Ah Fong's

Ah Fong's was a weekly ritual for my family growing up. We would frequent the Beverly Drive location between Nate n' Al's and Toy Mart. It had a deep, long staircase, and as little girl my parents walked me down those steep steps. My dad used to tell me we were actually walking down to China, and I believed him!  It was my first taste of Chinese food and where I first learned to use chopsticks. 

    424 Beverly Drive

Ah Fong's had a mysterious vibe with its deep, dark, jade color interiors and dimly lit. The Sunset Blvd location did a lot of take-out to residents of Laurel Canyon, and it's where Lenny Bruce and his wife Honey used to have their late Sunday night dinners.  Errol Flynn often dined in the kitchen with the main chef. The Hollywood location stayed open until 3 am to accommodate those who worked long hours in the film industry and entertainment business. That made Ah Fong's extremely popular with the Hollywood crowd. It was frequently mentioned in Army Arched's column and Johnny Carson often gave away 'dinner at Ah Fong's' as prizes to members of the audience on his show. He would quip, "You'll take one bite and say, 'Ahhh, Fong!'"

At the Beverly Hills location we'd see Jack Lemmon, Danny Thomas, Robert Wagner & Natalie Wood,  Zsa Zsa Gabor, Steve Allen, Sonny Bono,  George Hamilton, to name a few I remember.... I also distinctly remember seeing Gary Coleman ordering spare ribs and being as polite as one could be. My parents would often go with Morey Amsterdam who always preferred to sit in the smaller room with booths on either sides.  We once sat directly across the way from Fred Astaire! Below is a photo of that room. 

   Los Angeles Magazine archives 



Perhaps the celebrity clientele had something to do with it being owned by actors. Ah Fong's was owned by Benson Fong and his wife, Gloria, also know as "Maylia". Fong was an actor before he became a restaurateur. He had not intended to be either. His acting career began in the way they used to happen - with the wave of the magic pen of a talent scout who had found the right look for Charlie Chan's No. 2 son in the series starring Sidney Toler. Fong was randomly approached while bagging groceries in 1943 at a supermarket in Sacramento by an executive and Paramount Pictures and asked him if he's like to appear in movies. 

Owner Benson Fong was character actor and founder of the well-known Ah Fong’s restaurants

Fong was also offered a 10 week contract for $250 dollars a week. That seemed like an extreme fortune for Fong and he accepted quickly. He first appeared onscreen in Charlie Chan at the Opera as an extra. He returned to the series and is best remembered playing Number Three Son Tommy Chan opposite Sidney Toler in six Charlie Chan movies between 1944 and 1946, replacing Victor Sen Yung's Number Two Son, Jimmy. He also appeared in a film called China staring Loretta Young and Alan Ladd and went on to appear in over 200 films as a character actor. Other notable films that include Charlie Chan and the Secret Service,  Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and two movies starring Agnes Moorehead, Dragon Seed (1944) and The Left-Hand of God (1955). He also appeared in a Perry Mason episode called "The Case of the Caretaker's Cat" and TV's Kung Fu (1972) along side David Carradine and the reunion television movie (1986).


Benson Fong and Gloria Fong, known as Maylia who appeared in the 1940s films,  Singapore and To the Ends of the Earth

He might have continued with only one profession if it had not been for Gregory Peck. After they completed Key's of the Kingdom, Peck's first role, he suggested they start a restaurant. Fong acted on the suggestion, although he decided not to risk his friend's newly earned money, and opened the first Ah Fong's on Vine St., where all the action was in 1946. 


Dick Powell,  Benson Fong and his wife, Maylia at Ah Fong's first location 

In 1950 he moved to Sunset Blvd & Laurel and opened locations in Beverly Hills in 1953, Encino in 1963, and just before Christmas, he opened a fourth location in Anaheim. 

Photo taken from Ed Ruscha's 1966 self-published book Every Building On the Sunset Strip.

Sunset and Laurel in the 1970s. Back when Greenblatts was on the corner where the Laugh Factory is today. When this location closed, Greenblatt's moved in. (Sadly, we lost Greenblatt's too recently)


Ah Fong's in Beverly Hills. 

The 'Ah' in Ah Fong's is a term out of respect in Chinese. Fong came up with the name while looking at a wrapper of an Oh Henry candy-bar, which is sort of a mixed up clue as to why the Ah Fong's are different from most of the Chinese restaurants. 

Benson Fong was one of the first to realize that the way of life in Los Angeles was to be elegant casual, but his restaurants were not formal. They were somewhat Cantonese, somewhat Polynesian, but mostly what one would expect from a smart young American-born Chinese actor, who wanted a place where his working friends could relax and be comfortable -bearing in mind that these were not ordinary run of working friends. 


The Menu was a listing of Cantonese dishes such as Shew muy, Beef Su Chow, Dim Sum, and Penang fried rice, which was served with nine different vegetables, water chestnuts, pine nuts, and sweet raisins which all added up to an exceptional dish. The Pork Ah Fong, (a personal favorite), was sliced extra thin. I remember it tasted extra crispy around the edges. I would dip it in a wild plum sauce. They also had two egg dishes I loved: Yangchow Eggs, basically strips of barbecued pork, assorted veggies, mixed into an egg mixture and cooked in a bowl which was inverted onto a plate. Drizzled with hoisin sauce....yum! Cashew Eggs was the same, topped with cashews. And who could forget the fried wantons served the second you sat down. Too bad I wasn't old enough to consume a Mai tai, but a Shirley Temple went just fine with Shrimp Foo Yung! Damn, I miss that food. 

Check out a scan of their menu below from the Vintage Los Angeles archives. At this very moment I'm craving their Beef Soo Chow! 



 
Mr. Fong appeared in Season Eight's "Samantha's Witchcraft Blows a Fuse" as Mr. Fong. 




Vintage Los Angeles collection

Benson Fong retired in 1985 and passed away in 1987 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after suffering from a stroke. I believe all four Ah Fong's locations closed soon after. But those stairs I spoke of are STILL intact! The Beverly Drive location is now a private gentleman's club, but I opened their private doors quickly to capture this picture! 


Nice to know these stairs are still intact! A Vintage Los Angeles ancient Chinese secret!

One day after publishing this blog, I received an email from Preston Fong, son of Benson and Gloria Fong who had this to share....

"Your memories of the famous customers are like mine. I worked with my dad starting as a busboy in our Encino location on Ventura Blvd in 1965.  I also spent a lot of time at the Hollywood and Beverly Hills locations. We lived about two long blocks from Sunset and Laurel. Our house was located on Hollywood Blvd at the mouth of Laural Canyon. 

The actors and musicians you mentioned in Beverly Hills were "regulars" there, particularly Fred Astaire and Jack Lemmon. Hollywood had the Laurel Canyon musicians as regulars. One of my close friends, Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield/Poco) said that he and the guys use to eat there quite often.

In Encino, the Jackson Family lived around the corner and all the boys would come mostly to order food to go. I'd see Michael playing with his friends in the neighborhood. June Allison was a regular in Encino. So was Robert Conrad, David Carradine, Jodi Foster, Rob Lowe, Dolly Parton, Melissa Gilbert, Cheryl Ladd, I remember serving them all.   
These are great memories!  Thanks for stirring them up for me! 



Alison Martino is a writer, television producer, and pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page 
Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. Alison muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram






Comments

  1. What was the toy store next door? Tot Mart?

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  2. So interesting and I loved reading your blog

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  3. WOW. Thank you for the memories!

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  4. Loved this segment. Great restaurants!

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  5. Hi Alison, thanks for the article. Loved the food description and of course all the history.

    Ahh Fong's had previously come up in a discussion over at the LA board of Food Talk Central. I shared this post over there.

    https://foodtalkcentral.com/t/ah-fongs-hollywood-stars-favorite-back-in-the-day/14223?u=jase

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  6. I lived at 7225 Hollywood Blvd
    Awwww, ❤️ Aw Fongs❤️❤️❤️❤️

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  7. Alison, I loved reading this Ah Fongs story! I have many of the same memories as you, went there on Sunday’s (the sunset Blvd location) with my parents. They went there with their friends on Saturday nights as well. We loved it there and thanks for your pist and the memories! I miss my parents, Ah Fongs and those good old days!

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  8. Wow. I remember only remnants of the place and name. Thanks for the nostalgic memories.

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  9. Thank you for this post. I follow you on Twitter because of the respectful manner in which you honour the history of Los Angeles and area. That town obviously means a lot to you and it shows. Thanks for being such a positive presence in my social media world.

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  10. The family should put out a cookbook along with excerpts of memories being recalled while the business was still around

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  11. The family should put out a cookbook along with excerpts of memories being recalled while the business was still around

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  12. After going with my parents my dad let me take my kid brother to the Sunset location alone. I was an eighth grader at St. Ambrose on Fairfax and Fountain. My brother was in the fifth grade at St. Victors on Holloway. We lived at El Mirador Apt’s. At Sweetzer and Fountain. Thanks for the memories.

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  13. So wonderful to see these memories of Ah Fongs Restaurants!!! Thank you for sharing an amazing piece of history.

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  14. This was my absolute favorite restaurant as a kid! I remember they were in the Monty’s building - best paper wrapped chicken! I love your blog. It’s like reliving my childhood!!!

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