Restaurateur Humberto Leon on Noodles, New York, and New Beginnings
Humberto Leon remembers his childhood in the sprawling San Gabriel mountains of Arcadia. They’re hills that he once fled, first to Berkeley and then to New York City. Now, the Opening Ceremony co-founder has found his way back home on the wings of a culinary vision. Leon’s new family-owned, Hong Kong-style restaurant Monarch is the fashion designer’s most recent venture. Its interior was inspired by futuristic films like Blade Runner and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, and the vibes reflect his deep ties to family and Chinese culture. Leon is no stranger to the business—he spent his adolescence working in his family’s two local restaurants—but the path to Monarch was as winding as the Baldwin Avenue road leading to the restaurant’s neon-lit doors. Who might one find in its cloud-like blue seats? Kids, grandparents, and lovers, he says. In celebration of Monarch’s recent opening, Leon got on the phone with us to reveal the inspiration behind the name “Monarch” and answer rapid-fire questions about the food scenes in L.A. and his one-time home, NYC. — AVA MANSON
ERNESTO MACIAS: You’re in New York, correct?
HUMBERTO LEON: I’m in New York now, but I’m actually based in L.A.
MACIAS: How did you decide to become a restaurateur and move to Los Angeles given your history with New York?
LEON: Two years ago, I decided to move back to LA, and my family and I decided to open a restaurant, my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law, and myself. I grew up in L.A., so part of the excitement about opening restaurants in LA is that I grew up in my uncle’s and mom’s restaurant business. Now we’re turning the tables and the restaurant is under our supervision. It’s a revisit of the restaurants we opened, two of them, both in neighborhoods where we grew up in.
MACIAS: I love that. It’s lunchtime here in New York City. What’s for lunch today?
LEON: King’s Noodle near the… what’s that bridge called? Do you know where James Veloria is?
LEON: I just went to King’s Noodle across the street.
MACIAS: And what did you order?
LEON: I ordered steamed rice rolls with barbecue pork and a wonton noodle soup with veggies.
MACIAS: So good.
LEON: I just had something comforting.
MACIAS: What’s the New York City lunch spot you miss the most now that you live in L.A.?
LEON: Honestly, one of my favorite things to do order different things from all the carts in Chinatown. I just think that’s a fun, easy, no-brainer meal.
MACIAS: What are your favorite things to get from the carts?
LEON: One thing I love is I love getting kanji, and I love this pan-fried noodle from the lady on Center Street and Canal, on the southwest corner.
MACIAS: Amazing. What’s a typical Los Angeles lunch for you?
LEON: We actually just opened up this little lunch spot but we haven’t even talked about it yet. It’s kind of like a secret. It’s called Arroz and Fun, and it’s basically all my favorites in a lunch spot. It’s Latin and Asian-style rice and noodles.
MACIAS: That sounds delicious. Tell us about the name of your new restaurant, Monarch?
LEON: In my mind, when you pass away or into the next life, you meet up with all these incredible people and you have these gorgeous meals, and that’s how you live the rest of your spirit. The statement of Monarch is to not wait for that day, but to live in the moment and be able to experience that today. I’ve grown up with the idea that butterflies can exist in our world but can also visit our past relatives and come back. My mom has always said, “Oh, that butterfly’s probably your dad coming to say hi.” So I’ve always had this mythical feeling about butterflies. I wanted Monarch to represent all that. It’s spiritual.
MACIAS: I like that. Monarch is in the San Gabriel Valley. Why did you choose that neighborhood?
LEON: I immigrated to Eagle Rock in Highland Park when I was two in the ’70s, and we opened up our first restaurant Chefa there. I was 10 the first time we bought a house, which was in the San Gabriel Valley in Rosemead. Arcadia is the neighboring city, and my mom’s brother opened a restaurant there. I worked in Arcadia all throughout my junior and high school years, so it was really exciting to go back and revisit this place that I fought so hard to leave as a teenager. It’s funny because the more I came back to L.A. to visit, the more I gravitated to the simplicity and the honesty of it. It was super exciting to go back there and see new faces, old faces, and just be a part of that community that I loved growing up in.
MACIAS: That’s really beautiful. I guess it’s a way of returning to your roots.
LEON: Revisiting thoughts about childhood and me and being gay, and how I felt about being gay in that neighborhood back then versus how I feel about it now. And bringing a bit of that storytelling and that kind of acceptance and queerness into the space.
MACIAS: How has the community reacted?
LEON: I think people are really excited. When you look at the photos, everyone’s like, “Wow, what a sexy, adult place.” But it’s actually just a great family place. People my age bring their kids and their parents, some people come on dates, and people have celebrated anniversaries. It’s a really celebratory place, and that’s what I’ve always aimed for the space to be.
MACIAS: How would you describe the vibes at Monarch?
LEON: Fantastical. Surreal. Fun and homey.
MACIAS: I love that. I read somewhere that you designed the interior of Monarch yourself.
LEON: I had a lot of images from these baby drawings of animals being wild in heaven. My mom is Buddhist and so there’s a lot of this Buddhist imagery that was on my mood board juxtaposed with this futurist I’m obsessed with who died a couple of years ago named Syd Mead, and he really designed for the future. In the ’60s he was a futurist, and he was designing for the times that we’re living in now. It’s funny because his vision of where we’re living now is even further into the future than where we are, so we haven’t even caught up to his vision yet. He drew a lot for Tron and Blade Runner back in the day. He was a true futurist, and he was gay. I got to meet him and work with him later in life, so he’s a huge inspiration. And Wong Kar-wai is a big inspiration with his movie Happy Together. I feel like it was the first time I ever saw gay Asian men looking really sexy and it changed my perspective about myself.
MACIAS: That’s such a great film. What advice would you give to a young person in the restaurant industry?
LEON: Go for it. Do it on your own beat. Don’t feel like you need to follow any restaurant rules, because there are none. That’s the best path you can go for yourself.
MACIAS: What’s your soup of choice?
LEON: Corn soup.
MACIAS: Pepsi or Coke?
LEON: Oh, Coke.
MACIAS: Do you have a go-to midnight snack?
LEON: Go-to midnight snacks now are nuts. Just because I’m trying to be healthy.
MACIAS: Better iced coffee: New York or LA?
LEON: Oh, man. L.A.
MACIAS: Who has nicer waiters?
LEON: Waiters? Maybe New York.
MACIAS: Better outdoor dining?
LEON: L.A. for sure.
MACIAS: Better trashy food?
LEON: I love New York’s trashy food.
MACIAS: Like what?
LEON: The last time I had birria tacos outside of Elsewhere. I’m giving too much information.
MACIAS: Better restaurant scene?
LEON: I’d have to say L.A.
MACIAS: Bagels or burritos?
LEON: Shit. Burritos.