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.

Photo by LexnGer / Flickr

As regular readers know, for more than a century, Chinese food in America was exclusively Cantonese, and particularly a brand of Cantonese food brought by immigrants from rural Toishan. It wasn’t until the 1960s that non-Cantonese food made its appearance in the United States, first under the moniker “Mandarin” or “Northern” Chinese food, then subsequently in the 1970s, Sichuan and Hunan-style food. With Chinese food divided into Cantonese and non-Cantonese camps, a truism arose which withstood into the 21st Century: never order a non-Cantonese dish at a Cantonese restaurant, and never order a Cantonese dish at a Mandarin restaurant. Xiao long bao or kung pao chicken at a Cantonese restaurant? Forget it! Char shiu at a non-Cantonese restaurant? No way! Restaurants touting “Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan cuisine?” Turn around and run away as fast as you can.

But with so many facets of Chinese dining in America changing in the last five to ten years, this truism is also starting the pass by the wayside. Perhaps the most glaring example of the changes afoot are startling developments with some newly opened dim sum restaurants. Dim sum, Cantonese in origin, is traditionally a lunchtime affair. Consequently, dim sum restaurants need a completely different bill of fare at dinnertime. Since the 1980s in the United States and Canada, these dinners have uniformly been centered around Hong Kong-style cuisine, and in particular Hong Kong-style seafood. It’s the most logical pairing, given dim sum’s Cantonese roots and the dominance of Cantonese-style food in Chinese-American communities until quite recently.

A little over five years ago in the city of San Gabriel, an opulent new restaurant called Shanghai #1 Seafood Village opened, offering dim sum at lunch and Shanghai cuisine at dinner. (The restaurant’s decor was often compared to a Shanghai bordello.) The restaurant’s menu generated widespread skepticism, as it paired dim sum with the totally unrelated Shanghai-style cuisine. Since Shanghai #1 Seafood Village was the first US branch of a Shanghai-based restaurant chain, there was no question that the Shanghainese dinners would be excellent. But the question on everybody’s minds was whether the dim sum would be any good. As it turns out, the answer was yes, though not good enough to put it San Gabriel’s top-tier dim sum. A couple years later, China Red opened in Arcadia serving daytime dim sum which many observers do include in that top tier, and at dinnertime, a mixture of Hong Kong-style seafood with a few Beijing- and Shanghai-style dishes thrown in to reflect the changing demographics of the Chinese community.

But in the past few months, conspicuous cracks in the historic link between dim sum and Cantonese dinners has broken down. In Chino Hills, a burgeoning Chinese American community east of the San Gabriel Valley with few Cantonese residents, Taste of China paired dim sum with a selection of Sichuan dinner selections. And a few weeks ago in Temple City, perhaps the best dim sum restaurant to open in the San Gabriel Valley in years, Xiang Yuan Gourmet debuted serving traditional Hunan-style food at dinnertime, a truly unprecedented if not downright unthinkable combination. The manager told me the dinner menu was targeted “to the locals,” reflecting the Mainlander demographics in the restaurant’s immediate area.

These mixtures of dim sum and non-Cantonese food are an extension of a more subtle recent trend of restaurant menus going beyond a single regional Chinese cuisine. Even as authentic non-Cantonese restaurants started opening in the late 1970s, regional distinctions were carefully observed and restaurants were easily classifiable as Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Sichuan, or Hunan-style eateries. This trend continued into the 21st century as new Chinese regional styles arrived, including a newly opened Dongbei-style restaurant that was clearly identifiable as such.

Things began to change about 10 years ago. For the first time, I’d look at the menu at a new Chinese restaurant and could not identify the restaurant as specializing in a particular Chinese regional cuisine. For quite a while I found this puzzling, but in hindsight, this is a logical development reflecting these changes in the Chinese-American community:

Rapid addition of new Chinese regional cuisines

There are at least two dozen regional Chinese cuisines represented at Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area, and even more nationally. One might assume this would reinforce the distinction between these cuisines, but in fact it has the opposite effect. Chinese restaurants still tend to have extensive menus, and as more obscure regional styles make their appearance, there might not be enough distinctive dishes or an audience large enough to appreciate such an exclusive selection of a particular regional cuisine. Consequently, popular dishes from other regional cuisines are a safe addition to fill out a menu.

Development of hybrid Chinese regional dishes in the US

One of the most ubiquitous dishes in the San Gabriel Valley is the so-called Shandong beef roll. Except this dish is not from Shandong province; rather, it’s like chop suey, a throwback from more than a century earlier. Concocted in the United States (specifically Los Angeles), though rooted in traditional Chinese ingredients, Shandong beef rolls are found in Los Angeles-area Chinese restaurants of all non-Cantonese stripes. And its L.A. roots explain why they are just now showing up in New York and other cities, even though they could be found on almost every block in the San Gabriel Valley for at least the past decade.

Rise of the 626 Generation

Los Angeles has seen the rise of the 626 Generation, the American-born children of the post-immigration reform wave of Chinese who moved to the United States. While Chinese coming to the US may have been parochial about their preference for their own regional style of food, their American-born offspring have no such prejudices and have adopted a taste for the best of Chinese cuisine regardless of the regional origin.

Chinese university students in America

A common theme in my articles is the culinary effect of the hundreds of thousands of Mainland Chinese students studying at American universities, and the campus town restaurants that arise to meet their food preferences. These students come from all regions of the Chinese mainland, resulting in these college town restaurants serving a wide variety of authentic regional dishes to satisfy their clientele.

So once again, what had once been true with regard to authentic Chinese food in the United States is changing, thanks to demographic changes in the Chinese-American community.

Posted by on November 6th, 2017

Since Chinese food first came to America in the mid-19th century, the best Chinese food in the United States has generally been found in California. With by far the largest Chinese population from the 1850s through the mid-20th century, it is no mystery why San Francisco had the best Chinese food for well over a century. However, with the late 1960s immigration act once again permitting large-scale immigration from China to the United States after more than eight decades of tight immigration restrictions, changing immigration patterns had shifted the apex of Chinese dining in the United States in the 1980s to New York, and in particular, Manhattan Chinatown. (more…)

Posted by on October 2nd, 2017

Photo by SimonQ / Flickr

As I’ve previously discussed, the presence of over 300,000 Mainland Chinese university students in the United States has altered the face of Chinese dining in the United States, bringing authentic Chinese food to cities and towns where finding the cuisine would have been unimaginable a decade ago. As a big fan of both college sports and US geography, I’ve tracked down authentic restaurants in many college towns in all 50 states.

Recently I saw a promo for ESPN’s College Game Day telecast. As it was a slow period early in the football season, ESPN decided to do its show from a small (athletically speaking) campus, James Madison University. I had heard of the school but had never heard of the town where it is located: Harrisonburg, Virginia. Looking it up, I saw that it is a rural town about a two-hour drive away from both Washington DC and Richmond. As is my wont, I had to check whether JMU was a school that had enough Chinese students to warrant authentic Chinese food. Indeed it is, with Taste of China Restaurant providing anything a homesick Mainland Chinese student might want to eat. (more…)

Posted by on August 14th, 2017

As I have mentioned in a number of previous articles, Mainland Chinese students studying at American universities have created a demand for authentic Chinese regional food that has resulted in many campus towns and cities across the country getting their first taste of authentic Chinese food. But these students do not get their homeland food fix solely through restaurants. Newer options are available for Mainland Chinese students longing for a taste of home. (more…)

Posted by on July 24th, 2017

Star ratings are ubiquitous when it comes to restaurants. While a one-star Yelp rating has a far different meaning from a one-star Michelin rating, universally the rule is that the more stars, the better. However, I created my own star rating system which has nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant. Rather, under my system, each star represents a different Chinese restaurant that has operated at a particular location; a four-star restaurant location means that I have eaten at four different Chinese restaurants at that particular address.

Of course, under my system, the sky is the limit for the number of stars that can be awarded, given the rate at which Chinese restaurants close down and are immediately replaced by successors. Right now, the leader is in a shopping center on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel where I have eaten at 14 different Chinese restaurants over a 25-year period. There are roughly a hundred four-star restaurants on my list and hundreds more with five or more stars. (more…)

Posted by on June 26th, 2017

Photo by sputnik / Flickr

In my previous articles about Chinese dining in Los Angeles, I have only incidentally mentioned the Orange County community of Irvine. However, this omission should not be interpreted as minimizing Irvine’s importance on the Chinese food scene, as indeed Irvine ranks second in the Los Angeles metropolitan area behind only the San Gabriel Valley as the preferred source of authentic Chinese food. Rather, I haven’t said much about Irvine because of its geographic distance, some 40 miles from both Los Angeles Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley, and 55 miles from the Westside of Los Angeles. As such, Irvine’s Chinese food options are seldom appreciated by diners from these other areas. (more…)

Posted by on May 15th, 2017

Once upon a time, the term celebrity conjured up visions of movie stars and superstar athletes, but somewhere along the line, the term deteriorated into something much less exclusive. Nowadays, there are celebrity chefs, celebrity doctors, celebrity hair stylists, celebrity houseguests, and celebrity pets. A guy I know has been described as a celebrity real estate developer. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were celebrity plumbers and celebrity gardeners. But the term really reached an extreme when I was labeled a “celebrity diner.” (more…)

Posted by on April 24th, 2017

As a whole, Los Angeles’s Chinese food scene surpassed New York’s over 20 years ago and continues to pull away. However, you’ll find some things Chinese food-wise in New York that simply don’t exist in Los Angeles, including these four restaurants.

The Chinese fine dining establishment: La Chine

Situated in the Chinese-owned Waldorf-Astoria, La Chine is the type of high-end authentic Chinese restaurant on offer in New York, along with Fung Tu, Cafe China, and Hakkasan. After the demise of Hakkasan Beverly Hills (and perhaps Chi Lin), there are no longer such posh Chinese dining options in LA. Perhaps Los Angeles is just not as much of an expense account town. Sure, it does boast the entertainment industry, but still pales in comparison to New York, with Wall Street, the investment banks, and all the corporate headquarters. (more…)

Posted by on March 20th, 2017

Photo by Garrett Ziegler / Flickr

Five years ago I opened up a hornet’s nest when I wrote my Top 10 listing of Chinese restaurants in the United States. The list included 10 California restaurants and none from New York, because even though New York once had the best Chinese food in the US, it now lagged badly behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite howls of protests from outraged New Yorkers, the ranking of New York Chinese food is no longer arguable. Even New York Times columnist Mark Bittman stated rather matter of factly that, “for Chinese food, there’s no place in the United States like Southern California,” and in particular, the San Gabriel Valley.

More recently, I made a comment which on the surface might be viewed as an even greater insult to New York Chinese food. I said, “pound for pound, authentic Chinese food in Phoenix is better than that in New York.” I did not intend it to be a derogatory comment about New York Chinese food, and I didn’t mean to say that there wasn’t a lot of good Chinese food in New York. Rather, it was a reflection of the current state of Chinese food, where excellent Chinese food can be found in a lot more places than just a few years ago. (more…)

Posted by on February 13th, 2017

Photo by charlene mcbride / Flickr

Photo by charlene mcbride / Flickr

In this ongoing series covering American cities with a historic center city Chinatown, there have been two distinct models. In most cities, the best and most authentic Chinese food migrated out of the historic Chinatown into either suburban Chinese communities or to secondary areas away from the downtown core. However, exceptions such as Philadelphia and Chicago illustrate the second model, where the historic Chinatown still reigns supreme, with a few secondary locales to find authentic Chinese food.

In the case of present-day Boston, however, neither model seems to fit. Ten or fifteen years ago, Boston’s historic Chinatown was still dominant, and indeed at that time, I commented that Chicago and Boston were the main exceptions to the suburbanization of Chinese food in America. Today, Boston Chinatown still dominates as a cultural and commercial center (though its borders are threatened by development and gentrification). While Chinatown has not been entirely eclipsed for dining, there is now significantly good Chinese food to be found outside its boundaries. (more…)

Posted by on January 17th, 2017

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