE TO BE..

Adam Meada

Anonymous said...

Whoever posted the above comments must be a relative of the owner.

Anonymous said...

slowrider90042 is right. For all the fans of the original Far East Cafe, the legacy lives on at the New Formosa Cafe, 2415 E. Cesar Chavez Ave. (323)262-2936. It's owned & operated by the son of one of the original owners. Ask for the "original Far East favorites" menu. Call ahead to check opening hours. Call ahead for take-out orders.

Anonymous said...

I took my teenaged daughter on a small tour of old Los Angeles Chop Suey houses. Our first stop was the old Far East Cafe. The waiter was nice and eager to please. We only ordered eggrolls and wasabi fries because we were going to Paul's kitchen to bring food home.

Both were delicious, fried perfectly and not greasy. The eggrolls were stuffed with coarsely shredded cabbage that seemed really fresh. It had a crunch and was not mushy. You may think it was silly to go on about eggrolls, but I believe the rest of the menu might be judged on how they did the simple stuff. The sweet and sour sauce was the right old type color and texture.

This place beat Paul's Kitchen to bits. I was very dissapointed in Paul's. I wanted that old Cantonese comfort food, but what I got (6 dishes from chop suey to almond duck) was mushy, overcooked and/or tasteless. The eggrolls were mushy and overdone.

I'm going back to Far East aka Chop Suey Cafe. I believe thay are trying to partially keep the old menu alive to a certain extent. I also love that it feels like the old place (minus the gum under the table). It is still trying to get on its feet and I ask that people give it a chance and not listen to the folks that are used to the more athentic new Chinese. This is not what this place is about.

Like I said: They did a really good job on what we did order and I am going back.

koh said...

All my relatives worked there in the 80s when they came over from China. Even my dad admits it was crappy (by Chinese standards), but hey it was what the Japanese community wanted. Lots of grease.

Nonetheless I'm disappointed in the fusion burgers and etc. Reading about it ruined my childhood memories of me running around the place and freeloading on burnt cha sui and free cokes.

Also, the noodles are suppose to be hard and rigid, that's why they're awesome. I've always had to have a little of the crispy noodles before all the gravy weakened the rest of it. It's a canto style dish.

fareastmemories said...

WE gathered the surviving family relatives to have one last dinner at the Far East Cafe. We all had high hopes of tasting the homyu and almond duck from our childhood. We were very disappointed that even though homyu was listed on the menu, it was no longer offered. The staff said they had to stop making it because everyone complained that it was too strong.

We ordered seaweed soup, pressed almond duck, sweet & sour pork, pork chowmein, and chasu.

We foudn it very strang that the waiter brought the chasu before the seaweed soup. The seeweed soup was passable but lacked water chestnuts.

The almond duck was pasty with very little favor. The sweet & sour pork was passable. Like other reviewers, the chowmein had very hard noodle and little taste.

As we left, we all took in one last look at the wooden dividers and said farewell to the favorite chinese restaurant of our childhood. We took with us memories of numerous family meals. Sadly, none of us will ever return.

Anonymous said...

Food here was very bad,ordered 8 dishes all were awful,sadly we will never return.

Anonymous said...

Worst place to eat in LT!TK NAGANO

Anonymous said...

it was finally shut down re downtown news 11-17-08