When Mari was growing up, they only went to on e restaurant: Entoro in Little Tokyo. Entoro was also known as Far East Cafe, a chop suey house, the old kind before the new Chinese came to town. There, you got greasy homyu, looking like day-old Cream of Wheat in a tiny bowl; almond duck, slippery, fat and buttery with a crunch of fried skin and nuts; and real sweet and sour pork, bright, stinking orange like the best high-grade motor oil. Everyone went to Entoro, crowded around tables separated by wooden dividers like a giant maze of horse stalls. The upstairs area was open and reserved for special occasions. Someone married, go to Far East. Someone dead, go to Far East. It was simple and predictable. Same set of waiters, who doubled as the cooks, who happened to own the joint. And the menu, who bothered to even look? Mas wasn’t even sure they had menus, but seemed to remember a bewildered hakujin family, probably visiting from out-of-state, looking lost while they perused some kind of stained sheet of paper in front of them.
–SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 28
–FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), the movie starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe
In between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, I’ll be making good on an auction gift I donated to last year’s Bouchercon–a three-hour walking mystery tour of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
I’ll be taking the winner, a New Yorker no less, by the former location of the Yamato Hall, also known as the Tokyo Club, where gangsters and gamblers regularly frequented before World War II. I’ve heard various stories of murder and mayhem, and hopefully, can give specific dates and examples after snooping through old records of Japanese American National Museum.
There’s also koban, the Los Angeles Police Department way station–its creation led by the bean cake maker next door. A couple of blocks to the north is the Federal Building, where the L.A. riots began as a political protest in April 1992, then igniting into violence, leading to the burning of vehicles and the breaking of glass windows at the nearby New Otani Hotel. I’ll point out crime sites that either my staff or I covered during my tenure as reporter and editor of The Rafu Shimpo daily newspaper, including the case in which a very scary-looking man with possible underworld ties and his lawyer visited me one day.
But probably the most important site will be the most visibly arresting: the Far East Cafe, which was reopened this month as the Chop Suey Cafe and Lounge. Some Asian American youngsters take offense at the name, but growing up, I constantly heard, "chopu suey, chopu suey." Every Japantown throughout the Pacific West Coast had its own landmark chop suey house, and in Los Angeles from the 1960s until its closure in 1994 due to the Northridge earthquake, Far East Cafe was ours.
What is chop suey? Well, as mentioned above in the excerpt of my debut novel, the Far East Cafe standards were almond duck, sweet and sour pork, homyu (also spelled homu) made of fermented bean curd, and what else–chop suey. You won’t see most of these served in Mandarin or even many Cantonese restaurants these days. But this was the comfort food of Japanese America and mainstream America at one time. During one period of time, probably 90 percent of all Japanese American wedding celebrations and funerals luncheons took place at a chop suey restaurant.
Housed in an 1890s Beux-Arts building in the Little Tokyo Historic District, Far East Cafe opened its doors in the 1930s. Besides its exterior neon sign, the most distinctive feature of the eatery is the maze-like wooden stalls that divide the diners. There’s also a balcony where groups ate and children like myself blew paper from our straws into unsuspecting diners below.
Many period movies have been filmed in this historic restaurant, including the 1975 version of "Farewell, My Lovely" starring actor Robert Mitchum as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, now unfortunately out of print. It’s difficult to get a hold of the video, although it is readily available at a handful of libraries within the Los Angeles Public Library system. (I borrowed mine from Echo Park Public Library.) It’s a fun film, co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and George Pappas and including a brief cameo of a fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone during his pre-Rocky days. The Far East Cafe is only pictured in a very brief scene when Moose Malloy pays the "private dick" a visit. "I was having some Chinese food when a dark shadow fell over my chop suey," states actor Mitchum in the voice over. (I couldn’t find that line or a reference to a chop suey house in the book; if you can, please correct me in the comments section or send me an e-mail.)
It’s perhaps because the character of Philip Marlowe sat in one of the stalls of Far East that stories spread that his creator Raymond Chandler frequented the chop suey house. However, after making some e-mail inquiries to the Little Tokyo Service Center, which owns the restaurant property, I could not find any verification of this information.
Undoubtedly, Far East, with its close proximity to City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department, could have been a place that Chandler might have visited.
Yet, based on an article written by Judith Freeman on Raymond Chandler residences (he apparently lived in more than 30 houses and apartments, from downtown L.A. to Redondo Beach to Arcadia) for the Los Angeles Times on December 23, 2004, it doesn’t seem that he frequented anywhere for any length of time.
This past Monday an aspiring mystery writer, Elaine Yamaguchi, and I met for lunch at the Chop Suey Restaurant. I made a mistake and ordered the House Chow Mein instead of the Chicken Chop Suey under the Wok Classics section. I wanted that nostalgic taste that would take me back to my childhood and heyday of Far East. In another stall, I saw a group of elderly Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) men and women ordering the old classic dishes. In time, I smelled that pungent scent of homyu, nasty and familiar at the same time.
You can never go back home again, but then again, it felt good to be in a place where my beloved mystery genre and my personal history collide. I’ll definitely be back again to check out the old-school menu as well as try something different–the chashu sandwich with wasabi fries perhaps?
Chop Suey Cafe
347 East First Street
Little Tokyo (213) 617-9990
Parking has become a little tricky in Little Tokyo now with all the new condominium units. Lots are available on First Street–about $4-5 for a whole day. Make a day of it and go to Rafu Bussan and Utsuwa no Yakata for beautiful and inexpensive ceramics and the local grocery stores (Mitsuwa, Marukai, and Enbun) for some Japanese snacks. And, of course, the store at Japanese American National Museum and Kinokuniya Bookstore for what else–books!
More information about Far East and related topics:
- Far East’s biggest fan: Tony Osumi
- Far East’s biggest detractor who became a big fan through courtship and marriage: Tony Osumi’s wife, Jenni Kuida
- Current reviews of Chop Suey Restaurant
- Great blog on Little Tokyo and its changing facade, in word and pictures.
- Chop suey history
Photo credit: (Top) Wataru Ebihara (Bottom) Denny, co-author of LOS ANGELES: A WORLD CLASS CITY
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: oishii (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 29)
Delicious. Say it with gusto (OIIIII-shiiiiii) after you take a big bite of your favorite sushi and your itamaesan (sushi chef) will be so happy.