When one hears the words “Chinese food,” it might conjure a variety of impressions. From Americanized Chinese food (Panda Express, PF Chang’s) all the way down to legit mom & pop hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and beyond, there’s a wide spectrum.
When you hear about “modern” or “elevated Chinese food” we’ve seen all sorts of interpretations, from serious attempts by hometown talent like Kato (tasting menu format, trying to aim for Michelin Stars) to Nightshade (fancy, but a la carte), to something like Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills.
But then you get something that’s a bit more humble, casual, with lower prices, driven by some younger generation Chinese Chefs that seek to at once preserve and elevate what “Chinese food” is all about, for a wider audience, a new generation without needing to drop triple digits for a meal.
That’s what we found as we visited Needle (in Silver Lake) and Pearl River Deli (in Chinatown).
Pearl River Deli
Opened by Chef Johnny Lee (who previously launched & sold Side Chick from his own Hainan Chicken Rice Pop-Up series), Pearl River Deli seems to have similar, but greater aspirations: Instead of focusing to perfect 1 dish, at Pearl River Deli, they seem to be seeking to preserve and elevate multiple dishes from all across China, with a focus on Cantonese cuisine.
Char Siu Pork Combo:
Reading the early reports on FTC, it seems Pearl River Deli started with a standard lean Pork base, but during our 1st visit, they had just switched over to using Pork Neck (similar to what Ming Kee does!). This sounded intriguing.
Taking a bite: It’s mainly a lean Pork base with a bit of fattiness, but still retaining a meaty bite. It’s not overly sweet and thankfully not flaming red from artificial food coloring (as seen in most local places). There’s a nice bit of bark on the outside and it’s already the best Char Siu we’ve had in the L.A. area. It doesn’t come close to Ming Kee, but we were impressed with what Chef Lee had accomplished.
Macau Pork Chop Bun:
We had never heard of a “Macau Pork Chop Bun” before, but apparently it’s common in Macau and Hong Kong. Chef Lee makes this approachable, without any intimidation: A simple English name on the menu, $10 and the taste:
Taking a bite… Oh my gosh! How have we been denied this in L.A. for so long?! Why didn’t I have this available as a meal option instead of the Golden Arches?!
You get this soft, pliant, fresh-baked Pineapple Bun, which adds a touch of light sweetness, and then you hit the fresh, juicy, moist, bone-in Heritage Pork Chop! It’s fried to a perfect doneness, is tender and meaty, and you get a deeply savory, umami note from Caramelized Onions and a Housemade Maggi-Aioli Sauce! Wow!
The flavor bomb here is indescribable! Outstanding!
Hainan Chicken Rice:
We were plenty familiar with Chef Johnny Lee’s Hainan Chicken Rice, first from the Chinatown Pop-Up series (which was outstanding), to the later brick and mortar store, Side Chick. As we noted in the Hainan Chicken Journey, it seemed Side Chick had gone downhill (Chef Lee confirmed it was already sold by then), and we weren’t sure how Pearl River Deli’s version might turn out.
It was fantastic!
Just cooked through, fresh, vibrant Chicken. As Chef Lee notes, their Chickens are from the same farm as Mary’s Chickens, and you can taste the quality here. The Chicken meat (both white and dark) are moist and tender, not dried out at all (unlike some unevenness we experienced at Side Chick), the Hainan Chicken Rice had a light Chicken Broth infusion and then you get the trio of Sauces:
Sweet Soy Sauce, Ginger Scallion Sauce, Cosmic Sass Fermented Hot Sauce (from Chinese Laundry):
The Ginger Scallion Sauce with the Hainan Chicken is the magic combo. Delicious flavor bomb! The Sweet Soy Sauce is fine and tasty, the Cosmic Sass Fermented Hot Sauce is OK. It’s a step up from Side Chick’s version, but I’d have to say we enjoy Savoy’s trio of Sauces more (@JeetKuneBao).
While Savoy is clearly a step down for the Chicken quality, there’s a reason they are still so popular: Their trio of Sauces are ridiculous. It somehow becomes even better when you mix their 3 Sauces in various combinations (it’s like some strange alchemy!), but it doesn’t really work here (or at any other places we tried on our Hainan Chicken Journey).
Still besides that, this is probably the best Hainan Chicken Rice in L.A. right now for quality Chicken and Chicken Rice.
Opened by Chef Ryan Wong, when we first heard about Needle from an Eater LA article, we were in no rush to go. There had been no FTC reports and the menu didn’t sound that intriguing at first. However, hearing @euno proclaim it had the best Char Siu in LA and then @JeetKuneBao visiting and enjoying the meal, we had to give it a try.
Their menu is similar to Pearl River’s in that both are in English only. Simple names, accessible prices ($8 - $13 for the Brunch Menu).
Pork Chop Bun (Pork Loin, Milk Bread, Spicy Salt Relish, Pickled Cucumber):
Chef Wong also had his own Pork Chop Bun on the menu. How did it compare to Pearl River Deli’s? Taking a bite…
The overall Pork Chop Bun is a bit more oily and greasy (but not overwhelmingly so), but the Pork Loin was quality, moist and juicy, and the seasoning was definitely on the more savory side, with the Spicy Salt Relish, Green Onions, almost evoking a classic Hong Kong / Cantonese Spicy Salted Pork Chops.
The Milk Bun was soft, but also a bit greasy, but the overall bite was delicious!
We enjoyed Pearl River Deli’s Pork Chop Bun more, our friends enjoyed Needle’s more (just barely). Either of them were outstanding and worth a visit!
Chicken Congee (Shredded Chicken, Dried Scallop, Shimeji, Scallions, Peanuts, Wonton Crisps):
Unfortunately, their Chicken Congee was nowhere near as revelatory: It wasn’t bad, but it tasted like a standard Congee you’d find at many places around the SGV. Medium thick Congee, the Shimeji Mushrooms and Dried Scallops were a nice touch, but the Chicken meat? It tasted old (like leftovers in the refrigerator, perhaps from the previous night’s unsold Chicken). The Thousand Year Old Egg isn’t made in-house (but understandable, given the time, effort), and tasted fine.
But we were here for their Char Siu, which sadly was only available for Dinner, so we had to return for another try.
One of the more impressive aspects of Needle is their selection of quality Chinese Tea Leaves. They have 6 different types:
Royal Big Red Robe Tea:
It was earthy, silky, almost “creamy” and fragrant! Outstanding!
Cucumber, Black Garlic, Sesame:
Crisp, refreshing, this was a welcome different take on the usual Cucumber with Garlic found around various Chinese restaurants in the SGV. Clearly, something more elevated, the Cucumbers were coated in a tasty Black Garlic Sauce that wasn’t too garlicky, but something smoother, creamier, with a bit of nuttiness from the Sesame Seeds.
Char Siu (Pork Shoulder, Honey Glaze, Hot Mustard):
Taking a bite into this succulent, mouth-watering, quivering, ultra-tender, slow-roasted Char Siu Pork Shoulder was like taking a bite into happiness.
Absolutely RIDICULOUS how delicious this was!
It’s like the most tender, moist, almost fall-apart bite of porcine joy outside of decadent Pork Belly. All this achieved by Pork Shoulder no less! @euno was right:
Needle’s Char Siu is easily the best Char Siu in L.A. by leaps and bounds! As much as we enjoyed Pearl River Deli’s Char Siu (and that was already better than the other places we’ve tried around town for years), Needle’s was that much better.
Is it better than Ming Kee BBQ’s legendary Pork Neck Char Siu? It’s different. This is very much a higher quality cut of Pork, thicker slice. Ming Kee’s version is amazing in its own way.
Beef Short Rib Clay Pot:
This was Chef Wong’s interpretation of that classic Beef Brisket Clay Pot dish, here using a quality cut of Beef Short Rib meat instead. First, the visuals don’t do it justice (as it looks a bit dark and hard to see). But taking a bite:
Luscious, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth tender morsels of Beef Short Rib. WOW! SO GOOD!
The Daikon Radish soaked in the slow cooked Soy Sauce based Sauce was tasty as well. The bit of Fried Tofu Skin on top was a nice touch.
Needle is advancing the very notion of what “Modern Chinese food” can be: The menu feels like a homage to classic Chinese dishes, but with a genuine, earnest attempt to elevate the cuisine and make it more accessible at the same time.
We were hoping to go back and try it a 3rd time before writing about it, but then the pandemic hit and Needle closed. Thankfully they are back for Takeout, albeit with a very limited menu. Hopefully they will bring back their entire menu and we can see more of Chef Ryan Wong’s cooking prowess. If nothing else, be sure to stop by and try their Pork Chop Bun, and their Char Siu Pork Shoulder (best in L.A.!).
3827 W. Sunset Blvd., #C
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Pearl River Deli (Revisit)
Hakka Pork Belly with Mustard Greens:
We had actually done a round of SGV visits before this 2nd visit to Pearl River Deli, to get a sense of how some typical hole-in-the-walls were doing Hakka Pork Belly with Mustard Greens. Then we tried Pearl River’s version.
First, it’s admirable and awesome that Chef Lee is making his own Mei Tsai (or Preserved Mustard Greens). The flavors for the Housemade version are excellent, fragrant and familiar, but not as overly salty or strong as some versions in the SGV (using mass produced versions). That and some Steamed Rice was a great bite.
Unfortunately the Pork Belly we had was dry and chunky. The Pork Belly slivers should be luscious and tender, and succulent, but maybe we got a bad batch? For this visit it was a real letdown.
R.I.P. Curry House:
Yes! Chef Lee made his own tribute to Curry House’s Japanese Curry when it was suddenly announced that all Curry House locations closed permanently.
Excellent! This truly tasted like an elevated, less gloppy, more smooth and creamy and delicious version of Curry House’s Japanese Curry! The Chicken meat used was fresher and higher quality than what Curry House uses, and it was just a comforting dish and worth a try for all Japanese Curry fans out there! (@JeetKuneBao @paranoidgarliclover @PorkyBelly @J_L and others.)
Char Siu Pork & Ribs Combo:
Thanks to a strong recommendation from @J_L, we decided to give their Char Siu Pork Ribs a try:
Amazing! The Pork Ribs are roasted to a tender, moist consistency, with a nice crisp exterior crust. The caramelized Sauce and flavors on the exterior, lightly sweet, savory, is the essence of “Char Siu” but in Pork Rib form! This was delicious and easily our favorite version over the standard Char Siu! So good! (@JeetKuneBao @PorkyBelly @beefnoguy and others.)
The Char Siu Pork Neck slices today were even better than our last visit, a good mix of lean with a bit of fattiness. If it wasn’t for Needle, these would be the best we’ve had in L.A., but in light of Needle, these were good, but not the same.
Soy Sauce Chicken:
We knew that Chef Lee had mastered Hainan Chicken, so we figured his version of Soy Sauce Chicken (a classic Cantonese / Hong Kong BBQ offering) would be great.
We figured right.
Perfectly cooked through Chicken. The Chicken Breast and Wing portions were moist and supple. There was a good quality Soy Sauce flavor coming through the Chicken Skin, but it didn’t really permeate deep into the Chicken. To be fair most places around the SGV’s Soy Sauce Chicken is similar in that regard (no permeation), Ming Kee BBQ probably has the best version we’ve tried.
But Pearl River Deli’s Soy Sauce Chicken with a bit of the Green Onion and Ginger Sauce is easily the best in L.A.! Outstanding! (@J_L @JeetKuneBao @PorkyBelly @paranoidgarliclover @beefnoguy @A5KOBE @Ns1 and others.)
Macau Pork Chop Bun:
We were almost scared to order this again, unsure if the first time we had this incredible dish was a fluke or a dream.
The Macau Pork Chop Bun was just as great as the 1st visit! Perfectly fried, crispy, juicy, succulent, balanced flavors, the Caramelized Onions, Housemade Maggi Aioli, the Pineapple Bun for a bit of sweetness. SO GOOD! (And definitely less greasy than Needle’s after comparing again on this visit.)
Char Siu Pork and Pork Ribs Combo (w/ Egg Noodles):
This time we decided to order the Char Siu Combo with Egg Noodles for 2 reasons. One, to try the tasty Char Siu Pork Neck and Pork Ribs with Noodles (it was fine), and two, for a hack (below).
The Char Siu Pork Ribs were as delicious as before. This is definitely our favorite of the two choices. The Char Siu Pork Neck was meaty and very good, but the Ribs were just better for our taste preferences.
Silkie Chix Bone Broth:
This was a lightly herbal, complex, delicious Chicken Bone Soup (using Black Chicken). The freshness and purity was excellent, but we found it a touch too sweet (perhaps the Loquat fruit? or the Goji Berries).
Egg Noodle Soup Hack:
We took some of the Egg Noodles and made a hack, dropping it into the Silkie Chix Bone Broth. This was pretty tasty, but the sweetness threw things slightly off for us, otherwise a great Chicken Noodle Soup.
Zhong (or Zongzi) are made with Glutinous Rice wrapped in Bamboo Leaves, we were excited to try Pearl River Deli’s version. Taking a bite:
Quality, beautiful Glutinous Rice that’s soft and pliant enough with good structure, but then you get to the filling:
Really fresh, succulent Pork, Mushrooms and Peanuts in a perfectly balanced savory marinade that wasn’t too salty like some versions (nor too bland). Outstanding!
Salt Baked Chicken:
This was merely OK. The Chicken Skin wasn’t very crispy or crisped. As you can see in the photos above, the subcutaneous fat was all unrendered, not cooked down, which made for an unappetizing bite.
This new special felt like an experiment, like a test, and lacked the finesse and excellence that Chef Lee exhibits with Hainan Chicken.
Tomato Egg Stir Fry:
We don’t understand what the appeal is over Tomato & Eggs, but seeing @JeetKuneBao’s excitement, it clearly must be something cultural, a classic Chinese dish of some sort? Taking a bite:
Tasty! It is indeed Sauteed Tomatoes and Eggs together in one dish, but as basic as it might sound, it works well. For someone who never ate this growing up, I can see the appeal: There’s umami, tart and sweet and savory from the Tomatoes and silky Scrambled Eggs and it goes great over Rice.
This classic Dim Sum Dumpling offering makes an appearance at Pearl River Deli!
The first bite yields a quality Ground Pork meatiness. There’s no filler that plagues many versions of this dish at average Dim Sum houses around town. But it feels a bit too rustic and one note. It’s not bad, you can taste the quality Pork, but it feels like it’s missing the nuance and complexity of the best Siu Mai we’ve had. Even solid Siu Mai at places like Sea Harbour and China Red, etc. have a bit more zesty flavor to them than these.
Macau Baked Chicken:
This is another dish we’ve never had before, ever. But thanks to seeing it on Pearl River Deli’s simple English menu, and a fair price ($12) we gave it a try.
First, there’s melted Cheese on top of this Chinese dish. This is probably more common with HK Cafes (as @JeetKuneBao explained), but for someone who’s never had this before, it was a bit of a shock to see Melted Cheese and (traditional) Chinese food in the same dish.
Digging underneath it, we find an absolutely delicious Chinese Curry with Chicken and Vegetables and Rice! The Melted Cheese adds some stringy, melty, gooeyness, but the dish was very good even with just Chef Lee’s Chinese Curry and Rice. The Curry flavors here are very simple clean, Curry Powder / Curry Spice flavor, not as deep or complex as Indian or Thai Curries, but that’s the style. We really enjoyed this.
Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese-style Egg Custard Tarts):
Wow! Pearl River Deli offers their own version of Dan Taat, or Egg Custard Tart! Taking a bite:
The Egg Custard within is lightly sweet and balanced, but it’s not as creamy and even as versions like Natas Pastries (our favorites when eaten hot), or Jim’s Bakery (when their Po Tarts are just out of the oven). The Shell is good, but a bit too thick.
Their Fried Chicken Wings were fine. They feel like a filler item on the menu, not bad, but the execution was just OK: The Chicken Wings weren’t crispy or crunchy, the exterior a bit flabby (this was eaten immediately after we picked it up To-Go to minimize any steaming in the container).
This is a newer dish, clearly not a Cantonese / HK dish, but something Chef Lee saw fit to add to the menu. Unlike some of the other new items, this one tastes like it was mastered by Chef Lee and a labor of love:
It is incredible! Spicy, mouth-watering, just enough heat to punch you in the mouth, but not overwhelm you, the silken cubes of Tofu and Ground Pork and balanced Hot Sauce all combine to make one of the best versions of Mapo Tofu we’ve had in a long time! Tasty! (@JeetKuneBao @PorkyBelly @paranoidgarliclover and others.)
White Cut Chicken (1/2):
This was a touch overcooked, but otherwise delicious. The Chicken Breast meat was a bit overcooked compared to Chef Lee’s wonderful Hainan Chicken and Soy Sauce Chicken dishes. Perhaps it was just a bad batch for us, but the rest of the bites were very good. The Ginger Scallion Sauce and that Chicken combine for magic! So good.
(New) Pork Jowl Char Siu:
Yes, Chef Lee decided to branch out and try Char Siu with Pork Jowl! Just look at the striations of succulent Pork Fat and some Pork Lean Meat in the pics.
Taking a bite:
Decadent. Lush. It looks like pure Pork Fat, but the actual bite has some firmness and structure to it. There’s enough lean meat to make each bite taste actually meaty, but then you get a rush of luscious porcine fat and flavor.
(However I only ate 2 pieces and was full.)
This is one of the best versions of Char Siu in L.A. right now, we liked it more than Chef Lee’s Char Siu Pork Neck, but the Char Siu Ribs might still be the best. We need more “research.”
Beef and Tendon Stew Over Noodles:
This is stupid good!
Deeply flavored, long-stewed, tender meaty chunks of lean Beef and silky, ultra tender, succulent bites of Stewed Beef Tendon in one of the best versions of Beef & Tendon Stew we’ve ever had! Don’t miss this (@JeetKuneBao @PorkyBelly @J_L @paranoidgarliclover @beefnoguy @A5KOBE @Ns1 and others.)
Like Needle, Pearl River Deli features a younger Chinese Chef striving to bring Chinese food to the forefront of conversation here in L.A. Not in a fancy, haute cuisine sort of way, but just with earnest, humble, pure cooking and little touches to elevate Chinese food into something more approachable and accessible.
You see it in Chef Lee’s Hainan Chicken Rice, arguably the best in L.A. (although we still love Savoy’s Trio of Sauces more). Supple, moist, perfectly cooked Chicken, Chicken-infused Rice. The Char Siu Pork Neck is very good, but the Char Siu Pork Jowl is even better and more decadent. The Char Siu Pork Ribs might be one of the best ways to enjoy Char Siu in the city right now.
There are times when Pearl River Deli feels like it’s grasping for a “new hit” and the new dishes feel unpolished (needing more time for mastery). The Hakka Pork Belly and Mustard Greens suffered from dry and chewy Pork Belly. The Salt Baked Chicken lacked any crisped skin and had too much unrendered fat. The Siu Mai were meaty but a bit one note.
But thankfully those are just minor hiccups as the main dishes continue to shine. Besides the Hainan Chicken, Chef Lee’s Soy Sauce Chicken is outstanding and the best in L.A. right now, easily topping all of the SGV HK BBQ places we’ve tried. The R.I.P. Curry House was a great homage to Curry House’s Japanese Curry, but the Macau Baked Chicken (with a bed of Housemade Chinese Chicken Curry) might be even better.
And don’t sleep on the incredible Zhong (Zongzi), the Glutinous Rice stuffed with succulent Pork, Mushrooms and Peanuts. The Mapo Tofu is one of the best versions around town, and that mouth-watering succulent Beef & Tendon Stew over Noodles!
And don’t ever leave Pearl River Deli without trying the Macau Pork Chop Bun at least once. Howlin’ Ray’s started the Fried Chicken Sandwich revolution, and Chef Lee’s Macau Pork Chop Bun has the awesomeness and deliciousness to start another movement.
Pearl River Deli
727 N. Broadway, #130
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (626) 688-9507
(Check their IG for latest specials and updates):
Update 2: Amazing Soy Sauce Chicken, Khao Man Gai, Gai Yang, Thai Green Curry, Stunning Gyudon (Beef Bowl) and more!
Update 3 (To-Go): Needle’s Beef & Tendon Stew, Pork Chop Rice and HK-Style French Toast, Pearl River’s Amazing Stewed Beef Short Ribs, Tendon and Radish, Tofu Pudding and more!
Update 4 (To-Go): Needle’s Char Siu Pork Belly Kit To-Go and Pearl River Revisit with Beef Short Ribs & Tendon Rice!
Update 5 (To-Go): The Best Wonton Noodle Soup in L.A.!
Update 6 (To-Go): A Tribute to Vietnam: Banh Nam (Steamed Rice Dumpling), Com Ga Hoi An (Shredded Chicken Herb Salad over Turmeric Chicken Rice), Grilled Lemongrass Pork Chop Rice and more!
Update 7 (To-Go): Hakka Pork Belly returns, More Wonton Noodle Soup and Beef Short Rib, Tendon Stew!