How a new complex of houses-turned-restaurants is changing this 'forgotten edge' of Chinatown

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: A look at the "Alpine Courtyard" located in Chinatown on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. Architect Jingbo Lou is creating a commercial complex that already features Perilla LA and Heavy Water Coffee, but will also include a bakery and restaurant early next year. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Jingbo Lou is developing this corner of Victor Heights, on the edge of Chinatown, into a restaurant hub by restoring nearly 100-year-old bungalows. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Victor Heights is a sliver of a neighborhood on the first hill just north of Los Angeles’ downtown core in the shadow of Dodger Stadium. It borders Echo Park, cut off from the greater part of Chinatown by the 110 freeway. The neighborhood is also known as the “Forgotten Edge,” a name that was coined in the early ’90s on account of neglect from local police divisions confused over which district it belonged to.

Today, a cluster of six small buildings at the corner of Alpine and Centennial streets, stands out. An architect named Jingbo Lou is developing the complex into a culinary hub called Alpine Courtyard — with a roster of several L.A. chefs and restaurateurs.

In the process, Lou says he’s hoping to preserve a piece of the city's history by restoring buildings that have been there for more than 100 years in a neighborhood that once brimmed with small retail businesses.

A high-angle view of a courtyard, with a city skyline in the background.
A courtyard at the Alpine Street complex is still taking shape in a complex that was once slated to be torn down for luxury apartments. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The neighborhood, now mostly residential, is in the midst of changes with an influx of new developments in the area. What has been a working-class neighborhood with largely Chinese and Mexican residents is now home to condos worth over a million dollars that stand alongside old Victorian apartment buildings and bungalows with affordable rents.

Lou's Alpine Street project, a variety of converted small homes surrounding a shared courtyard, stands in contrast to the 5.5-acre mega-development planned for nearby 1111 Sunset Blvd. Some in the neighborhood question what benefits the residents of Victor Heights.

“The character of the community is being changed,” says Patrick Chen, an IT technician who has lived in Victor Heights since 2015 and serves as a residential representative on the Historic Cultural North Neighborhood Council and a community advocate with the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. “There are a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese and Latinx working-class families that live in Victor Heights and are concerned about rent pressures and being forced out,” he adds.

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Vito Angiuli, who is the second-generation owner of nearly 100-year-old Eastside Italian Deli alongside his brothers Anthony and Rocky (his father, Johnny Angiuli, bought the deli in 1974), worries about how 1111 Sunset, as well as Alpine Courtyard, could alter the neighborhood. He says their deli’s long-term lease at 1013 Alpine St. could be threatened if the deli's landlord were tempted to sell to a developer.

“Is [Victor Heights] being gentrified because they want to see the best for our little few blocks, or are they just looking at the dollar signs and going to bring in other investors and developers later on?” he asks. Still, Angiuli says he admires how Lou and his team are preserving historic homes and that he’s glad to see new businesses brought to the neighborhood.

Tim Riley owns Heavy Water coffee shop.
Tim Riley owns Heavy Water coffee shop, located in a converted garage at the Alpine Street complex. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In early July, Tim Riley of local roastery Heavy Water Coffee opened his first cafe in a 160-square-foot converted garage facing Centennial Street. A week later, chef Jihee Kim began serving rolled egg and seaweed, dosirak with blistered cod, kimbap and more at Perilla, her banchan shop — inspired, in part, by the banchan-focused restaurants her parents operate in Korea — inside of a slightly bigger renovated garage on the other side of the plot’s courtyard. In a review last month, Times restaurant critic Bill Addison wrote that Perilla is “a vital new daytime destination.”

Toward the end of this year, Jen Yee, the pastry chef behind Baker’s Bench, is expected to open the second location of her bakery (the first is a kiosk in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza) in one-half of a Craftsman house on-site. The other half of the building, which dates to 1908 and was once a schoolhouse, will be a third location of Cassell’s Hamburgers, the long-standing burger joint acquired by Lou in 2012. The inclusion of Cassell’s in the lot was an opportunity for Lou to expand his business and offer a casual and relatively affordable restaurant that serves widely appealing food.

Pastry chef Jen Yee plans to open her bakery, Baker's Bench, in one half of a Craftsman house at the Alpine Street complex.
Pastry chef Jen Yee plans to open her bakery, Baker's Bench, in one half of a Craftsman house at the Alpine Street complex. A tiny banchan shop has drawn a big audience: Owner and chef Jihee Kim inside Perilla LA. Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

The finale — and somewhat of an anchor for the Alpine Street hub — is scheduled to arrive next year, a 35-seat restaurant from chef Miles Thompson and his business partner, wine expert Andy Schwartz. Their restaurant is set to occupy a single-story Victorian house that was constructed in the 1890s and relocated to the site in the 1920s. Two other Victorian homes, both of which are two-story duplex residences, were moved onto the lot in the '20s as well.

Read more: Chinatown is one of L.A.’s trendiest dining destinations. But residents don't have a supermarket

Lou, who was born and raised in Beijing, immigrated to the States in 1991 to pursue a master's degree in architecture and landscape at the University of Southern California, and then kick-started his career in L.A. He has experience preserving buildings in Los Angeles, including a stint from 2005 to 2012 as an architect with Heritage Housing Partners, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide affordable home ownership to low- and moderate-income first-time homeowners. He is also responsible for the 2014 preservation of Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie.

The culture of a neighborhood

Before Lou knew of the Victor Heights plot, another developer evicted the residents living in the Craftsman and the single-story Victorian under the Ellis Act as part of a plan to bulldoze them and build 26 luxury apartments on top. When that proposal wasn’t approved, Lou bought the property along with two partners (he owns 20% of the development). One of his partners, Brian Falls, formerly worked for Palisades, the development firm that’s behind 1111 Sunset Blvd.; now, he has his own development company called the Urban House.

Architect Jingbo Lou in front of one of the converted Craftsman bungalows at Alpine Courtyard.
"Preservation is not just about the buildings, but also the settings, and the culture," says architect Jingbo Lou, in front of one of the converted Craftsman bungalows at Alpine Courtyard. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Preservation is not just about the buildings, but also the settings, and the culture,” Lou says.

For him, preserving the settings and culture of Victor Heights means reinstituting the commercial fabric of the neighborhood by providing affordable rents for first-time small-business owners.

As part of his research into the neighborhood, Lou found a 1932 picture from USC’s digital library that shows how residential homes were once sandwiched between small retail shops in Victor Heights. All of his tenants at Alpine Courtyard, he says, “are in their mid-30s, have accumulated a lot of experience in their field and were looking for a starting point to have their own business.”

Read more: It's banchan heaven at Perilla L.A.

Lou finalized the deal to develop the plot in 2019, which was already zoned for commercial business as part of a 1970 master plan amendment — on account of the area’s proximity to water management district buildings, Elysian Park and major freeway intersections.

Early on, he learned that there was an oil well in the middle of what’s now the courtyard, which would have been a risk factor for the previous developers who planned to build residential units on top. Back in the late 1800s, Victor Heights — named for Victor Beaudry — was a popular area for oil production.

Lou’s plan maintains the existing layout instead of building anew and includes commercial tenants who don’t sleep there overnight.

A look at the "Alpine Courtyard."
Banchan shop and cafe Perilla has garnered good reviews and national attention. Owner Jihee Kim serves rolled egg and seaweed, dosirak with blistered cod, kimbap and more. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Yee was the first of the group courted by Lou. He came by her Chinatown kiosk soon after it opened in the spring of 2021 and was impressed by her vegan croissants and fruit danishes. Eventually, he persuaded her to collaborate with him on a second location in Victor Heights.

Once she was brought in, Yee asked her good friend Riley to open a coffee shop, and also Thompson, whom she had worked with at the now-closed Konbi, to come on board.

Lou jokes that she’s his co-developer on the project. At the new bakery, she’ll continue to serve all of her Baker’s Bench staples, and she hopes to eventually offer hot breakfasts too. “We’ll just slowly grow as we’ve always slowly grown,” she says.

Read more: Miles Thompson returns to the kitchen at this exclusive new pop-up in Koreatown

Chef Miles Thompson, left, and business partner Andy Schwartz of Baby Bistro.
Chef Miles Thompson, left, and business partner Andy Schwartz expect to open a restaurant at the Alpine Street complex that's an evolution of their pop-up Baby Bistro. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Already, Riley is selling Yee’s croissants, chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon knots at Heavy Water Coffee. He’s also serving a collaborative drink with Perilla, an espresso tonic that utilizes Kim’s fermented umeboshi plum syrup.

“There’s nothing like this in Los Angeles,” says Thompson, who has worked as a chef in L.A. for over 15 years, including at the now-closed Allumette, Michael’s in Santa Monica and Konbi.

The development’s communal dynamic was a big part of its appeal for Schwartz. “In a pretty destination-driven, isolated city, there’s going to be a collective energy here, and I don’t think that’s something that happens so much in Los Angeles,” he says.

Architectural details at "Alpine Courtyard."
"In a pretty destination-driven, isolated city, there's going to be a collective energy here, and I don't think that's something that happens so much in Los Angeles," says Andy Schwartz. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

At this point in time, the old building that will house the forthcoming restaurant from Schwartz and Thompson is still in the beginning stages of being converted into a new restaurant (rough plumbing, flooring, etc.).

Jumie Ra, a ceramicist who has lived in Victor Heights for 11 years, welcomes the new businesses in Alpine Courtyard. “I’m also a small-business owner, so I think any small business is good, it just doesn’t get a lot of attention here,” she said.

Devin, a newer resident to Victor Heights who preferred to be called by his first name only, said of Heavy Water and Perilla: “They’re a little bougie, but it’s nice to have something, because it’s sparse.”

To Chen, who worries that the culinary hub is “trying to emulate a Silver Lake type of crowd,” a neighbor cup of coffee from Heavy Water that costs $2 is “a nice gesture, and probably well-intentioned,” he says. “But sometimes it’s not about the individual business practices, it’s about the developers and the bigger picture of what's happening to a neighborhood.”

A look at the "Alpine Courtyard."
Alpine Courtyard returns small businesses to a stretch of Victor Heights where shops were once sandwiched between residential homes. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.