Rachelle Liu and Kathleen Chen
Pearl River Deli: Cantonese Tradition Through a Modern Lens
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
If you are searching for Cantonese comfort food, an ethically run business, or a new Chinatown favorite, Pearl River Deli is the place for you. With Pearl River Deli, Chef Johnny Lee is forging a new path and putting a modern lens on traditional Cantonese flavor while preserving his heritage and contributing to the revival of Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
Chef Johnny lived most of his life in the Los Angeles area, with much of it spent growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. Johnny has been working in restaurants for over a decade now, and entered the industry after graduating from college during the last financial recession in 2008. Johnny opened Pearl River Deli through a perfect mixture of timing and opportunity. Johnny had just returned to Los Angeles after working in Chicago for a year and wanted to do a concept that was completely his own. As a lucky coincidence, Johnny had a pre-existing relationship with the landlord for Pearl River Deli’s current location who offered him the space. This was crucial, and “if it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would’ve been financially able to open something,” Johnny says.
Johnny’s determination to do something completely his own led him to his roots: Cantonese cuisine. Johnny and his family hail from the Guangdong region, and Cantonese cuisine is what he grew up eating. He chose to open Pearl River Deli to keep his heritage alive and preserve those traditional flavors during a time when it seemed to be fading out. He says, “As I was working in this industry I kind of realized that no one is really cooking this food on a more modern professional level, there’s not too many other restaurants.” In addition to a lack of representation, he also noticed the Cantonese language fading out in China, the unrest in Hong Kong, and even the demographics of the San Gabriel Valley starting to shift. “It feels like we’ve been marginalized in our own community, in some ways. And I noticed that a lot of people my age who were also Cantonese were not really cooking the food or weren’t really familiar with the food.” Johnny decided to take action, and was determined to contribute to keeping his culture alive through Pearl River Deli. “I wanted to do something where I could keep those nostalgic flavors going and have a place where people could come in and keep the traditional cuisine alive.”
Johnny first opened Pearl River Deli as a pop up shop in January of 2020 when their landlord allowed them to try out the space. Johnny and his team decided to take things month by month and like the rest of the world, had no idea of what the rest of the year had in store. After a couple months, they decided they “could probably make this work and try to weather through the pandemic.” He describes the experience, and says, “We kind of kept it very barebones for a while at the beginning, but as we started to expand our staff we were very careful about how we approached everything. I wanted to make sure that everyone felt safe working here.” One example of this was intentionally opening for five days a week in order to work with one set of employees consistently throughout the week without fear of overlapping schedules and increased risk of exposure.
Pearl River Deli’s location in Chinatown also contributed to Johnny’s decision to persist. He says, “I always wanted to do something in Chinatown because I grew up coming here a lot and for me trying to do something to try to modernize and bring people back to Chinatown was always something that I felt I wanted to do and be a part of.” Many of the spaces that his family grew up frequenting are now closed and inactive, but because with new restaurants and businesses coming onto the scene he is able to feel new hope for Chinatown’s revival.
Johnny’s journey into food strays from a typical path, and is one his parents wanted to shield him from. He shares, “My parents always wanted me to do a traditional more white collar kind of job, just because they knew how difficult and how much work working in a restaurant was. But I think for me, I always wanted to do something more creative so I could see the result of my own labor. Working in an office, it almost just feels like you’re just a cog in a machine. So it wasn’t really something that appealed to me.”
Pearl River Deli is unique because of its modern takes on preserving traditional Cantonese cuisine. One key aspect that makes this possible is the Pearl River Deli Team. Johnny explains, “All of us are pretty young and I’m pretty much the oldest person there at 34. And by coincidence most of my employees also grew up in the SGV so we all have this kind of Americanized, Asian American modern worldview. So I don’t feel like we’re held back in some ways by doing things in the traditional way because we try to approach things with a more modern lens. We want to try to keep things as traditional as possible and maintain those traditional flavors for people who are seeking that kind of nostalgic flavor, but at the same time we don’t see the harm in trying to modernize the process to get there. To make things easier for us and to make the quality a little better and more consistent.”
In addition to modernizing cooking techniques, Johnny is also working to modernize business practices. He says, “The thing I most want people to get from my food is that we’re an ethically run business. We’re trying to run a business where we’re not dependent on paying people the least amount possible just so that we can rival prices. So we tend to charge a bit more, but it goes to ensure that we’re employing everyone ethically and source ingredients locally and ethically as well. Usually most Chinese restaurants are not taking those into consideration because there is always pressure to keep prices low. We’re hoping that people will support the ideas that we want to encourage, and by being able to pay a higher price that they will buy into those ideals too and support us.”
Visit Pearl River Deli!
Address: 727 N Broadway #130, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (Far East Plaza)
Order: trycaviar.com, doordash.com
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