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.

Steamed lobster in supreme sauce. Photo by Szechwan Chinese Restaurant.

Even in good times, a restaurant operation can expect a net profit of about 3% on sales. Employee wages are often 25 percent or more of restaurant costs, so it doesn’t take much of a decline in restaurant revenue in such a low-margin industry to trigger labor cutbacks.

But Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic. Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster, but they have suffered additionally for serving Chinese food. COVID-19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with unfortunate terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” Immediately as the virus spread through China, business at Chinese restaurants in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, began to sink — even before the rest of the world economy and other types of restaurants became impacted.

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Posted by on May 18th, 2020

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

A few years ago, I discussed the merits of ordering dim sum from a menu versus serving dim sum from heated carts. I argued that menu-driven dim sum is more conducive to creating new and better dishes, because offerings would not have to wheel around the dining room.

Carts have been dishing out longtime favorites like steamed barbecue pork buns, har gow, siu mai, cheung fun (rice noodle rolls), pineapple buns, turnip cake squares, lotus leaf sticky rice, and many others since arriving on the dim sum scene in the 1960s and 70s.

But America’s dim sum palaces are innovating all kinds of new, non-traditional dim sum items. Here are five ways they’re changing our expectations of Chinese brunch.

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Posted by on February 3rd, 2020

The Philly cheesesteak wrap at Bao Shoppe. Photos by David R. Chan

Since my first article for Menuism in 2012, I always wanted to discuss the difference between Chinese fusion and authentic Chinese food. I’ve heard traditionalists say they hate Chinese fusion since it means messing with a revered cuisine. But as I’ve often said, Chinese food in the United States continues to evolve into new and better forms. So, what’s fusion and what’s evolution?

A common definition of fusion cuisine is the introduction of nontraditional ingredients into a particular cuisine. On its face, this definition seems to be relatively straightforward to determine when a particular dish should be classified as Chinese fusion. Adding truffles to siu mai or foie gras to har gow would seemingly be classified as Chinese fusion. But when you see well-established dim sum restaurants serving these dishes, isn’t this just part of the continuous evolution of Chinese food?

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Posted by on December 9th, 2019

Dim sum at H.L. Peninsula. Photo: H.L. Peninsula / Facebook.
All other photos by David R. Chan

In the past decade, Chinese dining in the United States popularized “Mainlander food,” or non-Cantonese regional cuisines. The Mainland moniker distinguished it from food from Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Mainland food largely excluded Cantonese cuisine, even though Canton (now known as Guangzhou) sits squarely on the Chinese mainland.

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Posted by on October 28th, 2019

When my thoughts turn to my favorite Chinese dishes over the decades, my tastes seem to evolve just as Chinese food in America has.

The early years

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Posted by on September 23rd, 2019

Ocean Star Seafood in 2006. Photo by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

Five years ago, I wrote a Menuism article about why I generally did not eat at Chinese restaurants in the United States that were more than 20 years old. My reason for this 20-year rule was that Chinese food in America was evolving at a surprisingly rapid rate, with diners and chefs endlessly looking for that next more delicious, more innovative Chinese food creation. Because innovation is more likely to come from new players, and because existing successful Chinese restaurants are likely to stick with what works, I decided that after 20 years, most Chinese restaurants are behind the curve.

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Posted by on August 19th, 2019

With something in the neighborhood of 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, Chinese food is one of the most popular types of ethnic food here. Indeed, Chinese restaurants outnumber the 14,000 McDonalds locations, and even the top five fast food outlets combined. Towns with as few as 1,000 residents sport a Chinese restaurant.

The popularity of Chinese food in the United States is a testament to the popularity of the food itself. But when you consider all of the obstacles that had to be overcome, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to racial discrimination, from boycotts to legislation backed by labor unions, the endurance of Chinese food is also stunning.

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Posted by on July 22nd, 2019

Photo by Wanyun C. / Yelp

West Yellowstone, Montana offers authentic Chinese food options that Los Angeles Chinatown doesn’t. Let me say that again: You can eat Chinese dishes in Montana that you can’t eat in downtown L.A.

I am in no way suggesting that Montana is any kind of Chinese dining destination. However, this improbable but true statement combines two recurring topics I have addressed: the emergence of Mainland Chinese cuisine and the effect of Chinese nationals across the United States.

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Posted by on June 17th, 2019

yunbanbao
Photo by foodmapnyc

A few years ago, I first discussed the concept of the “Chinese stomach,” which describes the preference of Chinese diners for Chinese food over other types of food. My initial article focused on Chinese travelers who prefer to eat Chinese food — even of inferior quality — on their trips, rather than what might be considered higher quality host country food.  

Doubters argued that tour operators served low-quality Chinese food to cut costs, but I found the “Chinese stomach” at work throughout the United States under other manifestations. For instance, Chinese food is used to entice Chinese Americans to casinos along the East and West Coasts. When college campuses see surging Mainland Chinese student populations, authentic Chinese restaurants and food trucks quickly follow. On these campuses, some Chinese students will even shell out $50 delivery charges for food from far-flung restaurants. And at upscale shopping malls frequented by well-heeled Chinese tourists, Chinese restaurants either open onsite or nearby restaurants adapt their menus to serve these visitors.

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Posted by on May 6th, 2019

1939 Redlining map of Los Angeles. Green areas were the most desirable, followed by blue, yellow, and finally, red.
Photo: urbanoasis.org

Three mega-Chinese communities in the United States—Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York—are each home to more than 600,000 Chinese Americans. But L.A. stands out in a peculiar way. Unlike San Francisco and New York, where authentic Chinese food has been fairly well geographically dispersed for a number of years, the Los Angeles area until quite recently concentrated its authentic Chinese food in just a handful of places, especially the San Gabriel Valley. Why?

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Posted by on April 1st, 2019

Dave Jensen

Dave Jensen
Craft Beer

David R. Chan

David R. Chan
Chinese Restaurant

Nevin Barich

Nevin Barich
Fast Food

Justin Chen

Justin Chen
Menuism Co-Founder

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John Li
Menuism Co-Founder

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Kim Kohatsu
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