We like authenticity. We like hole-in-the-walls, mom and pop shops. We like the old-world, the unfamiliar, we like to feel like we’re being let in on things that are hidden and secret.
Underneath the 800 block on Spring Street, down two flights of stairs, is Peking Tavern. Just outside the door, a window the size of a ticket booth looks into the kitchen. On a lucky Saturday, you might catch their in-house artist — a chef who has spent decades crafting dumplings and dough — folding dumpling skins or swinging out yard-long tubes for noodles. The fish dumpling that’s on the menu, served in a Szechwan red oil garlic sauce, was even awarded $10,000 on Travel Channel.
Inside, against the far wall, is the bar. Peking Tavern is one of only two places in the country to serve baijiu, a high-proof Chinese liquor distilled primarily from sorghum. Depending on the brand, the flavor of baijiu varies between intensely fruity (think papaya, mango, plum) and toasted and savory. Our favorite rendition is the Wong Chiu Punch, with hibiscus and fresh lemon juice.
Of course, there are all the usual suspects too, some of which have evolved a bit, and for the better. The Manhattan and Old Fashioned use a specially made Five-Spice bitters, the five-spice being the ubiquitous blend of cinnamon, star anise, Szechwan pepper corn, and fennel seed used in Northern Chinese cooking.
The decor is Chinese eclectic meets new-downtown. The long, glistening bar, with eighteen craft beers on tap, the mixed drinks that glisten like jewels, the Ping-Pong table in the back, you’ve maybe thought, “this is not authentic.” But “authentic” is a slippery term. As far as Chinese food goes, Peking Tavern is not the San Gabriel Valley brand of Chinese, and it’s not trying to be.
The inspiration for the restaurant comes from the ten years tavern owners Andrew Wong and Andrew Chiu lived in China. Peking Tavern is Beijing circa 1994, the window of time when China was first transitioning from a communist to a free market economy.
“The best way to describe this is like going from black and white to color,” Wong says.
Food, which was once confined to identical stalls serving identical, government-rationed ingredients, saw a resurgence of the traditional. Tradition, after being locked away for so long, was suddenly something fresh and novel. People were cooking again in the way that they knew, with the same recipes and spices that had lasted generations, only the cultural climate had changed.
And that’s at the heart of what Peking Tavern does: its traditional food in the traditional way, evolved a step to meet the needs of downtown culture and palate.
“We’re not making food so only certain people can consume it,” Wong says. “Yes, we’ve made adjustments, but not to the point where it doesn’t have a connection to our own past.”