Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic Los Angeles neighborhood than Chinatown. The area has been lensed in films like Rush Hour (1998), Freaky Friday (2003), Starsky & Hutch (2004), and, of course, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).
Sited directly northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Chinatown is a vibrant community full of restaurants, shops, bars, and a seemingly endless list of things to do. However, Chinatown wasn’t always located where it is today—modern-day Chinatown was actually once known as New Chinatown. The original Chinatown, established in the mid-1800s, was located off of Olvera Street, south of its current incarnation. Most residents were priced out of the neighborhood (it would soon become a warehouse district) or relocated to make room for Union Station in the early 1900s. By the late 1930s, with the formation of the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association and the funds it raised for land acquisition and construction, the seeds of L.A.’s current Chinatown were sown.
Today, the city’s Chinatown is home to about 20,000 people and there’s much to be found in this legendary nabe. Here are the best things to eat, see, and do in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
What to do in L.A.’s Chinatown
Take the “Undiscovered Chinatown” Walking Tour
The Undiscovered Chinatown Tour, organized by the Chinatown Business Improvement District, takes place on the first Saturday of every month. On this 2.5-hour walking tour, which costs $20 per person, visitors will learn about off-the-beaten-track points of interest in the area and will explore antique stores, herbal shops, art galleries, and a temple. For those who are unable to make the monthly tour, the CBID also has self-guided walking tour materials available on its website—the complete walk spans two miles and would take about two to three hours to complete.
Visit the Chinese American Museum
The Chinese American Museum (CAM) opened its doors in 2003 within the oldest and last surviving structure of L.A.’s original Chinatown. CAM is dedicated to preserving L.A.’s Chinese immigrant legacy as well as Chinese American history in general. Current exhibitions include the history of boba drinks, from the cassava plant’s origins in South America to bubble tea’s Taiwanese roots, Origins: The Birth and Rise of Chinese American Communities in Los Angeles, which follows the growth and development of the Chinese American community in L.A., and a recreation of the Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop, a Chinese herbal store that was once housed in the Garnier Building. Admission starts at just $3 per adult.
Drink a Tea Cocktail at Steep L.A.
Steep L.A. is a modern teahouse located in Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza. Here, tea enthusiasts will find a wide selection of cold brewed and freshly brewed teas including black, green, oolong, jasmine, and pu’er, all sourced from China and Taiwan and handpicked by Steep’s founders, Samuel Wang and Lydia Lin. But for those looking for a tea-infused walk on the wild side, Steep has a “secret” menu, which begins after 4 p.m. and offers inventive tea-infused, alcoholic cocktails and small bar bites including a scallop tartare and mapo tofu rice. For fans of whiskey, an old-fashioned with black tea whiskey will certainly hit the spot.
The best places to eat in L.A.’s Chinatown
It may seem a little wacky to go to Chinatown for Nashville-style hot fried chicken, but Howlin’ Rays is more than a restaurant—it’s a phenomenon. This little chicken joint kindled an obsession with Nashville hot chicken all across the city, sparking hours-long waits at Howlin’ Rays and a series of copycat restaurants that popped up throughout the L.A. area. Here, diners will find tender chicken encased in a layer of crispy, hot batter. There’s the classic hot chicken sandwich, but also quarter birds, half birds, wings, and tenders on the menu. Don’t forget to order some crinkle-cut fries and collard greens to go with your order, and a banana pudding to finish the meal off couldn’t hurt. Keep in mind, while Howlin’ Rays used to provide table service prepandemic, it is currently pickup and local delivery only.
Pearl River Deli
This small, casual place is one of the hottest restaurants in the Chinatown area. Helmed by owner and chef Johnny Lee, who intends it to be a love letter to Cantonese comfort food, Pearl River Deli serves up southern Chinese classics like char siu, wonton soup, and curry fried rice. The menu does change frequently at Pearl River Deli (it is famous for its Hainanese chicken rice, which is occasionally served as a special), so be sure to check its Instagram for the current offerings.
Long’s Family Pastry
For Chinese pastry and dim sum cravings, it’s hard to beat Long’s Family Pastry. Zongzi (glutinous rice stuffed with savory fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves), egg tarts, cheung fun (a rolled rice noodle dish), baked char sui buns, pork shumai, shrimp har gow—Long’s does it all and at an affordable price. However, it’s not a sit-down restaurant; dim sum favorites here are ordered deli-style. But it’s not a bad idea to grab a few pork buns while you explore the rest of L.A.’s Chinatown.
Phoenix Bakery, established in 1938, has been in business for four generations. When the bakery first opened, founder F.C. Chan wanted it to be a meeting place for L.A.’s Chinese community and to offer baked Chinese goods that couldn’t be found at American bakeries. It soon garnered a reputation for its crisp almond cookies and fresh strawberry whipped cream cake. These days, Phoenix Bakery is considered an L.A. staple and is still best known for cookies and cakes. Fun fact: Phoenix’s iconic logo (a boy with a traditional Chinese-style haircut holding a bakery box behind his back) was designed by Disney illustrator Tyrus Wong, who’s largely responsible for the look and feel of Bambi (1942).
Where to shop in L.A.’s Chinatown
A few doors down from Howlin’ Rays is Los Angeles’s only store dedicated solely to cookbooks. Now Serving was founded in 2017 by Michelle Mungcal and her husband Ken Concepcion, who had worked as a chef for two decades, including at Wolfgang Puck’s Michelin-starred Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut. There are more than 1,500 different titles stocked at Now Serving at any time, as well as chef’s gear and accouterments, including knives, quirky ceramics, and tasting spoons. According to a 2018 interview with Bon Appétit, Mungcal and Concepcion are going for a bookshop with a “’80s/’90s record shop vibe” where “chefs, cooks, and home cooks can feel at home.”
Chunky Gifts is a go-to stop in Chinatown for cute and playful gifts designed by Asian American artists. Located inside the historical Golden Pagoda building (where the legendary Chinese American restaurant, Hop Louie, was once located), Chunky Gifts keeps an inventory full of things like mugs, T-shirts, teas, stickers, prints of pineapple buns, boba, and noodles, as well as red envelopes inspired by pop culture sensations like Super Nintendo Bros. and Everything Everywhere All At Once. It also has a large selection of organic teas and chile oils, for those who like to keep things spicy and interesting.
K.G. Louie Co.
K.G. Louie is a Chinatown O.G. and a mainstay in the neighborhood since it opened in 1938. The store will be celebrating its 85th anniversary later in 2023 and has remained in the Louie family for three generations. At K.G. Louie, shoppers will find traditional Chinese gifts and cookbooks as well as vintage tea sets and silverware. According to a 2008 article in the L.A. Times, the current owners of K.G. Louie don’t keep the store going for profits—but rather, to pay homage to their parents, who were among the first tenants of Chinatown’s Central Plaza.
Where to stay in and near L.A.’s Chinatown
At Hotel Figueroa, guests will find a mix of Spanish contemporary design and Moroccan-inspired influences. Founded in 1926, the hotel was once an exclusively women’s hostelry by the YWCA and is thought to be one of the first large hotel properties owned by and intended for women in the nation. Hotel Figueroa opened its doors to men in 1928 and quickly became the spot for artists, celebrities, and musicians in L.A. These days, it’s still a popular meeting place for creative types. There are 268 rooms at Hotel Fig, and it is only a 10-minute drive from Chinatown.
Biltmore Los Angeles
Constructed in 1923, the Biltmore is a Beaux-Arts-style hotel that’s just a 10- minute walk from the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as a 10-minute drive from Chinatown. Frescoes, murals, oak-paneled walls, heavy chandeliers, and carved marble fountains adorn the interior of the Biltmore, where guests can dine at three different restaurants. When the Biltmore first opened, it was the largest hotel west of the Mississippi at 1,500 rooms—it now has 683.
Conrad Los Angeles
The Conrad Los Angeles made its debut in 2022 with much fanfare—it was designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry. It’s 28 stories tall and boasts 305 rooms, plus four different dining and bar options, including the rooftop restaurant Agua Viva, created by Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur José Andrés. It’s a five-minute drive from the Conrad to Chinatown.