Last night at Paul's Kitchen
Nuggets of fried pork swam in dazzlingly orange sweet-and-sour sauce, viscous brown lobster sauce blanketed plates of butterflied shrimp and the char siu (barbecued pork) displayed a perfect ribbon of red, but by 8 p.m. the restaurant had run out of food and hungry diners had to be turned away. On Sunday, Sept. 28, after 30 years of business, the venerable Monterey Park restaurant Paul's Kitchen closed its doors.
"At first I was excited thinking I didn't have to come back here, because it has become kind of a grind, but now it's starting to hit me. I have butterflies in my stomach," said co-owner Tom Yee.
The Chinese-American cuisine -- heavy emphasis on the American -- at Paul's Kitchen has never been fancy or particularly authentic, but that hasn’t stopped locals from showering the old school chop suey joint with love. Fans of the restaurant, from Friday night karaoke regulars to generations of the same family, came out in force to celebrate at the closing party, while others simply came for a bite. "My mom is gonna go nuts!" exclaimed an unidentified man who rode up on a motorcycle late in the evening and discovered the restaurant was shutting down.
The Paul's Kitchen in downtown that will remain open, is, along with the Formosa and Far East cafes, among the last of a dying breed: the thoroughly Americanized chop suey joint that more than a hundred years ago introduced many Californians to Chinese food.
After emigrating from Hong Kong in the late 1930s, Yee's father, Sai Ning "Paul" Yee, opened his first restaurant, Paul's Cafe, sometime in the early 1940s in what was then the city market on San Julian Street. He returned to China in 1946 or 1947, married, had three sons (Donald, Richard and Tom), then came back to Los Angeles and opened Paul's Kitchen a block away from the old location at 1012 S. San Pedro Street, where the Yee family lived in a flat of old, abandoned rooms above the restaurant.
Paul's Kitchen served an assortment of Americanized Chinese dishes (plus pickled pigs' feet) alongside a handful of traditional American dishes like roast beef, custard and apple pie. "The roast beef, which was a Monday special, was so popular that the employees would sometimes eat it all before the customers came in," Yee said.
Run by Kin Cheung Ng and Kwok Ng, who are married to first cousins of the Yee sons, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it hole-in-the-wall still stands today, doing a brisk lunchtime business among workers in the garment industry. Paul's Kitchen remains a favorite of Dodgers emissary Tommy Lasorda, so much so that the menu features the Tommy Lasorda special ($9.75 per person): a char siu egg roll, asparagus beef, fried rice, wonton soup, barbecued spareribs and kung pao chicken.
In the 1960s, the family opened another Paul's Kitchen, this one at Jefferson and Crenshaw. Actresses Maureen O'Hara and Barbara Parkins were regulars, and the place was wildly popular with local Japanese-Americans. "The nisei community loved it!" said Richard Yee. "I'm not sure why, but our food has always been really popular with Japanese Americans. Maybe it has to do with the coastal influence, the sort of Hawaiian flavors."
Whatever the reason, after that location closed in the early '70s, devoted regulars flocked to the Monterey Park Paul's Kitchen that opened in 1977. All of the Yee sons worked in the various restaurants, as did their children. "We all worked there. Most of us started out bussing tables and we all pitched in," said Hoyt Yee.
But among Hoyt Yee and his cousins, there remains little inclination to stay in the grueling restaurant business. In addition to the recent economic downturn, the influx of Chinese immigrants to the San Gabriel Valley during the last two decades means that Paul's Kitchen has faced stiffer competition. "When we opened, we were one of the only Chinese restaurants in the area," Tom Yee said. These days, nearly every block in downtown Monterey Park and Alhambra has several. "A lot of the Chinese immigrants don't eat our type of food."
After nearly 10 years without a proper vacation, the 59-year-old lifelong restaurateur wants to rest and spend time with his grandchildren, but beyond that he has no idea what comes next. "It's getting harder and harder," Yee said. "It's like a prize fighter. You lose some of that drive. I still love cooking. Physically, I still have the energy to do it, but mentally, I'm ready for a break." He knows he doesn't want to manage anything, but he also knows he can’t retire. "I've been around kitchens my whole life. At this point, I want to get a job, something where I punch in and punch out."
A testament to the restaurant's welcoming atmosphere and the Yee family's generosity, many customers and most of the close-knit circle of employees stuck with Paul's Kitchen until the end. "Our staff was so good to us," Yee said. "When I was the one going crazy, they kept me sane. That's the toughest part, leaving all the people."
Sausage, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork, white rice (top photo): Rob Takata / for the Los Angeles Times
The interior of Paul's Kitchen (middle photo): Rob Takata / for the Los Angeles Times
Co-owners of Paul's Kitchen: Richard Yee, Tom Yee and Hoyt Yee (bottom photo): Elina Shatkin / Los Angeles Times