Once upon a time it was easy to find a good Chinese restaurant. If your city had a Chinatown, that’s where you went. If your city didn’t have a Chinatown, you were out of luck. But now things are different. Chinatown might not be the best place to go for Chinese food, and even if your city doesn’t have a recognized Chinatown, there still may be concentrations of good Chinese restaurants. The problem is that quite often in cities without a Chinatown, even most locals may not know about these Chinese restaurants, which will usually be in some suburb completely on the other side of town. Indeed, there are a number of American cities that follow this pattern. In this article, I’ll cover Atlanta and Dallas.
Atlanta was perhaps the first American city without a historic Chinatown to develop a suburban destination for authentic Chinese dining. Strangely, while early 20th century Chinese communities developed in Southeast cities like Augusta, GA, Wilmington, NC and Jacksonville, FL, Atlanta was off the radar until the late 1970s. With the late arrival of Chinese in Atlanta, it’s not surprising that in your quest for Chinese food you need to travel a dozen miles northeast of downtown Atlanta to the area around Buford Highway as it wends its way through the communities of Chamblee and Doraville, and then further northeast to Duluth. And it’s not that this is the area where the local Chinese populace lives. But it certainly is where the Chinese in Atlanta, and indeed from throughout the Southeast, go to eat and shop.
The pioneering venue was Atlanta Chinatown Plaza on New Peachtree Road in Chamblee. Besides a food court with a half dozen eateries and a supermarket, the anchor restaurant remains Oriental Pearl Seafood, which has served dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood for many years. Now other shopping centers on or near Buford Highway contain many other top notch, authentic Chinese restaurants, such as Canton House on Buford Highway in Chamblee, Mings BBQ with locations in Doraville and Duluth, Royal China on Chamblee Dunwoody Road, and China Delight on Chamblee Tucker Road. Strangely all of these restaurants serve Cantonese-style food, even though the Cantonese population in Atlanta is negligible, testament to the popularity of Cantonese food among Chinese from all regions of China.
However, more and more non-Cantonese restaurants are opening up in this area, such as Liu Fu in Duluth for Sichuan-style food, New Lan Zhou Hand Pulled Noodle in Atlanta Chinatown Plaza, and Chong Qing Hot Pot, also in Chinatown Plaza. The most interesting development is the recent establishment of Taiwanese restaurants such as Ping’s Place in the Great Wall Supermarket complex in Duluth, Chef Liu on Buford Highway in Atlanta, and Bento Café on Jimmy Carter Blvd. in Norcross. What makes it interesting is not the fact that there is Taiwanese food in Atlanta. Rather, it’s that the Taiwanese have been the largest Chinese subgroup in Atlanta since the 1970s when Taiwanese students came to Atlanta to attend college and stayed on, and that it’s taken so long for restaurants featuring Taiwanese cuisine to finally arrive.
While Atlanta may have been the first city without a historic Chinatown to develop a suburban locus of authentic Chinese dining, the first one I personally encountered was Dallas back nearly 20 years ago. Though other large Texas cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso had historic Chinese communities dating back to the early 20th century, Dallas had been bypassed since it was not on the Southern Pacific rail line. So once again it’s not surprising that to get to the core of authentic Chinese food in the Dallas area, you have to go even further out, a good 15 to 20 miles (again to the northeast of downtown) to the cities of Richardson and Plano.
In Richardson, a shopping center on Greenville Ave. has officially christened itself “DFW Chinatown.” The shopping center itself contains a Chinese supermarket and several Asian restaurants. But despite DFW Chinatown’s self proclamation and its expansive parking lot festooned with statuary reminiscent of the Xi’an warriors, this shopping center really isn’t the center of the Chinese food action in Dallas. Indeed, even with the recently added statuary, the center seems a little shopworn. There are no large banquet sized palaces here, with the favorite pick here being a wonderful small snack and drink parlor called Tapioca House.
For better Chinese food choices in Richardson, move to the immediately adjacent shopping center to the south, where you will find Maxim Chinese Restaurant, which serves dim sum and seafood. Also in the same center (which strangely carries a Terrace Dr. street address even though it fronts Greenville Ave.) are two separate branches of Taiwan Café serving authentic Taiwanese food. You can also go a few blocks south to Polk St. in the old Richardson downtown area for top restaurants like Kirin Court, purveyor of dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood, and First Emperor for Taiwanese-infused Chinese comfort food.
More recently, however, the Chinese food locus has moved northwards from Richardson to Plano. Though not as compactly located as the choices in Richardson, Plano’s Chinese food options are more representative of the emerging trends in Chinese food. An exciting place to start is the Asia World Food Court in Central Legacy Plaza with its 10 Asian eateries. The variety of Chinese regional cuisines available, some of which may be unique not just to Dallas or Texas, but to the entire United States, is its appeal. For example, Hakka Express is one of only a handful of Hakka-style restaurants in the United States and the only one operating in fast food form. Likewise, Spring Rolls and Pancakes may well be the only restaurant in America specializing in sweet Taiwanese pancakes. If sit-down restaurants are more to your liking, J.S. Chen Dim Sum and Umeko’s Sushi (mentioned in my previous article on mixing Chinese and Japanese food) are also in Central Legacy Plaza.
Many other authentic Chinese restaurants sit scattered throughout the sprawling suburb of Plano. From hole-in-the-wall Chinese cafés like 3 6 9 BBQ on Legacy and First Chinese BBQ on Coit Road to Sichuanese Cuisine in the 99 Ranch Market Shopping Center on Spring Valley Parkway, there are many great choices. And Plano has something that neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco or New York has: an upscale Chinese restaurant that caters separately to Chinese and non-Chinese diners, Yao Fuzi Cuisine on Park Blvd.
Before leaving Dallas, I should also mention smaller concentrations of authentic Chinese food in the DFW area, along Walnut Street in Garland, Pioneer Parkway and New York Avenue in Arlington, and in Carrollton. Here you can find such Chinese restaurant options like Garden Restaurant, Ocean Seafood, and Hong Kong Royal. The latter holds a distinction likely never to be replicated: in its previous incarnation in Richardson, it was the only Chinese restaurant with branches operating simultaneously in Dallas and Beverly Hills, CA.
My next articles will focus on finding concentrations of authentic Chinese food in other cities without Chinatowns, including San Diego, Phoenix, Miami, and St. Louis.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. “When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America,” Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. “As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once.” He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can’t use chopsticks.