For the self-congratulatory members of the cult of culinary authenticity, starvation is preferable to eating at a chain restaurant. Fast food in particular, with its industrial model of production, is the profane opposite of “artisanal.” The apparent mission of the chain — to appeal to as many people as possible — is anathema to the foodie’s pornographic fetishization of obscurity. The lower rated by the Health Department, the better and bonus points are awarded for leaky ceilings, clutter, flickering fluorescent tubes, layers of greasy dust, and lack of readable signage.
For fans of chains, the same qualities which repulse foodies are chief amongst their appeals. Their consistency means comfort and safety. Although there are variations in their menus from country to country when a familiar international chain opens it’s like getting a package from a friend from overseas. Bright lights and sterility are plusses, almost as essential as unflattering employee uniforms and frequently creepy mascots.
Most of us, I assume, find ourselves somewhere between these poles. Sometimes (often when hungry, tired, and perhaps drunk) safe and boring is preferable to rolling the dice with the unknown. Or as Ralph Wiggum memorably put it when he once again spoke for us all, “I’m so hungry I could eat at Arby’s.”
Chains can be unfamiliar too, of course, but not too unfamiliar. My first banh mi was from a chain and finding myself please, I then delved more deeply into Vietnamese food. I assume that this is a familiar experience in Southern California, where both restaurants and people from Asia often enter into the US and vice versa. And what for the inexperienced is a chance to cautiously test the culinary waters, is a beacon from home for someone else — especially for emerging communities not yet developed into fully fledged enclaves or utterly assimilated.
It’s also tempting to draw broader conclusions about waves of culture based not just upon the rise and fall of global economies but the ebb and flow of chains across the landscape. What does it mean when a Taco Bell becomes a Thai BBQ, a Pizza Hut becomes a Korean BBQ, or a Beard Papa’s becomes a Blackball? Maybe nothing but it’s fun for me to think about which is another reason I’ve compiled this guide to Asian restaurant chains operating in Los Angeles, Asian-American chains operating in Asia, &c.
Aji Ichiban (優之良品) isn’t a fast food place nor is it, despite its name, Japanese. Aji Ichiban is actually a Chinese snack food chain, founded by Lai Chan Yuk Hing and Lai Hin Tai in 1993. The first American location opened in 2000 and locations in other states followed although now all non-California locations have closed, save for the location in Chicago’s Chinatown. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County, there remain locations in Monterey Park and San Gabriel.
Ajisen Ramen (味千ラーメン) is a Japanese ramen chain founded in 1968 in Kumamoto, Japan. The founder, Liu Tan Hsiang (劉壇祥), is was actually Taiwanese, however, an immigrant from Meinong. The first Ajisen Ramen to open outside Japan did so in Taipei in 1972. Today there are also Ajisen Ramen locations in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Guam, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. In Southern California, there are Ajisen locations in Century City, Irvine, Rowland Heights, and San Gabriel. Their mascot’s name is Chii-chan.
BAKE CHEESE TART
Bake Cheese Tart is a Sapporo-based Japanese chain with locations in China, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. It opened its first American location in San Francisco in 2018. Its first Southern California location opened in Century City in 2019. Shintaro Naganuma opened Kinotoya Bake in Sapporo in 2011 and sold cheese tarts, amongst other items. In 2013, Bake Cheese Tart split off into its own subsidiary.
The first American location of Taiwan’s Bake Code Bakery & Café opened in San Gabriel in 2015. The items on the menu are a fusion of French and Taiwanese methods. There are international locations in Australia, Canada, and Malaysia. There are currently plans to open locations in Buena Park and Rowland Heights.
BANH MI CHE CALI
Bargain bánh mì chain Bánh Mì Chè Cali (or, as the sign on the original location states “Bánh Mì & Chè Cali Bakery” — although I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as such) was founded in the Little Saigon area of Westminster by Dong Nguyen in 1995, making it the first Vietnamese-American fast food chain that I know of. There are now also locations in Alhambra, El Monte, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rosemead, San Gabriel, and West Covina.
BCD TOFU HOUSE
BCD Tofu House was founded by Hee Sook Lee in Koreatown in 1996. Many of the locations are open 24 hours a day which I presume is why many regard it as something of a “Korean Denny’s.” “BCD” actually comes from “Bukchang-dong,” the Seoul neighborhood where Lee’s mother-in-law operated a restaurant. In Southern California, there are locations in Buena Park, Cerritos, Koreatown, just outside of Koreatown (but still in Wilshire Center), Garden Grove, Reseda, Torrance, and Rowland Heights. There are also out-of-state BCD Tofu House locations in New Jersey, New York, Seattle, Tokyo, and Seoul. Founter Hee Sook Lee died in July 2020.
Beard Papa’s (ビアード・パパ) was founded by Yuji Hirota in Osaka in 1999. The menu is all about pâte à choux filled with a whipped cream custard of various flavors. There are about 160 locations of Beard Papa’s in Japan and 230 more around the globe. In Southern California, there are locations in Arcadia, Fullerton, Irvine, Little Osaka (naturally), Gardena, Koreatown, and Little Tokyo.
Benihana was established by Hiroki “Rocky” Aoki in New York City in 1964. The specialty then, as now, is teppanyaki. The first restaurant outside New York opened in Chicago in 1968. Today there are locations around the world. In the Southland, there are stores in Anaheim, Arcadia, Encino, Industry, Newport Beach, Ontario, Santa Monica, and Torrance.
BIBIBOP ASIAN GRILL
The Bibibop Asian Grill chain is currently taking over all local locations of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, the defunct Southeast Asian-inspired chain co-founded in 2011 by Chipotle’s director of concept development, Tim Wildin, in 2011. Bibibop was founded in Columbus, Ohio by Charley Shin, who also founded Charley’s Philly Steaks.
BlackBall Taiwanese Dessert was founded in Taipei in 2006. The first American location of opened in San Gabriel in 2015. Recently a second American BlackBall opened in Garden Grove, where it replaced a Beard Papa’s. Their specialties are grass jelly, matcha, and aiyu jelly desserts. Internationally there are also locations in Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
As the name implies, Boba Loca Juice & Coffee’s specialty is Taiwanese-style boba tea — although I’m not sure what makes is not just “crazy” but “loca.” Boba Loca was founded in 2001 by Korean-American Philip Chang, who later went on to found Yogurtland. There are locations in Artesia, Atwater Village, Bell, Buena Park, Burbank, Carson, Downey, Garden Grove, La Habra, La Palma, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, North Hollywood, Norwalk, Riverside, Torrance, University Park, Van Nuys, West Covina, Westwood, and Whittier.
Caffè Bene is a Seoul-based coffeehouse chain was founded in 2008 by Kim Sun-Kwon and is, by the number of stores, the largest such chain in Korea. The first US location opened in New York City in February 2012. The chain expanded to the largest community outside of Korea, Los Angeles, that summer when it opened a location in a Koreatown mall already boasting a Paris Baguette and a Tom n Toms. Since then, a second location has opened in Koreatown followed by locations in Buena Park and San Marino.
Cafe Bora is a bingsu cafe in Seoul’s Jongno neighborhood. In 2017, a stateside location opened in California Marketplace/Gaju Marketplace’s newly-opened Square Mixx food court.
CAFE DE PARIS
The first Café De Paris (카페드파리), a Korean “dessert cafe” opened in Seoul. The first American location, I believe, is the one in the City of Industry, which opened in June 2017. Today there are also locations in China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The chain is known for its focus on seasonality, with the menu changing depending on what fruits are in season at any given time.
CHA FOR TEA
As with many Asian tea chains, Cha for Tea carries not just beverages but appetizers and entrees — although Cha for Tea’s are infused with tea. Locally there are locations in Alhambra, Irvine, Long Beach, and Pomona. It’s a subsidiary of Ten Ren’s Tea, based in Taipei, and there are Cha For Tea locations in Taiwan as well. It’s worth noting that there’s a vegetarian section on the menu.
Chatime (日出茶太) is a boba chain founded by Henry Wang Yao-Hui in 2005 in Hsinchu, Taiwan. In 2006 it opened its first location outside of Taiwan, in California and locally there are locations in Arcadia, Chino, Mission Viejo, and San Gabriel. Outside of Taiwan and California, there are locations in 24 other countries.
CHENGDU TASTE | 滋味成都
Chef and owner Tony Xu moved to Los Angeles in 2005. In 2013, he opened the first location of Chengdu Taste in Alhambra. A second location opened in Rowland Heights. The Rosemead location opened in 2014.
The first Chin Chin opened in Los Angeles in 1983. It was founded by Bob Mandler, who is sometimes credited with mainstreaming yum cha for non-Chinese — and with popularizing the Chinese chicken salad. The food its serves is described by the chain as “California Asian Cuisine.” Today there are several location in Los Angeles as well as Las Vegas.
The first location of Chao Krung, opened in 1969, the year the first Thai restaurants opened in Los Angeles. At the time, apparently, most Angeleno diners confused Thailand with Taiwan and came in expecting Chinese dishes, and so the practice of including popular American Chinese options on Thai menus was born. At its peak, there were three locations. Today, only the Fairfax location remains open.
Chowking (超群) is a Chinoy restaurant based in the Philippines where it was founded in 1985 by Robert Kuan. In 2000 it was taken over by rival Filipino fast-food chain, Jollibee. The focus of the menu is noodles, congee, lauriat, and dim sum. The first American location opened in West Covina in 1995 and today there are local locations in Anaheim, Carson, Cerritos, Eagle Rock, Industry, North Hills, Panorama City, West Covina, and Wilshire Center. Outside California, there are locations in Nevada and Washington.
COCO FRESH TEA & JUICE
Coco Fresh Tea & Juice is a Taiwan-based boba chain founded by Hung Chao-shui. The first location opened in Taipei in 1997. By 2005, there were 100 stores. As of 2015, there were over 2,000 locations, making it the largest boba chain in the world. The first Southern California locations opened in 2012 and today there are local locations in Alhambra, Arcadia, Financial District, Little Osaka, South Park (Downtown), and Westwood.
Curry House CoCo 壱番屋 (or just “CoCo Ichi”) was founded in Ichinomiya, Japan in 1982. The first American location opened in Torrance and was followed by locations in Brentwood, Irvine, and Koreatown and today there are also international locations in China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Hawaii, and California. One of the key features is the choice of spiciness on a pretty large scale and the prevalence of cheese. They also have a vegetarian curry now.
CURRY HOUSE (CLOSED!)
Curry House is a Japanese curry chain founded in Little Tokyo in 1983 and specializing in karē and “naporitan” spaghetti. There are also locations in Cupertino, Cypress, Gardena, Industry, Irvine, Koreatown, Little Osaka, Monterey Park, Santa Ana and Torrance. They too have a vegetarian curry now. UPDATE: All locations closed 24 Feburary 2020 without warning.
The first Daikokuya ramen restaurant opened in Little Tokyo in, I believe, 2001. At the original location, there is seemingly always a long, slow-moving line and it’s worth noting that there are also locations in Arcadia, Little Osaka, and Monterey Park. The restaurant was created by Bishamon Group, which also runs Bento-Ya, Ebisu, Midoh, OhJah, Oreno Yakiniku, Tamon, and in Tokyo, PentHouse Gastro Dining.
DAN MODERN CHINESE
DIN TAI FUNG
The first Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) was founded in Taipei in 1972 by Yang Bingyi and Lai Penmei. The first international location opened in Japan in 1996. Today there are locations in Australia, China, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the US. The first American location opened in Arcadia in 2000 and was followed by a second location, pretty much next door. Now there are locations in Costa Mesa and Glendale — where the wait is usually pretty tortuous — and more distantly, in Washington. The specialty is xiaolongbao but they’ve got a menu which, although large, is worth exploring thoroughly.
DONG LAI SHUN
The original Dong Lai Shun (东来顺) opened in Beijing in 1903. The Hui (Chinese-Muslim) restaurant chain is known for its black-headed mutton hot pot as well as Huaiyang cuisine. The first local (and second in the States) Dong Lai Shun opened in the city of San Gabriel on 11 June 2017.
Duke Bakery is a Japanese-European fusion bakery founded by Singapore-based Taiwanese baker Allen Tsai. The first American location opened in Rowland Heights in 2015. There are also local locations in Arcadia, Costa Mesa, and Irvine and locations are soon set to open in Glendale and Pasadena.
Dun Huang is a New York City-based chain specializing in the cuisine of Northwest China. The first location opened in Flusing in 2015. In 2020, a location is scheduled to open in Westwood.
85°C BAKERY CAFE
Taiwan’s self-serve 85°C Bakery Café (85度C) was founded by Wu Cheng-Hsueh in Yonghe in 2004. There are now international locations in Australia, China, and the US. The first American location opened in Irvine in 2008. Locations in Alhambra, Gardena, Hacienda Heights, Pasadena, Torrance, and West Covina followed. The specialty is coffee and baked goods. It’s sometimes characterized as the “Starbuck’s of Taiwan” which, I suppose, is pretty fair although Starbuck’s never had sea salt coffee.
FIVE STARS HUẾ
FOUR SEA RESTAURANT – 四海
Four Sea – 四海 is a local Taiwanese breakfast chain with locations in Arcadia, Hacienda Heights, and Irvine.
GEN KOREAN BBQ RESTAURANT
Gindaco Takoyaki is a massive Japanese chain with hundreds of locations throughout Japan and elsewhere in Asia, including China, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand. Its first location was opened by Morio Sase in 1997 in Gunma Prefecture. The first American location opened on 1 August 2018 at Tokyo Central in Gardena.
The first Goldilocks opened in Makati, Philippines in 1966 — named after a fairytale character known for breaking and entering into the home of a family of bears. The company’s co-founders were three women (not bears) — Milagros Leelin Yee, Clarita Leelin Go, and Doris Wilson Leelin. Their first international location opened in Artesia in 1976 and there are local locations in Carson and Cerritos. There were previously more but the aunties’ American nephews broke from the chain and created Leelin Bakery in 2013 in an attempt to broaden their clientele beyond Pinoys in search of digital portrait cakes and traditional merienda items.
Gong Cha (貢茶) is a Taiwanese build-your-own-drink franchise founded in Kaohsiung in 2006. It now operates in more than a dozen countries outside of Taiwan.
David Lee opened the first location of the Taiwanese-American chain, Guppy House, in Cerritos in 2002. The chain’s specialties include boba, grass jelly, smoothies, shave ice, and other (including alcoholic) beverages. There are locations in Anaheim, Chino Hills, Downey, Fullerton, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Lakewood, Pasadena, and Whittier.
GYU-KAKU JAPANESE BBQ
Gyu-Kaku (literally “bull’s horn”) is a yakiniku chain the first location of which opened in 1996. The first international location opened in Los Angeles in 2001, followed by Taiwan in 2002. Today there are over 700 locations around the world.
HAI DI LAO
The Chinese hot pot chain Hai Di Lao was founded in 1994 in Jianyang, Sichuan. Since then international locations have opened in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and California. The first US location opened in Arcadia in 2013.
HALF & HALF TEA EXPRESS 伴伴堂
The first location of Half & Half Tea Express opened in San Gabriel in 2008, where it was founded by Taiwanese immigrant, Momo Wu. Half & Half’s specialties are hot honey boba and iced milk drinks. Today there are also locations in Arcadia, Industry, Monterey Park, Pasadena, and Rowland Heights.
Happy Lemon is a tea chain founded by Albert Wu. Wu opened his first tea shop on Minsheng East Road, in Taipei, in 1992. The first Happy Lemon opened in Shanghai in 2006. There are now locations of Happy Lemon in China, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippine, South Korea, and the US. Happy Lemon is closely associated with the latest Tawainese tea craze, 奶蓋茶, which translates to “milk cap tea” but is more widely known in Southern California as “cheese foam tea.” In Southern California, there are Happy Lemon locations in Industry, Irvine, and Monterey Park.
Hiccups Tea House is a Southern California-based teahouse chain with a pan-Asian fusion menu. The first location, I believe, opened in Long Beach in 2013. In Southern California, there are now locations in Anaheim, Carson, Paramount, Santa Ana, South Gate, Stanton, and Whittier. Beyond Southern California, there’s a location in Texas, with more scheduled to open soon there as well as in Arizona. At the time of writing, there are locations scheduled to open in Fullerton, Loma Linda, and Orange.
HIRONORI CRAFT RAMEN
HiroNori Craft Ramen opened its first location in Los Angeles in 2017. Its name is derived from its co-founders, Hiro Igarashi and Nori Akasaka, who first met in 2011. Presently, there are six locations in Southern California.
HOKKAIDO RAMEN SANTOUKA
Hokkaido Ramen Satnouko is a Japanese ramen chain. It was founded by Hitoshi Hatanaka in 1988. His first location was in Asahikawa and sold only one item — shio ramen.
Honeymee is a “true milk” ice cream chain which opened its first location in Koreatown in 2014 and has since spread so quickly that the website seems rather out-of-date, listing as it does only two locations. Nevertheless, in 2015, locations opened in Buena Park, Gardena, Irvine, and Little Osaka. In 2016, locations opened in Cerritos and Little Tokyo. So far in 2017, a location has opened at the outlet malls in Camarillo.
Ippudo is a tonkatsu ramen chain from Japan. It was established as Hakata Ippūdō (博多一風堂) in Fukuoaka in 1985. Its first international location opened in New York City in 2008. Since then, US locations have opened in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
IT’S BOBA TIME
Boba chain It’s Boba Time was established in 2003 by Eunice Pak. The chain now has over 50 locations in Southern California.
JJ BAKERY/JJ SQUARED BAKERY
JJ Squared Bakery is a local Taiwanese bakery chain. Its first location opened as JJ Bakery in Hacienda Heights in 1996. Currently, there are locations in Arcadia, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Rowland Heights, Temple City, and Torrance. In 2009, a location opened in the City of Industry which serves as a full restaurant. After 2015, subsequent locations in Alhambra, Honolulu, and Koreatown opened as “JJ Squared Bakery.”
Jollibee was founded in Quezon City, Philippines by Tony Tan Caktiong. Tan was the son of immigrants from Fujian and in 1975 opened a Magnolia Ice Cream. In 1978, management consultant Manuel C. Lumba convinced Tan to add hot dogs to the menu and items like hamburgers, filipino spaghetti, and “chickenjoy” followed. The Jollibee mascot, an half-naked, anthropomorphic bee, was introduced in 1980. The first American location opened in Daly City in 1998 and today there are more than 3,000 Jollibee locations. Locally there are Jollibees in Anaheim, Carson, Cerritos, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, and West Covina.
KABUKI JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Kabuki is part of the Kaizen Dining Group, founded by David Lee, whose father had run a Japanese restaurant in Seoul. The chain’s menu is overseen by Rodelio Aglibot. The first location opened in Pasadena in 1991. It wasn’t until 2000 that Lee opened a second location. Presently, there are thirteen locations of Kabuki in California and several in the Southwest.
KAJU SOFT TOFU RESTAURANT – 가주순두부
KANG HO-DONG BAEKJEONG – 강호동 백정
Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong is a Seoul-based chain founded by comedian and wrestler Kang Ho Dong.
In 2014, sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa (SUGARFISH) and his son, Tom Nozawa, opened the first location of KazuNori (full name — KazuNori: the Original Hand Roll Bar) in the Old Bank District. Subsequent locations opened in Santa Monica and Westwood.
KURA REVOLVING SUSHI BAR
Kura Revolving Sushi Bar is a sushi chain that was founded in 1977. There are over 450 locations in Japan, Taiwan, and the US.
L&L HAWAIIAN BBQ
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue was founded in Honolulu as L&L Drive-Inn by Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores, Jr. in 1976. The first mainland location opened in California in 1999, renamed “L&L Hawaiian Barbecue” in an effort to appeal to haoles unfamiliar with the chain’s specialty, the plate lunch (pā mea ʻai) — although it arguably has more in common with bento or meat-and-threes than it does proper barbecue. Internationally there are locations in Guam, Japan, and New Zealand. Locally there are locations in Alhambra, Anaheim, Brea, Carson, Cerritos, Cypress, Eagle Rock, El Segundo, Fullerton, Gardena, Glendale, Hawthorne, Huntington Beach, Industry, Irvine, La Verne, Long Beach, Northridge, Norwalk, Oxnard, Pasadena, Pico Rivera, Rancho Cucamonga, Redondo Beach, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, Torrance, Walnut, and West Covina.
Chieu Lê, and his son, Minh Lê, founded bánh mì chain Lee’s Sandwiches in 2001, with an emphasis not just on bánh mì but French baked goods, desserts, and cà phê sữa đá. The first Lee’s Sandwiches opened on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster’s Little Saigon. Restaurants have since opened in Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and, internationally, in Taiwan. Locally there are locations in Alhambra, Anaheim, Artesia, Bellflower, Commerce, Cypress, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Hawaiian Gardens, Huntington Beach, Lake Balboa, Long Beach, Monterey Park, North Hills, Pasadena, Rosemead, Rowland Heights, Santa Ana, Stanton, Torrance, and Westminster.
LEELIN BAKERY (CLOSED)
Leelin Bakery was founded in Cerritos in 2013 by Mendrei, Menard, Michael Leelin — nephews of the founders of Goldilocks. After breaking with their aunties, all former Goldilocks locations became Leelin Bakeries — although the aunts have fired back with new, stateside locations of Goldilocks. At its peak, there were Leelin Bakery locations in Cerritos, Eagle Rock, North Hills, Panorama City, Santa Fe Springs, West Covina, and Wilshire Center. By 2018, however, there were just two left — both of which closed by 2019. Meanwhile, three Goldilocks remain in operation in Los Angeles County.
Lollicup Coffee & Tea (樂立杯) is a Taiwanese-American chain founded in 2000 in San Gabriel by Alan Yu and Marvin Cheng. Their specialty is boba although they also serve jellies, juices, smoothies, and food items like popcorn chicken. There are international locations in Chengdu, China and domestically in seven states. Locally there are locations in Alhambra, Arcadia, Chinatown, Diamond Bar, Garden Grove, Irvine, Little Osaka, Little Saigon, Riverside, Rowland Heights, Walnut, West Covina, and Westminster.
LOVE LETTER PIZZA & CHICKEN
Love Letter Pizza & Chicken (피자와치킨의러브레터) is Korean-style chicken and pizza restaurant founded in South Korea where the chain employs a considerably more elegant logo. It is also known as Pizza & Chicken Love Letter. The slightly odd name is also the name of a Japanese film, released in 1995, that was very popular in South Korea. There are locations in Chino Hills, Gardena, La Habra, and Rowland Heights.
Loving Hut is a chain founded by Supreme Master Ching Hai (née Hue Dang Trinh), spiritual leader of the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association, a cult with a large following in Taiwan. There are international locations in 33 countries and domestic locations in fifteen of the United States. The menus vary considerably from location to location but all are exclusively vegan. Locally there are locations in Claremont, Ladera Ranch, Orange, and Upland. The only location at which I’ve eaten, the Alhambra one, closed in 2014.
Max’s Restaurant (also known as Max’s of Manila) was founded in the Philippines in 1945 by Stanford-educated Maximo Gimenez. They specialize in fried chicken and various Filipino dishes such as crispy pata, kare-kare, litsón kawalî, lóngsilog, nilagang báka, sinigang, and tapsilog. It began franchising in 1998 and now, internationally, there are locations in Canada, Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada and locally, Glendale and Santa Barbara.
Mr. Baguette is a bánh mì chain founded by Bryant Tang in the Vietnamese capital of the San Gabriel Valley, Rosemead, in 2003. Today there are also locations in El Monte, the Financial District, Little Saigon, Monterey Park, and Westminster. Their bánh mì is similar to that of other chains, although it’s my opinion that nothing was ever improved by the presence of American cheese.
니뽕 내뽕 NIPONG NAEPONG
Nipong Naepong is a Japanese-and-Chinese-inspired Korean fusion chain based in Seoul. 뽕 (pong) comes from 짬뽕 (champong), the Korean name for ちゃんぽん (champon), a dish associated with Nagasaki which in turn takes its inspiration from 湯肉絲麵 (tonniishiimen) — a dish associated with Fujian. If you’re still following, the restaurant also takes inspiration from the cuisines of Italy, the US, and Thailand. As far as I know, there is just one location in the US so far, in California Marketplace/Gaju Marketplace’s Square Mixx food court (in Koreatown).
The pan-Asian (well, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, and China, anyway) chain Noodle World was founded in Monterey Park in 1993. There are now also locations in Westwood, Pasadena, Alhambra, San Marino, Downey, Upland, and Hollywood. I believe that the Pasadena Noodle World, in Old Town, is where the Penny Lane that I worked at used to be.
Founded by Betty Ren, a restaurateur who hails from the town of Fushun in Liaoning. Although the restaurant’s logo says “Est. 2004,” (the year Ren opened Dumpling House in Arcadia), I believe that it was 2014 that the first Northern Cafe opened in Hacienda Heights. Now there are additional locations in Beverly Grove, Brentwood, Cerritos, Gardena, Monterey Park, Temple City, University Park, and Westwood. Ren also operates the aforementioned Dumpling House, China Tasty in Alhambra, and Golden House in Temple City.
Thai-Chinese chain Ocha Thai (which includes Ocha Restaurant, Ocha Classic Restaurant, Ocha Classic 2, Little Ocha in the Valley, Little Ocha Extra) has locations in Little Bangladesh, Panorama City, Thai Town, Valley Glen, Van Nuys, and Wilshire Center.
OHANA POKE CO.
OneZo, like most boba chains, got its start in Taiwan. The first location opened in 2015. Each location makes its boba on-site. Other innovations include boba that looks like Pokemon balls. Locally, there are locations in Garden Grove, Irvine, Monterey Park, Pasadena, and West Covina.
ONO HAWAIIAN BBQ
Ono Hawaiian BBQ was established by brothers Joe and Joshua Liang in 2002 in Sawtelle. Following the lead of L&L Hawaiina BBQ, they chose to insert the “BBQ” into their name instead of plate lunch — theirs consisting of two scoops of rice, one scoop of mac salad, and choice of entree (none of which are vegetarian) served over a bed of steamed cabbage. With locations in Alhambra, Apple Valley, Buena Park, Carson, Chino, Compton, Culver City, Downey, Fontana, Gardena, La Habra, Little Armenia, Mira Loma, Miracle Mile, Monterey Park, Moreno Valley, Perris, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Riverside, Rosemead, Rowland Heights, San Pedro, Santa Fe Springs, South Gate, Temple City, University Park, Upland, Walnut Park, and West Covina.
Panda Express, the largest American Chinese chain in the US, began in Glendale in 1983, where it was founded by Andrew and Peggy Cherng, and their father, Yangzhou native, Ming Tsai Cherng. Its predecessor Panda Inn was founded in Pasadena in 1973. Panda Express locations used to be limited only to the food courts of malls (the first location was one of the two inside the Glendale Galleria) but there are stand-alone locations now, the first having opened in Hesperia in 1997. Internationally, there are now Panda Express locations in Canada, Korea, and Mexico. It is so prevalent in Southern California that I’m not even going to attempt to list them.
PappaRich is a Malaysian restaurant chain with locations in about a dozen countries. It was founded in 2006. In 2014, PappaRich crossed the Pacific to Los Angeles, with the first location opening in Koreatown. Confusingly, though, it wasn’t the first restaurant to do business as PappaRich in Los Angeles County.
From 2009 until around 2014, a restaurant operated as PappaRich in Old Town Pasadena. Although it bore the PappaRich name, it appears to have been a franchise of one of PappaRich’s Malaysian competitors, PappaRoti. Indeed, it used the PappaRoti icon, slogan (“the Father of all buns”), and shared PappaRoti’s focus on coffee buns rather than Papparich’s curry and sambal dishes. Both PappaRoti and PappaRich seem to take glaringly obvious inspiration from an even older Malaysian Chain, RotiBoy, which was founded in 1998 in Bukit Mertajam by Hiro Tan but as yet has not entered the North American market. Meanwhile, other apparent imitators of RotiBoy include Roti Dino, MammaRoti (“the bun emperor”), and Roti Mum).
Anyway, a second PappaRich location opened in 2015 at Monterey Park’s Atlantic Times Square. The first location seems to have closed around the same time and the Monterey Park location shuttered in August 2017, leaving none in California. The chain doesn’t seem to have given up completely on cracking the American market, however, as a third (and currently only) location opened in Flushing, New York in 2016.
The predecessor of Paris Baguette (or “Pariba” as it is colloquially known) was Paris Croissant, which opened in 1986 and was also created by the SPC Group. The first Paris Baguette opened in 1988. The first American location opened in Koreatown. Now there are local locations in Arcadia, Buena Park, Cerritos, Diamond Bar, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Glendale, Irvine, Rowland Heights, and West Covina. In 2014 a Paris Baguette even opened in Paris and there are also international locations in China, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Phoenix Food Boutique was founded in 1965, in Chinatown, founded by Katai and May Chang. The specialty is Cantonese cuisine — items including cold boneless steamed chicken, fried chitterling, lettuce cups, salted anchovies in steamed ground pork, and thousand-year-old egg porridge with pork. The second location, in Alhambra, only opened in 1997. Today there are also locations in Arcadia, Garden Grove, Gardena, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, San Gabriel, South Pasadena, and Temple City.
PICK UP STIX
Pick Up Stix was founded by Charlie Zhang, who came to the US in 1982 and opened the first Pick Up Stix in Rancho Santa Margarita in 1989. Their specialty, house special chicken, is a dark meat chicken with a sauce made from soya and brown sugar. It was acquired by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide in 2001 and in turn by Mandarin Holdings Group in 2010. Outside California, there are locations in Arizona and Nevada. There are about 50 locations in the Southland alone so I’m not going to list them.
Pinkberry was created by Young Lee and Hye Kyung Hwang in 2005, who opened their first store in West Hollywood. A second store followed in 2006 and today there are locations in 21 different countries. In 2015 the chain was acquired by Kahala Brands. The chain’s distinctly designed interiors, furnished with Philippe Starck furniture and lit by Le Klint, are almost as well known as the fact that their tart, frozen dessert doesn’t meet every definition of being frozen yogurt. Locally there are locations in Azusa, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Burbank, Culver City, Glendale, El Segundo, Fairfax, Hermosa Beach, Hollywood, Koreatown, La Cañada, Little Tokyo, Los Feliz, Marina del Rey, Monrovia, Northridge, Playa Vista, Santa Monica, Studio City, Torrance, and Westchester.
Poké Bar‘s roots lie in Yanagi Sushi, which opened in Northridge in 1990. I believe the first Poké Bar opened in West Hollywood in 2015 and now the chain has expanded to several states.
Poké Me, so far, has two locations — one in Westwood and a second in the Miracle Mile.
PREMIER DESSERT ART 尚品甜艺
Premier Dessert Art was founded by Vicki Leung, who immigrated to the US in 2001 from Hong Kong. After returning to China to attend culinary school, she opened the first Premier Dessert Art in 2014 in Monterey Park today there are locations in Arcadia, El Monte, and West Covina. Their specialties are the whipped cream and mango filled mango roll and gai daan jai.
With over 2,000 locations in seventeen countries, Quickly (快可立) is one of the largest boba chains in the world. It was founded by Nancy Yang in Taiwan in 1996, making it the oldest boba chain operating in Los Angeles. Locally there are locations in Alhambra, Arcadia, Artesia, Carson, Chinatown, Fullerton, Gardena, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Irwindale, Koreatown, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, San Gabriel, Temple City, Van Nuys, and West Covina.
RED RIBBON BAKESHOP
Red Ribbon Bakeshop was founded in 1979 by Amalia Hizon and Renato Mercado in Quezon City. The first overseas location of Red Ribbon opened in West Covina in 1984. Their specialties are the mango and ube cakes. The chain was acquired by Jollibee in 2005 and today there are domestically Red Ribbon locations in Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. Locally there are locations in Glendale, Panorama City, and Wilshire Center.
RedRock, a Japanese chain specializing in “American cut beef don” and “American cut steak don,” opened its first US location 15 August 2017, in Torrance’s Nijiya Plaza. Incidentally, it was the same day a location opened in Hiroshima. The space was previously occupied by Monjiro. On 1 June 2018, another location will open in Little Osaka.
Robot Kimbap is a Korean kimbap restaurant based in Jongno which places an emphasis on healthy eating (hence the presence of brown rice). In June 2017, a Koreatown location opened in the California Marketplace/Gaju Marketplace’s Square Mixx food court. Although that makes only two locations, I reckon that by virtue of their being in two different countries, it counts in some ways as a chain.
SAKE HOUSE BY HIKARI
There are locations of Sake House by Hiarki in Culver City, Koreatown, and Santa Monica. The first location seems to be the Santa Monica one, which opened around 2010. The owners are Kevin and Kayla Koo. Kevin formerly worked at Sushi Roku.
SAM WOO BBQ
Sam Woo BBQ is a chain of Cantonese restaurants. In 2020, owner Gary Cheung pled guilty to multiple felonies, including tax evasion and insurance fraud. His will be a minimum three-year sentence.
Sanamluang is a local Thai noodle chain that is usually attached to a location Bangluck Market. Both are owned by Surapong and Viriya Chinotaikul. The first location opened in Thai Town in 1985, the second in Valley Glen (then still part of North Hollywood) in 1988, and finally, in Claremont (around 1993). In 2018, the owners were heftily fined for serious labor violations. I hope they’ve sorted that out because it’s one of my go-to restaurants.
SANSAI FRESH JAPANESE GRILL
SanSai Grill is a fast-casual Japanese chain with a dozen locations in Southern California. The first location opened in Glendale in 2002. The owner, Yon Suk Lipsky, told the Glendale News-Press that she wanted SanSai Grill to be to Japanese what Panda Express is to Chinese, Baja Fresh is to Mexican.
Sarku Japan was founded in 1987 by Alex Pang, Daniel Chim, and Richard Ko. There are local locations in Arcadia, Brea, Cerritos, Culver City, Mission Viejo, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks, and Warner Center and beyond throughout much of North America.
Sharetea is a Taiwan-based boba chain which specializes not just in boba tea but a dessert they call “TorDa” — a sort of tea custard filled with boba pearls. The first location opened in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District in 1992. The first Los Angeles County location opened in Cerritos in 2015. Locations followed in Fullerton, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana.
Shin-Sen-Gumi is a Hakata-style ramen chain founded in 1992 in Gardena by Mitsuyasu Shigeta. Locally, there are also locations in Fountain Valley, Little Tokyo, Monterey Park, Rosemead, Sawtelle, and Torrance. There are also locations in Japan.
The first SilverLake Ramen opened, naturally, in Silver Lake (in 2012). It was founded by Jitaek Lim and Thomas Aono. Lim also owned Kush Sake Bar and is the man behind Ramen of York. In 2017, Silverlake Ramen 2Go opened in Echo Park. Since then, the chain has rapidly expanded and there are currently about nine locations and several more in the works.
Korean-American fast food chain Sorabol was founded in Northern California in 1979. Today there are locations in Nevada and plans to enter New York and Washington, DC. Locally there are locations in Canoga Park and Sherman Oaks — both located, as with all locations, in the food courts of malls.
SUGARFISH BY SUSHI NOZAWA
Chef Kazunori Nozawa, Tom Nozawa, and four other partners founded the Sushi Nozawa Group, a sushi chain which specializes in traditional sushi. The original location opened in Studio City around 1987. It closed in 2012. There are now, though, about a dozen other locations in Metro Los Angeles.
SUL & BEANS
Sul & Beans is a local bingsu chain. The first location opened in Koreatown’s Madang Plaza in 2014. It was followed by locations in Rowland Heights and Buena Park, both of which opened in 2016. According to the restaurant’s website, the name is derived from the fact that “’sul’ literally translates to snow in Korean” and “‘Beans’ stands for both coffee beans and red beans.” I can’t help but think that the name was also chosen for its similarity to that of one of Korea’s most popular bingsu chains, Sulbing, which so far has locations in Korea, China, Japan, and Thailand — but no stateside locations.
The first Sunmerry’s (aka Sunmerry Japan) opened in Japan in 1946. In September 1985, Sunmerry 聖瑪莉 opened on Yuen Yi Road in Taipei’s Xinyi District in 1985. There are 34 Sunmerry Japan locations, mostly in Japan, whereas Sunmerry 聖瑪莉 operates not just in Taipei, but in Irvine, Monterey Park, Temple City, and elsewhere.
SUNRIGHT TEA STUDIO
Sunright Tea Studio was established in Chengdu by a group of Chinese Americans in 2017 as Sunny & Right. In 2019, the Chinese American founders opened their first US location as Sunright Tea Studio. There are locations in Chino, Costa Mesa, Diamond Bar, Fullerton, and Irvine. The company was established in Chengdu in 2017.
SUSHI KATSU-YA & IZAKA-YA BY KATSU-YA
Master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi, born and raised in Okinawa, he moved to Los Angeles in 1984. He opened the first Sushi Katsu-ya in 1997. In 2003, he established KOI. In 2008, he co-founded Los Angeles’s Miyako Sushi and Washoku School. The first Little Izaka-ya by Katsu-ya opened in 212, with Katsuya’s son, Kentaro Uechi as head chef.
Sushi Roku is a chain with local locations in Newport Beach, Pasadena, and Santa Monica; and more distant locations in Las Vegas and Scottsdale. The first location opened in Santa Monica in 1997. Its founder, Michael Cardenas, teamed with nightclub owners to create what he described as a “sushi lounge.”
Osaka-born Keizo Seki moved to Los Angeles in 1991. He founded Sushi Zo, an Edomae-style sushi restaurant in 2006 in Cheviot Hills. In 2013, a Sushi Zo opened in the Historic Core. Since then, locations have opened in New York City, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.
TAI 2 CHINESE SAURKRAUT FISH
The first local Tai 2 Chinese Sauerkraut Fish location opened in Four Seasons Plaza in Industry in May 2018. The Sichuan chain restaurant serves one entree — 酸菜鱼 (suan cai yu) — and several cold dishes and appetizers.
There are currently two locations of Tan-Cha, a local boba tea chain. The first one opened in Rowland Heights’ Pacific Plaza (where it replaced a Tea Station) in 2016. It was originally named “Tancca” but shortly after, the sign and packaging (but apparently little else) changed to “Tan-Cha.” The second location of Tan-Cha opened in San Gabriel’s Hilton Plaza in August 2017. Then, not four weeks later, a tea house called Tancca opened in the former Chino Hills of Sharetea. I’m not sure what the relationship between Tancca and Tan-Cha is but both specialize in boba tea topped with cheese foam, the latest tea craze to cross the Pacific from Taiwan.
Tapioca Express (品客多) is a Taiwanese-American boba chain. It was founded in Alhambra in 1999 by Cheng-Wei Lin and today there are local locations in Arcadia, Cerritos, El Monte, Lakewood, Long Beach, San Gabriel, South El Monte, Van Nuys, and West Covina as well as Nevada.
Tepparod was one of the first local Thai chains. The first location and Tepparod Tea House opened in Los Feliz around 1970. The founders were tennis player Aroon and Sakuntala Seeboonruang. Tepparod No. 3 opened in Thai Town. The chain was later taken over by the couple’s son-in-law, Bruranasombat Chow, and all locations closed in 1993.
Tpumps is a tea chain founded in San Mateo by Alex Su in 2011. Locally there are locations in Monrovia and Pasadena. All of their tea is loose-leaf (in other words, no bags or powders).
TEA STATION 加州茶棧
Tea Station (加州茶棧), an American subsidiary of Taiwan’s Ten Ren Tea Company, was founded in 1996 in San Gabriel by Jimmy Huang, Taiwanese-immigrant and nephew of Ten Ren CEO Ray Ho Lee. Today there are local locations in Alhambra, Artesia, Gardena, Industry, Irvine, and Temple City and more distant locations in San Diego, San Jose, and Las Vegas.
Ten Ren’s Tea Time was founded by Lee Rie-Ho, who moved to Gangshan in 1953 where he opened Ming-Fung tea shop. He then founded Ten Ren’s tea shop in Tainan in 1961. In the US there are locations in Alhambra, Arcadia, Industry, Monterey Park, Riverside, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.
The first Thai BBQ (also known as Thai Original BBQ & Restaurant) opened in 1978 in Wilshire Center. There are now Thai BBQ locations in Carson, Cerritos, Covina, Glendale, Palms, Redondo Beach, Santa Clarita, Tarzana and Thai Town (which opened in a former Taco Bell in 2006). There are also locations in Las Vegas and Northern California.
Tiger Sugar is a Taiwanese boba/dessert chain, the first location of which opened in Taichung in 2017. There are now locations in various Asian and North American countries. The first Los Angeles location opened in Rowland Heights in October 2019.
Tofu King is a Taiwanese chain with locations known, especially, for its stinky tofu. There are locations in Arcadia, Irvine, and Rowland Heights.
TOM N TOMS COFFEE
Tom N Toms Coffee (탐앤탐스) was founded in Seoul in 2001. Today there are locations in Australia, China, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and California. Locally there are locations in Koreatown, Little Tokyo, St. Andrews Square, and Wilshire Center. To be honest, both times I’ve been it was more for the abundance of outlets.
TOUS LES JOURS
Tous Les Jours (뚜레쥬르) was founded in Guri, Korea by the CJ Foodville group (formerly part of Samsung) in 1997. Tous Les Jours Korean Bakery was launched in the US in 2004. Their specialties are bread, cakes, and sandwiches. Today there are over 1,300 locations in Cambodia, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the US. Locally there are locations in Diamond Bar, Garden Grove, Indonesia, Irvine, Koreatown, Malaysia, and Northridge.
UNCLE TETSU JAPANESE CHEESECAKE
Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake was founded by Tetsushi Mizokami in Hakata in 1985. The international chain opened their first US location in Honolulu. The second opened in Arcadia. As you’d rightfully expect from the name, the specialty is cheesecake — specifically the fluffy カステラ (castella) version closely associated with Nagasaki — a reminder of Portugal’s presence in Japan in the 16th century.
Vim Thai Restaurant (sometimes listed as Vim Thai-Chinese) has locations in Koreatown, Larchmont, Melrose Hill, Panorama City, and Thai Town. The first location opened in 1980. In Jonathan Gold‘s book, Counter Intelligence, he noted the chain’s largely Latino customer base, something which struck me the first time I entered the Thai Town location and every diner appeared to be Latino.
The Hong Kong-based chain yakitori, co-owned by Lindsay Jang and Matt Abergel, opened its first California location in the Historic Core neighborhood in 2018.
YASAI JAPANESE GRILL
“Yasai” means “vegetable” in Japanese and at Yasai Japanese Grill, every entree thus includes a salad. There are locations in Cerritos, Placentia, and Seal Beach.
YI FANG TAIWAN FRUIT TEA 一芳
Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea is named after the founder, Kei Tzu-kai’s (柯梓凱) grandmother, Yi Fang, the matriarch of a family of pineapple growers. Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea’s boba angle is that they have healthier options than most boba chains. That means no concentrates, powders, oranic cane sugar, and seasonal fruits. The chain suffered a mssive backlash in 2019, after the owner voiced support of Beijing during the Hong Kong protests. As the result of the backlash, at least 17% of the chain’s Taiwanese locations closed due to a boycott. Locally, there are locations in El Monte, Koreatown, La Verne, Rowland Heights, and San Gabriel.
The self-serve frozen yogurt chain Yogurtland was founded in 2006 by Philip Chang (who’d earlier founded Boba Loca) in Fullerton. Today there are international locations in Australia, Guam, Mexico, Thailand, the UAE, and Venezuela.
Young Dong is a popular local Koraen chain with locations in Arcadia, Chino Hills, Diamond Bar, San Gabriel, and near Koreatown.
YONG HO – 永和豆漿
The local Taiwanese breakfast chain, 永和豆漿, is variously translated (depending on location) as “Yung Ho Du Jiang” and “Yung Ho Tou Chian” or even “Yǒnghé dòujiāng.” It was founded by the Taiwanese Tsang family, whose patriarch (now deceased) was a chef in Taiwan. The original location at 533 West Valley Boulevard was sold several years ago to a Chinese family, how now operate it as a Chinese-Taiwanese restaurant.
Yoshinoya (吉野家) is a Japanese chain, the specialty of which is gyūdon. Its roots go back to 1899 when Eikichi Matsuda (松田栄吉) opened a food stall in the Nihonbashi fish market. The first franchise opened many years later, in 1968. The first American store opened in Denver, Colorado in 1975 although today the chain is limited in the US to Nevada and California (UPDATE: As of 2017, only California locations remain open). With about 100 locations in California, mostly in the south, I’m not going to bother to list them.
Young Dong was founded by Ho Bin and Jun Suk Choi in 1996, who opened the first store in Koreatown. Their specialties are seolleongtang and kimchi. Today there are locations in Arcadia, Buena Park, and Chino Hills.
Yuko Kitchen is a Japanese fusion restaurant with a whimsical spirit. The first location opened just off busy Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile, in 2009. A second location opened in the Old Bank District in 2016. In September 2017, Yuko Soup Bar opened next door.