Atlantic Times Square and the Future of Asian Food

We discovered Atlantic Times Square six months ago while it was still under construction. It’s a brand new multi-use development with storefronts on the ground floor and condos above, built in a vaguely modern Italian style with art-deco facades in contrasting pastels, with stone trim on some storefronts. The winding cobbled promenade is lined with palm trees, fountains and benches. You’ve probably seen similar developments popping up in gentrifying sections of your own city, though ATF is probably bigger than most, with a multiplex, a 24-Hour Fitness and about two dozen stores, mostly restaurants and snack shops.

It’s conveniently located on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, just two blocks south of the I-10 freeway. There’s a big underground parking lot, but it’s usually full on the weekends. We usually end up parking on the street or in the big Vons supermarket lot nearby.

What really distinguishes ATF are its restaurants. So far we’ve tried Cafe Xpress, Green Island and Tasty Garden — and we’re hooked on their hyper-competitive quality, ambience and pricing.

Our first ATF experience was at the Cafe Xpress. The ambience was modern, clean, bright and comfortable. The wait was under five minutes. The menu had a wide assortment of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and western dishes. Every dish we ordered was a winner — the fish fillets, the Mongolian beef, the kung pao chicken, the eggplant. The seasoning was flavorful and subtle rather than heavy. Each dish was uniquely seasoned — unlike the sloppy all-purpose seasoning one sometimes finds in Chinese restaurants in some non-Asian areas. And each dish was priced between $7 and $10, at least 30% less than what we would have paid for comparable fare at our suburban neighborhood restaurants. As if that weren’t enough, we got a free drink with each meal — anything from milk tea with boba to iced coffee to lemon tea. We ordered five dishes for four of us so they insisted on giving us five drinks. And the food all came out in about the time it would have taken at a place like Denny’s or House of Pancakes.

Our second ATF experience was at Green Island. The ambience was just as modern and airy, though the TV speakers in the seatbacks can be a bit annoying. The entrees were priced between $6 and $9 though without free drinks. The sauteed eggplant was better than any I’ve tasted, including at much pricier restaurants. The broccoli beef was seasoned to gourmet standards. The fish fillets were fresh and tender, not overcooked as in many restaurants. The service was even faster than at Cafe Xpress, though neither place offers what you might call personal service due to the high customer-waiter ratio.

Our positive ATF experience was reconfirmed when we returned to try Tasty Garden. Unlike Green Island and Cafe Xpress — both of which appear to be Taiwanese in origin and style — Tasty Garden is Hong Kong style. That means higher prices, more western menu items, subtler flavors and, with the desserts at least, more stylish presentation. As with the other two, the ambience was boldly modern and open. The prices were substantially higher, ranging between $10 and $19, though most were under $13. The service was even less personal, on the verge of being as brusque as we find at so many dim sum palaces.

But the food was delicious, albeit much oilier than found at Taiwanese-style restaurants. The fish fillets in black bean sauce was probably the tastiest I’ve had. The calamari was perfectly seasoned, with a thin coating of remarkably crisp batter. The beef in Chinese broccoli was tender and tasty though a bit on the bland side. The vegetable chow fun got raves from those who tried it. Best of all were the desserts. The mango crepes were a bit meager at $5.95 but stylishly presented and tasty. The honey toast concoction consisting of an immense square block of toast hollowed out and filled with ice cream, honey, strawberries and toast sticks was good, but pricey at $10.95.

The restaurants at ATF have convinced us that modern Asian restaurants are the wave of the future. It’s hard to imagine how mainstream restaurants will be able to compete against their level of quality and ambience at such low prices.