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.
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.
Chinese have lived in the United States since the mid-19th-century. However, these immigrants did not come from the whole of China. Rather, they mostly came from rural villages around Toisan (now called Taishan), some eighty miles outside Canton. For over a hundred years, the majority of Chinese residents in America were of Toisanese origin.
The dishes that these rural villagers brought with them where what came to be known as Chinese food in America. The cuisine was adapted to use local ingredients and to fit local tastes. The Toisanese-influenced American Chinese food was not at all representative of authentic Chinese food in general. Chinese Exclusion Laws slowed Chinese immigration to a trickle, so this Chinese food wasn’t particularly representative of contemporary Cantonese food in China, either.
It was only when America relaxed its immigration laws in the late 1960s that a significant influx of new Chinese immigrants arrived. However, because the United States and mainland China did not have diplomatic relations at the time, the first wave of new Chinese immigrants originated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, bringing with them the latest, up-to-date Cantonese cuisine. In ensuing decades, as Hong Kong blossomed as a culinary center, restaurant trends such as the development of seafood and dim sum palaces were replicated in the United States.
In the 1980s, after the United States and China re-established diplomatic relations, Shanghai and Beijing-style cuisine arrived in America. As more regional cuisines arrived behind them, Cantonese food became a relatively small part of the overall dining scene in most U.S. Chinese communities. In the Los Angeles area, for example, it seems like every new authentic Chinese restaurant either serves Sichuan food, hot pot, or skewers — none of which are Cantonese.
Mainland food came to be identified with migrants who arrived from China after diplomatic relations were re-established. Though Cantonese people did migrate to the United States during this period, they had no effect on America’s Cantonese cuisine.
This neat compartmentalization of Mainland and Cantonese food started to blow up in the past five years. America’s growing appetite for Mainland Chinese food attracted the attention of restaurant chains based in Mainland China itself. Many such chains, like Din Tai Fung, Hai di Lao, and Meizhou Dongpo, rushed to set up shop in the United States, primarily in Los Angeles but also in San Francisco and other communities.
When H.L. Peninsula restaurant opened in South San Francisco last year, it represented the first Guangzhou-based restaurant chain in America. Previously, Mainland Chinese restaurant chains reflected the new wave of non-Cantonese regional food, coming from places like Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu. But H.L. Peninsula is a Mainland Chinese Cantonese food restaurant.
When dining at H.L. Peninsula, I can’t say there was much of an apparent difference from a typical Hong Kong-style Cantonese seafood restaurant. The only thing truly distinctive was a plate of fruit waiting for us as we were seated at the table.
Shortly after H.L. Peninsula opened in the Bay, Guangzhou-based vegetarian restaurant chain Ooak Kitchen set up shop in Culver City, on L.A.’s Westside. Its situation was quite puzzling, as the predominant concentration of Chinese in the Los Angeles area is in the San Gabriel Valley, which lies miles to the east of downtown Los Angeles. But here, diners were treated to Guangzhou vegetarian specialties likely never seen in the United States, such as the mock shaking beef steak pictured below, rendered from a gigantic mountainous Chinese mushroom.
Alas, Ooak Kitchen was the wrong place at the wrong time. It quickly rebranded as a more generic Chinese restaurant, Fifty One Kitchen. But it gave a glimpse of how Guangzhou-style Cantonese food could be different from the Hong Kong-style we’ve grown used to.
Early this year, the Guangdong-based Ying Ji Chang Fen chain opened in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton. Ying Ji Chang Fen offers a limited menu specializing primarily in rice noodle rolls (often referred to in the United States as cheung fun) and congee. But this isn’t your Chinese American father’s cheung fun as pictured below.
No, Ying Ji Chang Fen serves a burrito-sized roll that comes close to being a meal in itself. There’s also a thin vegetable layer to make this rice noodle roll a more balanced dish than its Hong Kong-style version. It shows that Guangzhou-styled Cantonese food differs from what we’ve seen in the United States and Hong Kong.
Recently, H.L. Peninsula opened a second branch called H.L. Peninsula Pearl in Burlingame, near the original location. And Ying Ji Chang Fen opened on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. Surely, more Guangzhou-based restaurants will follow in California and throughout the rest of the United States. It raises the question of whether the terms Mainlander and Mainland Chinese food will continue to refer only to non-Cantonese cuisine. And it challenges chefs to see how distinctive Guangzhou-style Cantonese food may be from what we have come to expect.
When my thoughts turn to my favorite Chinese dishes over the decades, my tastes seem to evolve just as Chinese food in America has.
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.(more…)
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.(more…)
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.(more…)
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.(more…)
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?(more…)
This article may be my favorite of anything I have ever written. As someone who has observed the Chinese restaurant industry for decades, I often wondered how so many mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants could serve seemingly identical dishes or offer uncannily similar menus.
My first clue into the answer came from an unexpected place: a story in the financial press, which I only stumbled upon while Googling something else. With my experience as an attorney and CPA, I then followed the trail to find source documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And it took a combination of all these things for this article to come about!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.(more…)
In the Los Angeles area, both the San Gabriel Valley and Chinatown provide hundreds of choices for authentic Chinese food. But few are aware of a collection of authentic Chinese restaurants tucked away in the South Bay, centered in the unlikely location of Lomita. With a negligible Chinese population, Lomita boasts no Chinese grocery, dry goods, or other kinds of Chinese stores or businesses anywhere in the vicinity. But decades ago, in a roundabout manner, Lomita started to become a center of Chinese dining. (more…)
Chinese food in Los Angeles is the best you’ll find in this country. And yes, that means that Chinese food is better here than in San Francisco.
But what qualifies me to make such a statement about Chinese food, given my professional background as an attorney and in accounting? Add on the fact that I hated Chinese food as a kid, and that even now I am unable to use chopsticks. Who am I to make this argument?
Let’s take a short journey through the history of Chinese food in America, and see how that history has been reflected in my own personal experiences. The two intertwined stories will illuminate how my home city of Los Angeles has become the center of Chinese food in America, and why it’s not so outlandish for me to proclaim it so. (more…)