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Humberto Leon’s Monarch restaurant is a grand tribute to Hong Kong in grand style

Humberto Leon was a fashion designer who sought to highlight other cultures and artists throughout his career. This was a career that was marked with 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.

Monarch is a new restaurant on Baldwin Avenue that was once a noodle shop. It is a stylish, chic space with heart-shaped windows and seafoam-green tones. 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.

Trinity Fried Rice in Monarch, the new restaurant of the Chifa family.

(James Emrani & Gardenia Roseles)

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].”

Merchandise from Monarch, the new restaurant from the family behind Chifa.

Monarch Merchandise

(Kanya Iwana)

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.

“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. It would be great to have our home be a part.

“Monarch,” he added, “is a place that celebrates culture.”

Monarch boasts a full-service bar, with a special focus on Asian-made spirits brands. Liu and Rica’s son, Jarod Wang, has been planning the cocktail program, tinkering and testing alongside his father. (Wang is responsible to select items at Chifa including the black sesame cheesecake and 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 offers a line nonalcoholic cocktails in partnership avec L.A.’s no-ABV spirits company Optimist Botanicals. Monarch offers coffee made from hand-roasted beans. It also offers puerh and oolong teas. “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 dining room of Monarch in Arcadia.

The Monarch dining room, the new restaurant by the Chifa family (incl. Humberto Leon, the Opening Ceremony’s designer/merchandiser, plays a major role in the new project.

(Kanya Iwana)

Monarch will be a popular restaurant, but it will also be a place that celebrates Chinese food and offers special-occasion meals. This is similar to how many people look to Italian or French cuisines for big nights out. Leon, who is leading the design, evokes the look of classic banquet halls and celebrates Chinese culture.

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 feel sexy, to be celebratory but also intimate and romantic in a unique Chinese way. Charlie Mai’s glass curtain, which Charlie Mai made, serves as a sort of staging area for guests. This is great for taking photos during special 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.

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. According to Leon, butterflies exist on a spiritual level, as well as physically. They fly through the clouds, between us and other dimensions, and he believes that this is why he loves them so much. Large chandeliers hang above with elaborate 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 who’ve settled in at the Eagle Rock dining room might recognize other similarities to Chifa: Hong Kong designer Izabel Lam’s wavy 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.

Cocktails from Monarch.

Cocktails at Monarch (new restaurant by the Chifa clan) Humberto Leon, the Opening Ceremony’s designer/merchandiser, is a major part of this new project.

(Jarod Wang)

“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. 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. The new white pepper ice-cream, created in collaboration with Truffles and Lavender, is also 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.

Monarch will showcase Leon’s fashion and design talents. The line will include tees and hoodies, totes and a range of metal lunchboxes, water bottles, a folding 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.

Leon states that although the brand line will continue to evolve and reflect the pride of the locality, it will not change.

“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 January 14th at 1212 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. They offer dinner service from 5-9 p.m. on Friday and Sunday. There are plans to expand to lunch service and possibly add additional days.

The dining room of Monarch.

Monarch’s dining room.

(Kanya Iwana)

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