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LA's Newest Communist-Themed Restaurant Made Me Realize I'd Be a Terrible Communist

As a latchkey kid, I suck at sharing, and sharing is the point of Private Party.
December 14, 2015, 6:12pm

On the third floor of a charmless, stucco-encrusted shopping plaza in California's San Gabriel Valley sits Private Party, a recently opened Chinese hot pot restaurant. Like most other eateries in the complex, it has a health code rating of B. Unlike the others, it has walls covered in faux-propaganda posters and a staff decked out in replica Red Army uniforms. Private Party, you see, is Communist themed.

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Private Party specializes in traditional Northern Chinese hot pot, a method of cooking wherein you place meats like beef and pork belly and vegetables like bok choy and taro into boiling broths of your choosing. It's meant to be shared in large groups, presumably to foster conversation and camaraderie. A latchkey kid, there's nothing I want less in a meal than community—I just want to eat my GMO-laden foodstuffs as quickly as possible in complete, vacuous silence. Not only am I not a team player, I am not a team eater. I would, in short, make a terrible communist.

The San Gabriel Valley is no stranger to bizarrely themed restaurants, up to and including Uncle Yu's Indian Beer House, a Taiwanese joint that, strangely enough, pays culture-jacking homage to Native American culture. With waitresses walking around in headbands and dusty Native American tchotchkes dotting the decor, it's enough to make you wonder if cultural appropriation is still supposed to be offensive when white people aren't the offending party. Jurassic Restaurant, which, for whatever reason, has avoided litigation from Jurassic Park's copyright owners for nearly eight years, also calls the SGV home. Mercifully, Magic Restroom Café, wherein customers consumed flavorless meals of udon and spaghetti out of miniature toilet bowls, no longer does. Private Party, however, has emerged to pick up the absurdist slack left in its wake.

Now, some may find it gauche to base a restaurant's theme on a political regime that created a famine which contributed to the deaths of between 23 to 40 million people, but fret not — the owners of Private Party are actually from Northern China, so unlike Jurassic Restaurant—which, by the by, is not run by dinosaurs—they actually have tangible ties to the culture they're borrowing from.

Anyhow, Communist-themed restaurants are all the rage nowadays in China itself; numerous Mao-filled outlets in places like Chongqing and Gansu Province serve up dumplings and soups with a smile. (The existence of said smiles, not to mention the existence of food, are how you can tell modern China is has, at least somewhat, entered the 21st century.) And for what it's worth, Havana, Cuba also has its own Communism-themed restaurant, Nazdarovie, which, according to its website, "celebrates the social and cultural bond that was born between the Cuban people and the peoples of the former Soviet Union." One would assume all the restaurants in North Korea do the same, but for whatever reason I could find no reference to their existence online.

Shockingly, Private Party is not Southern California's only Communist-themed eatery. Two locations of Mao's Kitchen exist in Venice and Los Angeles proper, but cater to a different clientele. Trust and believe, dishes like "Peace Not War Wonton" and "Model Citizen Noodle" soups are meant for hipsters. Private Party, however, seems to exist for its target demographic; it's an attempt to instill a sense of nostalgia for the actual Mao Zedong in the SGV's Chinese population. If nothing else, I saw actual Chinese people in Private Party, which I can't say for the times I've been to Mao's Kitchen.

The other restaurants in the shopping plaza, including Honey Pig 2.0, an inexplicably monikered all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ joint, were bustling when my dining companion and I arrived at noon on a Sunday. Private Party, however, was nearly empty, its only customers being two middle-aged women doing the Chinese equivalent of kibitzing in Mandarin over a trough of hot broth. Nondescript and incredibly loud Chinese pop music played overhead, sounding all the more louder due to the restaurant's dearth of patrons.

Private Party's menu, I realized, is exhausting in its length—there is, to be sure, no famine within this restaurant's walls. A seemingly endless list of meat, seafood, tofu, mushroom and vegetable options, not to mention a large selection of soup bases, overwhelmed me, a hot pot novice; I ultimately decided to order a spicy soup base and something called "Lobster Balls," because I am nothing if not a moron. At a price of $5.95, the balls most certainly were not lobster, though whatever the hell they were constructed of was molded into ball form. Their taste reflected their shape; the heat of the spicy soup base, both in temperature and flavor, brought tears to my eyes. This fact could be construed as a testament to the food's authenticity. Panda Express it ain't.

Waiters, in army green outfits augmented by red arm bands and starred hats, when not being enlisted to refill sodas, stoically stood guard at different ends of the restaurant, folding their hands before them in a possibly intentional, most likely bored manner. Their costumes were cheap and flimsy; one could see the creases from folding in them. The fact that they're not required to press their uniforms was but one of many tip-offs that I was not actually eating in Communist China. My constantly refilled glass of Coca-Cola was another. As was the existence of what appeared to be a Mandarin cover of "Easy Like Sunday Morning," which blasted overhead while we waited for our hot pot to get, uh, hot.

Dozens of faux propaganda posters, replete with smiling Maos and happy workers and beautiful women, hang on the otherwise painfully average walls of Private Party. The only one I could competently translate, located behind the cash register, boasted that the restaurant serves the "best hot pot in Los Angeles." As I have not consumed any other hot pot in Los Angeles, I cannot confirm or deny this braggadocious claim. I can say, however, that when it comes to the People's Republic of China, braggadociousness is very on brand.

Many of the bright, engaging posters hung below surveillance cameras; the restaurant's presumably unintentional inclusion of said cameras served to push its "Big Brother is watching" vibe. Arguably, it is the only truly Big Brother-esque aspect of the entire, otherwise unexceptional, experience.

The wait staff paced, almost martially, up and down the aisles while we ate — I assumed they were judging us, as it was painfully evident we had no idea what the fuck we were doing. One waiter suggested we purchase $1 skewers, located in a refrigerator in the corner of the restaurant, and cook them over hot coals in the middle of our hot pots, as it was decidedly easier than muttering to ourselves while trying, in vain, to chopstick complimentary ramen into our mouths without looking like goddamned animals. We respectfully declined, choosing instead to continue wondering how long a lobster ball that isn't actually lobster has to cook in a vat of hot liquid in order to be confidently consumed.

I made a mess of my meal, slathering oily broth over the table and my hands, because I am a disgusting capitalist pig. The wait staff, however, still treated me like a human being, because I was paying them for the privilege.

A woman I could only assume was the manager of Private Party informed us, as we exited, that were we to post pictures of the restaurant on Instagram, we'd receive 20 percent off our next meal. The only non-uniformed worker in the restaurant, she spoke perfect English. With her send-off I was transported, instantly, back into our capitalist reality.

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