Humberto Leon, the fashion designer/entrepreneur who co-founded Opening Ceremony and co-created the director of Kenzo, is opening his second restaurant in Los Angeles on Saturday.
And like his first restaurant, Chifa in Highland Park, the new Monarch in Arcadia is a family business that aims to return to its roots while updating old recipes and redefining Chinese food in America. Monarch is also where Leon launches a new collection of clothing, chef bags, lunch boxes, pens and much more. You can shop the new Monarch x VistaPrint collaboration online or purchase items at the restaurant.
Leon spent his teenage years in the San Gabriel Valley (specifically Arcadia, Rosemead and San Gabriel), so Monarch feels like a homecoming.
“There’s so much amazing Asian food,” she says. “It’s super exciting for us to open a restaurant in a community that I love, grew up in, and continue to support. We’re just adding to the landscape and trying to bring something that I feel is complementary and a little bit different. We are excited to see how we can offer something that is traditional but also modernized in a way. At the end of the day, we’ve always said we cook for us. And just as we cook at home, we also cook for our guests.”
Like Chifa, Leon runs Monarch alongside his sister (Ricardina Leon), his brother-in-law (Chef John Liu) and his mother (Wendy Leon, aka Popo). The Cantonese/Taiwanese restaurant’s opening menu includes crab and corn soup, silky steamed eggs (which can be topped with uni), sweet and sour pork, black pepper tails, Trinity fried rice (garlic, ginger, spring onion with egg, shrimp and fish roe) and roasted pork chop rice with gruyère. There is also a premium wagyu range thanks to a partnership with Australia’s Westholme. Liu prepares his beloved beef noodle soup from a family recipe with Westholm brisket. Its menu also includes filet mignon tartare (which can be topped with venison caviar), braised short ribs with tendon and large steaks, including a 32-ounce tomahawk, all from Westholme.
And all this happens in the transport space that Leon designed with the architect Michael Loverich.
“I’ve always tried to create an experiential dining experience,” says Leon. “My inspiration for this space was to make people feel like deities walking into the clouds.”
Leon, whose extended family owns the Ho Kee noodle/Cantonese barbecue restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, worked at his uncle’s dim sum parlor as a teenager. He has long adored and taken pride in the “duality” of this part of Los Angeles County. It’s a sprawling, diverse, festive place where you can eat some of the best cheap food in the world, but also shack up with an extra-large crustacean.
“As Chinese people will eat Chinese food at SGV, whether it’s on the menu or off the menu, you will always find and pay extra for that double-boiled soup and those amazing king crabs,” he says. “I think Monarch will also represent the duality of good food that’s not too crazy expensive … but if you wanted to kick it up a notch, you can.” I think Chifa does. You can have a $25 meal, which is great, or you can splurge. I think the altitude definitely affects the atmosphere as well. It just comes from my background and I really want to make sure the aesthetic matches the food.”
Also, there aren’t many restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley with strong cocktail lists, so Monarch works with Asian brands like Sông Cái (gin) and Vervet (canned cocktails) to create the right drinking situation that goes well with the food. The restaurant likes to play around with different small-batch liqueurs.
Cooperation is key for Leon. At Chifa, friends like Spike Jonez, Ali Wong and Solange Knowles have helped develop special, limited-time dishes. At Monarch, the opening menu features exclusive black sesame cookies from Flouring LA (led by chef Heather Wong, who will soon open a brick-and-mortar bakery in Chinatown) and exclusive plant-based ice cream flavors like white pepper and red azuki. -bean-paste swirl by Lavender & Truffles (founded by Alice Liu, who, like Leon, went from New York fashion to Los Angeles food).
And the merchandise Leon is debuting with VistaPrint is another way to enhance the experience of visiting Monarch.
“I’ve always been a fan of going to experience things, whether it’s theater or food, and being able to walk away with something,” he says. “I am a consumer at heart and I always tell people that I am the biggest shopper. I think what’s interesting about Monarch is that I wanted to go beyond a t-shirt and a hoodie. I feel like so many restaurants are self-branded. And if they were offering the right stuff, I would want to buy it.”
So with artwork from Naomi Otsu, Vanna Youngstein and Li Kuanzhen, he created a collection with everything from openers and pens to clothing for both children and adults. The Monarch logo is a butterfly designed by Otsu. Leon says he believes butterflies have the ability to fly between worlds and dimensions. He is eager to see where his new restaurant will take him, his family and his guests.