Monterey Park, CA and the Culinary Authenticity of Suburban Chinatowns

Monterey Park became the first suburb that Chinese people would drive for hours to visit and eat in, for the same reasons earlier generations of immigrants had sought out the nearest urban Chinatown. And the changing population and the wealth they brought with them created new opportunities for all sorts of business people, especially aspiring restaurateurs. The typical Chinese American restaurant made saucy, ostentatiously deep-fried concessions to mainstream appetites, leading to the ever-present rumor that most establishments had “secret menus” meant for more discerning eaters. It might be more accurate to say that most chefs at Chinese restaurants are more versatile than they initially let on—either that or families like mine possess Jedi-level powers of off-the-menu persuasion. But in a place like Monterey Park, the pressure to appeal to non-Chinese appetites disappeared. The concept of “mainstream” no longer held; neck bones and chicken feet and pork bellies and various gelatinous things could pay the bills and then some.

While the old Chinatown was all clutter, meats that still resembled animals roasting in windows, and chopsticks typefaces, the new, more privileged one wouldn’t be obligated to play games. It didn’t beg for attention, for there was a surplus of space in the suburbs, and nobody’s cooking smells had to disturb anyone else. Rather than being confined to the worst parts of town, these new immigrants generally possessed the freedom to go where they pleased.

With the rapid expansion of the transpacific economy, Monterey Park was inevitable, particularly in California in the late 1980s and 1990s. Once Monterey Park was established, the model spread through neighboring communities in the greater San Gabriel Valley just outside Los Angeles. The same thing was happening in Santa Clara County in the Bay Area, bolstered by a burgeoning tech industry and the relative proximity to Asia. Good schools, the stability of suburban life, and abundant space were attractive traits of Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut, the outer rings of Houston and Dallas. These became the new centers of Chinese life in America, similar in function to big-city Chinatowns but different in their privilege and access to the newest overseas trends.

Hua Hsu writing in Lucky Peach about the rise of Monterey Park, CA and other suburban Chinatowns.

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