A Growing Chinese Restaurant Franchise Owned by a Local Family

It is ubiquitous across Los Angeles, appearing on every major thoroughfare and inside every shopping mall. It’s available in a wide range of forms, has a vast range of features, and may be had in a large range of flavors. We call “it” the American ideal.

This ideal is perhaps most alive in Southern California’s restaurant sector, where newcomers and natives alike have been feasting on a gastronomic melting pot of flavors for decades. Kai Tai Chang and his wife, May, relocated their family of four to Los Angeles from Hong Kong in the early 1960s because of the political unrest there.

Kai Tai started seeking for jobs in Chinatown the day after they landed at LAX. Possibilities in the food business arose rapidly. “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.” 

The tweet below verifies the news:

Kai Tai found employment as a chef at the Phoenix Inn on the corner of Ord and New High streets. His hard work was recognized after ten years when the Phoenix Inn’s retiring owner offered to sell it to him.

“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.

Although the Phoenix is commonly associated with Greek mythology, it also plays a significant role in Chinese mythology, where it is seen as the female counterpart to the malevolent dragon. The restaurant had been called “Phoenix” since the 1960s, but as May Chang joined her husband in the business, the name took on new significance for the Chang family.

“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.” 

We encourage you to learn more about the topics covered in the following sampling of current news:

For the next two decades, the Changs kept their customers coming back thanks to their dedication to individual attention, the dedication of their employees, and the quality of their food. However, Kai Tai was ill in the mid-1990s and eventually lost sight in one eye. It was now up to the following generation to continue the Phoenix legacy.

Elaina’s husband Tom, a CPA who had been handling the books at the Chinatown restaurant, and she expanded to Alhambra the next year. They also started serving more sweets, an area where traditional Chinese restaurants in the United States tend to fall short.

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 started serving up traditional Asian sweets like mochi, custard, crepes, and an assortment of fresh fruit. To perfect her pastry arts, she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Everyone loved it. In 2002, the family launched a sweets business close to the Alhambra eatery.

Even renowned Los Angeles pastry chef and author George Geary praised Elaina’s sweets when he included Phoenix in his book, L.A.’s Landmark Restaurants. “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.” In the Los Angeles area, the Changs established a new eatery practically year for ten years. Despite the COVID-19 epidemic and lockdowns, Phoenix continued to operate normally by offering takeout and delivery, even to frontline hospital staff.

“We didn’t even close for a day,” Elaina explains. The Clairemont Mesa site of Phoenix, San Diego’s 13th, debuted that year, in 2023. The expansion will also bring new stores to San Jose and Irvine in addition to possibly other cities in California.

Southern California is home to several popular Chinese takeout restaurants, including Panda Express and Pick Up Stix. The city of Phoenix, however, is neither fast food nor “fast casual.” Uniquely gourmet, it makes use of high-quality ingredients and time-tested family recipes.

After working in business analytics at KPMG, Nick Chang, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and Columbia Business School, took over as president of the Chang family business in 2021. He claims that there was never any doubt about his continued leadership.

“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.”  Despite the gridlock, Nick is on the road frequently as he attempts to open a restaurant in Clairemont Mesa, San Diego.

We strongly suggest that you expand your knowledge on the themes that are discussed in the following selection of recent news:

He understands that Phoenix’s future growth depends on the company’s ability to provide consistently high quality and excellent customer service 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.”  In 2015, the world lost Kai Tai Chang. May passed away on November of 2020.

They both survived to see the Phoenix signs and happy customers spread throughout the Southland and beyond, marking the realization of their American dream. “We are proud,” Elaina says. “We still stand behind the brand and keep going.”

Stay updated with the latest news and stories by following us closely. For more updates and in-depth coverage, stay tuned to our website, California Examiner. Your go-to source for all things California. 

Scroll to Top