When Pearl River Deli popped up in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza in February of last year, it represented a culmination of a journey for chef Johnny Lee.
Lee had been quietly working in the background of LA’s madly percolating avant-dining scene for several years. He consulted with the group behind Side Chick, the Hainan chicken rice specialists in Arcadia. Lee was also chef-de-cuisine for Alvin Cailan, when Eggslut moved into Grand Central Market.
Lee’s first independent venture — Pearl River Deli — quickly assumed a place of prominence in Far East Plaza. Sharing the wide spotlight there with other Downtown culinary stars, including Howlin’ Ray’s, Cailan’s Amboy Quality Meats & Delicious Burgers and Lasita, Lee’s Pearl River Deli was a perfect fit.
Lee spent his early years in Lincoln Heights and Highland Park. His uncles and other family members worked in Chinatown and San Gabriel Valley restaurants, but they weren’t the owners. Lee graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in business administration in 2008, in the depths of the economic downturn.
“I graduated at a pretty terrible time, when the housing crash happened,” Lee said.
“I ended up working for a family friend who had opened a restaurant, in of all places, the state of Colorado. It lasted less than a year, but I really enjoyed working in hospitality. I decided to come back to LA and pursue the cooking side of it.”
Pearl River Deli began as a pop-up in its space at Far East Plaza. Opening in anticipation of Chinese New Year, just weeks before the onset of the pandemic, Lee credits Far East’s landlord and property manager George Yu for supporting the fledgling operation and for helping to revitalize Chinatown.
“He’s been keeping Chinatown alive,” Lee said.
“George offers resources and help and support. He helps to navigate the legacy businesses there to stay relevant, stay alive. I spent a lot of my youth in Chinatown. My parents and I noticed everybody left for the SGV. It took resources and community out of Chinatown. There hasn’t been much reinvestment from the community itself.”
Yu maintained flexible terms with Lee as the business launched.
“We popped up around the end of February,” Lee said. “We went month to month. We didn’t know how it was going to play out. Once we figured out the pandemic, we had a little more confidence to sign a lease.”
Apparently, the strategy works. Lee and his colleagues at Far East Plaza all appear to be thriving.
Pearl River Deli’s Cantonese-centric menu is sparse but thorough in its attention to classic plates. Lee’s irresistibly succulent char-siu barbecue preparation opens 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 plate ($12) features chicken thighs prepared in classic Cantonese fashion with a seasoned soy sauce braise and is served with vegetables and rice or noodles.
The two-item combo plate ($15) includes generous paired portions of the char siu pork and soy sauce chicken, served with the same choice of accompaniments.
The aptly named chow fun ($11/$14) tosses beef or mushrooms in a stir fry with wide rice noodles and can be prepared for vegans.
Wonton soup noodle ($12) combines yu choy and egg noodles with five handmade wontons stuffed with pork and shrimp. The Macau pork chop bun ($10) stands as the lone sandwich option.
The pork can also be purchased in half-pound portions ($9) to take home. Two leg and thigh portions of the soy sauce chicken are the same price. Mapo tofu ($11) prepped with either beef or mushroom is also available a la carte. A recently added offering is Hainan chicken rice ($16), which is available Saturdays and Sundays only. Given Lee’s background with Side Chick, it’s likely worth a weekend trip to the plaza.
In addition to local adulation for his food, Lee is making a reputation as a fair employer, who maintains an ethical workplace.
“I’ve worked in a couple other restaurants, where there was toxic management,” Lee said.
“They were never supportive of the cooks. I’ve always been one to champion the line cooks because we’re the ones making the food. If you pay them a respectful wage, you’ll get a respectful product in the end. In this day and age, I’ve seen too many people burn out and leave the industry. I want to make sure we all have some quality of life, a work/life balance.”
Ultimately, he acknowledged 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 very supportive of us and open-minded,” said Lee, remarking on the challenge of opening a new Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown.
“Everybody comes with preconceived notions of what the food should be. We don’t do fried rice and we don’t have egg rolls. We just don’t want to do those things and we don’t have the ability to do those things, even if we wanted to. It goes to show, and it reflects the diversity of the diners in Downtown and the surrounding areas. I’ve met so many people from all walks of life and all professions. For me, it’s the most interesting group of people to see. They’re coming because they actually want to eat the food.”
Specializing in mindfully rendered and slightly elevated but accessible takes on classic Cantonese cuisine, Pearl River Deli has been so successful that Lee is looking to expand.
Lee recently said he will open 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 affirmed the move with a proviso.
“We will be keeping our space at Far East Plaza, as well,” he said.
As to the name and approach of the new venue, much remains to be seen.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Lee said. “Initially, we’re just going to do a couple test runs and get a feel for the space, before we decide on how we want to brand it. It’s going to be more of a dinner restaurant, a place where you can actually have people sit down and serve alcohol.”
He cited Ku’s Pine & Crane as a service model for more informal counter ordering.
“We’re probably not going to take possession of the space until sometime next month (October),” Lee said. “At the earliest, I would estimate sometime in November we’ll start doing a soft opening or limited test runs.”
The new venue’s menu will stay focused on Cantonese cuisine, but Lee hopes to take advantage of a larger kitchen and an indoor dining room.
“When we were doing our Friday dinners outside of Pearl River Deli, we realized the challenges of running that kind of menu out of that space,” Lee said.
“It feels a bit difficult because we have a very small kitchen. The outdoor (format) was not ideal for what we’re trying to do with the communal shared area that we share with other tenants. I just want a space, where I can more closely control the experience and provide an environment that is aesthetically pleasing and actually has air conditioning.
“There were certain things we avoided serving in the summer outside because nobody wants a steaming, bubbling hot clay pot in the middle of summer. Also having more space and a larger kitchen allows us to (expand the menu). It gives us more confidence to serve special items like lobster and crab.”
Pearl River Deli
727 N. Broadway, Los Angeles