You will find it on every major street and within every shopping center in Los Angeles. It comes in many shapes and sizes, offers many different products and services, and is available in a wide variety of flavors.
“It” is The American Dream. And nowhere is this dream more vibrant than in Southern California’s dining scene where, for generations, immigrants have brought their traditional flavors from far and wide to create a rich tapestry of culinary experiences.
In the early 1960s, Kai Tai Chang and his wife, May, decided to leave behind political instability in Hong Kong and migrate to Los Angeles in search of a better future for themselves and their four children.
On the same day their plane landed at LAX, Kai Tai began looking for work in Chinatown. Opportunities in the food industry quickly materialized.
“He worked three jobs to feed the family,” recalls Elaina Chang, Kai Tai’s daughter-in-law. “He would go to work at one restaurant in the morning, then go work at the farmer’s market in the middle of the afternoon, and then work at another restaurant until midnight or early morning, day in and day out, to bring in enough income for the family.”
One of those restaurants was the Phoenix Inn at Ord and New High streets where Kai Tai was hired as a chef.
A decade later, he was presented with the opportunity to purchase the Phoenix Inn from the retiring owner who appreciated his strong work ethic.
“Chefs have the type of personality where they can get upset and walk out very easily. My father-in-law was very reliable, and he wasn’t going anywhere. So, they became good friends,” says Elaina.
While many people associate the Phoenix with Greek mythology, it also plays a prominent role in Chinese mythology as the benevolent female counterpart to the dragon.
“Phoenix” had been the restaurant’s name since the 1960s, but it took on a greater meaning to the family when May Chang began working there alongside her husband.
“She was the one at the front of the restaurant, talking to the customers, remembering their names and orders,” says grandson Nick Chang. “Without her presence, it would not have been as successful as it was at the time.”
For the next two decades, the Changs continued to build a loyal following through this commitment to personalized customer service, to their loyal staff, and, of course, fresh, delicious food.
In the mid-1990s, however, Kai Tai began to suffer from health issues and lost vision in one eye. It was time for the next generation to carry the Phoenix name forward.
In 1997, Elaina and her husband, Tom, a CPA who had been keeping the books for the Chinatown restaurant, opened another location in Alhambra. They also began to expand on menu items that Chinese restaurants in the U.S. aren’t typically known for – desserts.
“One day, a customer asked me what kind of dessert we had, almond cookie or red bean soup?” she laments. “So, I thought, after a heavy Chinese dinner, you don’t have any excitement. Why can’t we have something delicious like we had in Hong Kong.”
Elaina began offering classic Asian desserts including mochi, custard, crepes and plenty of fresh fruit. She even studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena to further hone her sweet-making skills.
It was a hit. The family opened a dedicated dessert shop next to the Alhambra restaurant in 2002.
“I give Elaina a lot of credit for returning to school to learn skills she felt she lacked to open up the pastry division,” Geary said. “Most attend culinary school not realizing that you need the drive and passion Elaina has.”
The Changs opened a new restaurant nearly every year for a decade – all in the Los Angeles area. While many restaurants struggled and failed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, Phoenix persevered through take-out and delivery service, including deliveries to hospital workers on the front lines.
“We didn’t close for one day,” says Elaina.
In 2023, Phoenix opened its 13th location in San Diego’s Clairemont Mesa neighborhood. New locations are also planned for Irvine and San Jose, and potentially beyond California’s borders.
When one thinks of Chinese food chains, Panda Express or Pick Up Stix (both SoCal-based) might first come to mind. But Phoenix is neither fast food nor “fast casual.” It is distinctly gourmet with fresh ingredients and recipes that have been passed on for generations.
Nick Chang, who earned a degree in Economics from U.C. Berkeley, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and worked in business analytics at KPMG, became president of the family business in 2021.
His future at the helm, he says, was never in doubt.
“Ever since I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to do this,” Nick says. “It was just about the timing. My parents never pushed me.”
The challenge of opening a restaurant in San Diego means Nick is on the road constantly, driving back and forth from L.A. to Clairemont Mesa, traffic headaches and all. He knows the success of Phoenix’s expansion rests on its ability to maintain consistent quality and a high level of customer service – all with a personal touch.
“There was a customer that came into the San Diego restaurant the other day and he recognized one of our managers from the Monterey Park location and that manager remembered the guy’s usual order to the tee,” Nick says. “That customer lit up with excitement. It’s about remembering the customer and the community that makes it all worth it.”
Kai Tai Chang passed away in 2015. May died in November 2020. Both lived to see their American Dream fulfilled and their legacy illuminated with Phoenix signs and satisfied customers across the Southland and soon beyond.
“We are proud,” Elaina says. “We still stand behind the brand and keep going.”