Monarch, the new restaurant from Chifa's Humberto Leon, is an ode … – Los Angeles Times

In his decades as a fashion designer, Humberto Leon sought to highlight the works of other artists and cultures in a career marked by collaboration and creativity. At Chifa, his family’s restaurant in Eagle Rock, Leon and his mother, sister and brother-in-law serve haute takes on classic Chinese, Peruvian and Taiwanese flavors. At their new Monarch in Arcadia, the focus becomes even more specialized: The sprawl, banquet halls, tea service and full scope of Hong Kong cuisine both classic and modern are all on display, a love letter to the San Gabriel Valley and to Leon’s family’s years there.
Located in a former noodle shop on Baldwin Avenue, Monarch is the follow-up to Chifa, a stylish place adorned with seafoam-green tones and heart-shaped windows. Leon says the family sees the Monarch menu as an exploration of the current state of Hong Kong trends and styles, playing with modern flavors as well as the diner-like hallmarks of cha chaan teng — a beloved variety of the region’s cafes.
The family’s matriarch, “Popo” Wendy Leon, will serve as inspiration for the new restaurant, just as she does at Chifa. She lived in Hong Kong through her late 20s and has specialized in this style of Chinese cuisine ever since, eventually bringing it to Peru, where she opened a restaurant (also called Chifa) in 1975, then in late 2020 to Eagle Rock, serving her recipes alongside those of her daughter Rica’s husband, John Liu. Liu will primarily lead the Monarch kitchen, reinterpreting classic Hong Kong cafe-style fare through his lens as well as Popo Leon’s, adding a few dishes from his Taiwanese heritage. There will be sweet-and-sour pork belly with the sticky-sweet, homemade sauce that Humberto and Rica grew up eating; a Chinese-influenced steak tartare with snow cabbage and chili crisp, served with shrimp chips; silken steamed egg with fish liver; a baked pork-inspired ragù over fresh egg noodles; and braised lamb shank in tomato curry.
“I think the beauty of Hong Kong,” Leon says, “is that it almost has its own cuisine in itself, rather than just Cantonese, because of the diversity of people who’ve gone through [the city].”
Much like Eagle Rock’s significance for Chifa — the neighborhood to which the Leons immigrated in 1977 — the family’s latest location is equally significant. Monarch is as much an ode to the region to which they relocated: In 1985, they left Northeast L.A. for the San Gabriel Valley’s Rosemead, where they lived while Leon’s mom helped his uncle open a dim sum restaurant in Arcadia.
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“In the San Gabriel Valley — which felt at the time like a new place where we could really feel at home — I think the community is predominantly Asian and Latin,” Leon said. “We’ve always felt really included. And the Asian food scene has really flourished in that area, so it’s super exciting to come back to the hometown we grew up in as young adults and to be in this community of incredible Asian restaurants. To have our place be a part of that would be really, really exciting.
“Monarch,” he added, “is a place that celebrates culture.”

Monarch features a full bar, with a focus on Asian-made spirit brands. Liu and Rica’s son, Jarod Wang, has been planning the cocktail program, tinkering and testing alongside his father. (Wang is responsible for select items at Chifa, including the popular black sesame cheesecake with almond cookie crust.)
“We’re an all-hands-on-deck type of family,” Leon said. “We all do everything, we’ll all be involved, and we’re equally critical with each other — so it’s a very good, balanced aspect of working together.”
The new spot also is offering a line of nonalcoholic cocktails in partnership with L.A. no-ABV spirits company Optimist Botanicals. The coffee program at Monarch features hand-roasted beans, and the restaurant also offers oolong and pu-erh teas in addition to noncaffeinated flower-bud teas, with options for pots of tea that serve two or four guests (naturally, Leon also designed bamboo-inspired teapots for the restaurant). “We’re definitely going to take our tea quite seriously, but in a fun way,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like serious tea could be too serious; we’re not trying to give you a three-hour tea service, more just a delicious cup.”
The team hopes Monarch becomes an everyday favorite but also a restaurant that casts Chinese food in the light of celebration or special-occasion meals in the way that many look to other cuisines, such as French or Italian, for a big night out. This celebration of Chinese food and culture extends into the design, spearheaded by Leon and evoking the look of classic banquet halls.
Leon is an obsessive fan of director Wong Kar-wai, citing the filmmaker’s works as his first exposure to the possibility of Asian sexiness. “It’s a really important thing in my mind, because through these times, and growing up with a lot of stereotypes, it isn’t something that was always associated with Asians,” Leon said.
He wanted Monarch to be sexy in that sense, to be not only celebratory but also a place that could feel intimate and romantic in a uniquely Chinese way. A glass curtain created by artist Charlie Mai serves as a kind of staging area for guests, ideal for photo spots during those special-occasion moments. Mai’s curtain, made from tens of thousands of hand-painted glass beads, is an ode to Iguazu Falls, the planned meeting place in Argentina of the protagonists in Wong’s film “Happy Together.” It’s also a nod to the iconic waterfall images in so many Chinese restaurants.
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For Monarch, Leon wanted to include references to Chinese restaurant design: The ceilings feature a fan-like pattern, while columns incorporate concentric swirls, both in homage to classic Chinese decor aesthetics and that feeling of flying, underscoring the name’s inspiration for Leon. He says he sees butterflies existing on a kind of spiritual level as well as physical, soaring through the clouds, into other dimensions and between us, emotionally. Large chandeliers hang overhead with ornate detail. As he did for Chifa’s birch-like pattern, Leon partnered with Calico Wallpaper to design a wall covering reminiscent of a large tablecloth, enveloping diners.
Those familiar with the Eagle Rock dining room might recognize other similarities to Chifa: Hong Kong designer Izabel Lam’s curvy golden flatware makes an appearance at Monarch, while the plush, geometric stools are there in the same shape but in a wild blue-and-white mishmash — ditto the wavy marbled tabletops, here in baby blue rather than Chifa’s green tones.

“We wanted people to know that there’s a relationship between Chifa and Monarch, but we really wanted for there to be just a nod to everything,” Leon said. “It’s meant to feel like a grand banquet hall but slightly twisted.”
The design isn’t the only tie to the family’s first restaurant. In 2020, Chifa marked its opening with a series of dishes made in collaboration with artists; when Monarch launches Saturday, the menu will see the reprisal of one of them, permanently: the trinity shrimp fried rice — featuring garlic, scallions and ginger — co-designed by musician Solange. A new white pepper ice cream, made in collaboration with Lavender and Truffles, also is featured on the menu. Other artist-inspired dishes, merchandise drops and art projects will pop up, as is Leon’s collab-happy bent seen through the decades in his fashion and design endeavors.
His fashion and design expertise will be showcased at Monarch, which will offer a line of tees, hoodies, totes, a metal lunchbox, a water bottle, a portable cooler/foldable chair and stickers. Leon teamed up with VistaPrint for the merch line, some of which features the butterfly motif and some which is emblazoned with “San Gabriel Valley” across the chest or down the length of a sleeve.
The branded line will continue to evolve, but the hometown pride, Leon says, will remain constant.
“When people ask me when I’m outside of L.A., ‘Where are you from?’ I always want to say San Gabriel Valley,” Leon said. “But I’m like, ‘OK, no one’s gonna know where this is,’ so I say L.A. I wanted something where I could say, loud and proud, ‘We’re from the San Gabriel Valley.’”
Monarch opens Jan. 14 at 1212 S. Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia with dinner service from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday to Sunday, with plans to eventually expand to lunch service and possibly additional days of operation.

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Stephanie Breijo is a reporter for the Food section and the author of its weekly news column. Previously, she served as the restaurants and bars editor for Time Out Los Angeles, and prior to that, the award-winning food editor of Richmond magazine in Richmond, Va. Born and primarily raised in Los Angeles, she believes L.A. to be the finest food city in the country and might be biased on that count but doesn’t believe she’s wrong.
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