Nudes on Velvet, Pork Belly on Rice

A Cheap Date Guide to Chinatown, Los Angeles

A painting of a seductive temptress displayed in the Naked Lady Room at Velveteria velvet painting museum. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

We live in alarming times. Political and social tensions are high. Every week brings news of another extreme weather event, devastating natural disaster, deadly bombing, mass shooting, or dozens of outrageous, weaponized tweets. It would be easy to retreat, but right now we need fun more than ever. In spite of existential threats, people still want to fall in love and enjoy time with friends and loved ones. What better way than to enjoy the glory Chinatown, Los Angeles.

The DJ rocks the dancefloor at KCRW Summer Nights festival on Saturday, August 5. Photo by Douglas de Wet

L.A.’s Chinatown is a unique place to enjoy a day out. It’s an on-the-rise neighborhood with international flavor and flair. However, it will not be for everyone. If you’re expecting Epcot, you’ll be disappointed. Like much of downtown, there are gritty areas that may be unsettling for some. You may, however, find this to be an exciting, endlessly discoverable neighborhood in an interesting moment in its evolution.

Neon glows, and confetti fills the air at KCRW’s Summer Nights August 5, event at Chinatown Central Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. Photo Douglas de Wet.

Today’s Chinatown dates to the 1930s, but historically it’s “New Chinatown.” L.A.’s first Chinatown, dating to the late 1800s, was razed to build Union Station.

Chinese immigrants of Los Angeles established Chinatown in part because they were not always welcomed in other neighborhoods. In spite of good standing in the business community and numerous contributions to society, they faced harrassment and discrimination. Many viewed Chinese people with suspicion, wrongly characterizing them as a criminal threat, opium users and drug dealers. Does this sound familiar?

The Chubby Pork Belly bowl at Roy Choi’s Chego wants to be devoured. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

After the original Chinatown was torn down, a new Chinatown was conceived and developed by Chinese Americans as a themed tourist destination and business district.

As L.A.’s Chinatown evolves, it is becoming less Chinese but this is not a bad thing. Chinese Americans are no longer restricted to racially segregated businesses districts.

Today, people of many different backgrounds are creating a more diverse Chinatown. From the bold Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Tawainese, Vietnamese and American flavors found in Far East Plaza, to the brightly colored Chinese themed buildings and stunning neon lights of Chinatown Central Plaza, the cutting edge art galleries of Chung King Road, Velveteria — a temple to American pop culture and lowbrow art— and dozens of other hidden treasures.

So what are you waiting for? Seize the day! Go on a cheap date in Chinatown. Explore! Create fun. Post some pics to your feed. Fall in love, and make Chinatown your own.

Getting to Chinatown

A Gold Line train pulls into the Citrus College station in Azuza. This westward journey passes through more than a dozen stations, including Pasadena, Highland Park, typically arriving in Chinatown in around 45 minutes. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

By Train: Chinatown is one of L.A.’s easiest destinations to reach via public transportation. It’s just a short walk from Union Station, which can be reached via multiple Metrolink lines, as well as the LA Metro Red, Purple and Gold Lines. The Gold Line also has a dedicated Chinatown station, one stop north of Union Station.

The Metro Gold Line Chinatown Station. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

On Foot: Chinatown is a short walk from the center of downtown, but it might be best to limit this walk to daylight hours. Many routes into Chinatown will take you through homeless camps, which could be unsettling for you as well as the people camping there.

Something to Eat and Drink: Far East Plaza

Looking up at the Hill Street entrance of Far East Plaza in Chinatown. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

One of the best reasons to visit Chinatown is the food. Recent years have brought a boom in innovative, reasonably priced dining. Many of the best newcomers can be found at Far East Plaza, between Broadway and Hill Street. Choose from a variety of delicious cuisines served out small counter service shops and take out windows.

People wait in the hour plus line for Howlin’ Ray’s as it snakes its way through Far East Plaza in Chinatown.

Clearly, the restaurant of the moment here is the Nashville hot chicken joint, Howlin’ Ray’s. Waits here are intense often an hour plus. I’m sure their fiery, red chicken is delicious, but I have not waited in this line.

For lighter crowds, try Chego at dinnertime. After the lunch rush, it feels like a completely different place. Photo by Douglas de Wet.
The Chubby Pork Belly bowl at Chego inside the Far East Plaza in Chinatown. Photo by Douglas de Wet

For a shorter wait, try Roy Choi’s Chego instead. It can be crowded here too, but the lines are much more manageable.

Choi rose to fame as a pioneer of the food-truck craze with his Kogi BBQ, a Korean-Mexican fusion that captures L.A. spirit on a plate. Chego serves up delicious twist on Korean-American goodness, including rice bowls, noodles and uniquely dressed burgers and fries. Flavors here are bold and spicy but not overly hot, lots of garlic, crispy fried shallots, herbs and chilis. There will be some breath to deal with. Keep this in mind if you plan on kissing your date later.

The Sour Cream Hen House at Chego in Far East Plaza in L.A.’s Chinatown. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

The Sour Cream Hen House ($10) and the Chubby Pork Belly ($10) bowls are winners, filled with a mix of protein, vibrant chopped veggies, fresh herbs, flavorful sauces, sticky steamed rice and topped with a fried egg. If you’re already at the food sharing stage of your relationship, the bowls are generously filled, so you may be happy splitting.

Assorted stickers cover the the dining counter surfaces of Chego. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Vegetarians are well taken care of too. Seasonal vegetable offerings, such as grilled asparagus with Filipino adobo, are just as tasty and satisfying as any meaty selection.

The bao — steamed buns — from Eddie and Evan Huang’s Baohaus are also a good bet. The Uncle Jesse Bao with tofu and the Birdhaus Bao with fried chicken (both $3.55) are very enjoyable. I’d happily dine here again.

Baohaus also has much lighter crowds at dinnertime. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

If you’re visiting on a weekday and in search of caffeine, grab top notch coffee at the minimalist Endorffeine. The owner has a chemistry background and prepares every drink himself, weighing ingredients on scale for maximum consistency. I don’t usually order sweetened coffee drinks, but I do here. The Palm Sugar Whisky and Vanilla Pandan iced latte drinks are tasty and well balanced.

You’ll find Lao Tao and Ramen Champ on the second floor of Far East Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Other Far East Plaza options include noodle specialist Ramen Champ, Taiwanese Lao Tao and Filipino Lasa. Lasa is a sit down restaurant at night, but they offer casual fare from a takeout window at lunchtime. New Orleans grocer The Little Jewel of New Orleans is is not in Far East Plaza, but it is nearby, serving a variety NOLA favorites.

Stuffed animals waiting for a home in Far East Plaza. Drop your coins to rescue them with the mechanical claw. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Something to Do: Velveteria

Carl Baldwin, co-founder, curator and managing partner at Velveteria, relates stories behind some of his favorite paintings in the collection. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

For many, the crown jewel of this Chinatown cheap date will be a visit to the haunting, carnivalesque, slightly sinister, but also light-hearted and fun one-of-a-kind museum, Velveteria.

This poor matador doll with a pink satin cape must stand here for all eternity looking at the velvet painting of his fallen friend. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Taste in art is highly subjective. Like Chinatown, Velveteria will not be for everyone. Some of you will think this is the most amazing museum you’ve ever seen. Others, however, will leave traumatized, shaking off nightmares for weeks. Either way, it’s a bargain at $10 and should not be missed.

Country music legend, Graham Parsons painted on velvet in a Nudie suit at Velveteria in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Curated by partners Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, Velveteria began in Portland before moving south to Los Angeles. It sports an enormous collection of velvet paintings. Pop culture is well represented in the collection. Many other works explore subversive themes: devils, garish clowns, voluptuous women, fame, celebrity, deformity and temptation. Some paintings are campy and humorous. Some are unsettling, and many are stunningly beautiful.

Carl Baldwin leads a tour of Velveteria’s Black Light Room. Video by Douglas de Wet.

Watch your step. Items are on display everywhere. Paintings of David Bowie, Tiny Tim and Liberace hang above a floor display titled, “Lord of the Unicorns,” which features a Pee Wee Herman doll astride a white unicorn, alongside a pixie doll dressed in green, a pink tinsel Christmas tree and a few ceramic poodles corralled by assorted unicorn paintings.

In the back of the museum, there’s the Naked Lady Room, the Black Light Room and a hallway dedicated to Elvis. Baldwin says when an Al Jazeera crew visited for a piece, they did not go into the Naked Lady Room, but they did film the naked lady paintings in the Black Light Room.

The walls of the bathroom are adorned with paintings of Anderson Cooper in a thong, Anthony Bourdain on a toilet, Charles Phoenix in a fez, Frank Zappa and Oprah Winfrey. On display in the main gallery, are paintings of Hillary and Bernie with unicorn horns protruding from their foreheads. There are paintings of Mr. T. and Dog the Bounty Hunter. There’s a painting of Quentin Tarantino pointing menacingly, Uncle Sam style from behind three colorful bucket hats of woven yarn and aluminum beer cans.

Carl Baldwin stands in the bathroom doorway, the Elvis hallway behind him to the right, a painting of Anderson Cooper in a thong over his shoulder to the left. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Velveteria is a labor of love for Baldwin, who welcomed us warmly and personally led us on a tour of the collection. He related stories behind the art, the artists and the subjects. Baldwin said the classic art works by European masters found in at conventional art museums did not speak to him as he grew up in a southern California beach town.

By contrast, He found the velvet paintings displayed under black lights in a head shop near the Balboa Funzone to be provocative and exciting.

Carl Baldwin of Velveteria holding a velvet painting of a dog. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Baldwin is a force of personality, unfiltered and unconcerned with political correctness. He expressed frustration with the art establishment’s disregard for velvet paintings, which are often viewed as cheap, commodity art, only to be sold by roadside vendors or secondhand thrift stores. Baldwin explained painting on velvet is extremely difficult and he emphatically pointed out the beauty and detail of some of the works on display, saying they’re just as beautiful as any recognized great work.

Carl Baldwin of Velveteria points out the details of one of the paintings in the Blaxploitation section of his museum. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Velveteria is open six days a week, 11am to 6pm and closed Tuesdays. Admission is $10. Like their Facebook page to stay up to date on special events and extended hours.

We are lucky to have Velveteria, and it deserves our support.

Chinatown Central Plaza

The colorful Realm Homestore in Chinatown Central Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Another not to be missed jewel of the neighborhood is Chinatown Central Plaza. Opened in 1938, colorful, ornately decorated themed buildings are home to an eclectic mix of stores filled with items ranging from hats, clothing, art, antiques, and home decor, or select from a variety of eateries featuring burgers, Vietnamese noodles to fruit filled cakes and pastries. It’s just the place for some leisurly browsing and some romantic handholding underneath strings of red lanterns.

Stroll beneath the red lanterns of Chinatown Central Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.
Opened in 1938, K.G. Louie Co. is one of the original tenants of Chinatown Central Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Conjuring shades of exotic nostalgia, enter K.G. Louie walking under the neon Buddha. In this original tenant from 1938, there’s range of merchandise from inexpensive tchotchkes, figurines and novelties to one-of-a-kind, Asian imports and antiques.

A variety of books and zines on display at Ooga Booga, uptairs at Chinatown Central Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Somewhat hidden upstairs is the small but mighty Ooga Booga. You’ll find eclectic mix of locally produced art, zines, jewelry, apparel, indie books and vinyl LPs. The aesthetic here is DIY and a little bit punk. If this is your special sauce, you could easily spend an hour or more exploring this small space.

The Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown Central Plaza. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Free Special Events. Time your visit to coincide with one of Chinatown’s fabulous free events.

Sunday, October 8, check out CicLAvia: Heart of Downtown, which takes place throughout DTLA, and stretches north on Broadway into Chinatown.

A sampling of the sights and sounds of the 2016 CicLAvia: Heart of L.A. event. Video by Douglas de Wet.

December 9 and 10, you can shop for gifts at the holiday edition of the Renegade Craft Fair at State Historic Park, just north of Chinatown’s Gold Line Metro station.

A glimpse of the 2016 Golden Dragon Parade in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Instagram video by Douglas de Wet.

Sometime between late January and mid February, depending on when it falls, attend the Lunar New Year Celebration and Golden Dragon Parade for a festive, family friendly afternoon. Be sure to arrive early to watch LAPD motorcycle officers put on a show before the parade steps off.

One of the KCRW DJs keeping the dancers on their feet at KCRW’s Chinatown Summer Nights event on August 5. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Held monthly on the first Saturdays of the summer months, KCRW’s Chinatown Summer Nights are a high energy block party that fills Chinatown Central Plaza. A festival of music, food and arts. KCRW DJs spin the soundtrack for the night. Enjoy live bands, food trucks, a beer garden and the spectacular, colorful neon lights of the plaza. Crowds can be intense for this event. Plan to arrive early if this is an issue for you.

Chinatown After Dark, special menu items offered and free entertainment provided on the first Thursday of the month in Far East Plaza from 6 to 10pm.

Enjoy your date!