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.
For any city with a historic 19th century Chinatown, the original locus of Chinese dining was obviously Chinatown. However, as my series has chronicled, the best Chinese dining in most of these cities has shifted to various suburban communities. In the case of Los Angeles, the shift has been especially complex. Like an army marching onward to the next hill, there has been a continuous eastward migration of Chinese residents, followed by a like movement of Chinese restaurants. The key to this push eastward is a strong preference of Los Angeles-area Chinese Americans for new housing developments, as capsulized by longtime resident Gordon Chow, who said, “You have to go east to find newer and cheaper homes.”
One of the more contentious Chinese food topics is the question of whether dim sum lunch is better served on carts, as opposed to ordered off a menu or check-off sheet. Traditionalists claim that dim sum carts are the heart of the dim sum experience, with the anticipation of seeing what lies under the lids of the metal containers in the cart a primary attraction. Meanwhile, cook-to-order partisans point out your dim sum is absolutely fresh if you order off a menu, while dim sum on a cart may have been sitting out. New varieties can be concocted without worrying if they’ll last on a cart. Plus, with menu-driven dim sum, you don’t have to worry about strategically choosing your table to get the freshest possible food as the carts emerge from the kitchen, or your item no longer being available by the time the cart rolls to you, or having to chase after a cart if it bypasses you.
Even though carts are widely believed to be the traditional method of dim sum delivery, they are of fairly recent origin. I remember when dim sum wasn’t something you ate while seated in a restaurant. My first recollection dates back to the 1950s at the legendary Man Fook Low restaurant in the hidden City Market Chinatown on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. According to legend, Man Fook Low introduced dim sum to LA in the 1930s and didn’t even list dim sum on its restaurant menu. Like the neighboring New Moon Café, Man Fook Low sold its dim sum via take-out window. The restaurant made only a handful of dim sum varieties; there was steamed barbecue pork bun, much larger than those we see today, and then referred to as hom bao. There was ha gow, pork siu mai (which my mom called “stacks” because of its haystack shape), and the sweet and glutinous bak tong go. Our dim sum orders were placed in large pink boxes that we would take home to enjoy. Any leftovers were re-steamed the next day. (more…)
Recently, one of the leading Chinese food authorities in the San Francisco Bay area made an astounding discovery. In the small town of Willits, California, he found a Chinese restaurant called Mom’s Buffet, which in addition to the Americanized Chinese buffet, had a Chinese language menu that offered such items as Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, rou jia mo (Chinese pulled pork sandwich), salt and pepper baked squab, Toishanese congee, and numerous goat dishes. So what was a restaurant like this doing there? (more…)
My series has traced the general pattern of historic center city core Chinatowns in the United States. In most of these cities, much of the population, and correspondingly the authentic Chinese food, has fled to the suburbs, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, or Flushing and Brooklyn in New York. The only real exception to this rule that I’ve discussed so far is Philadelphia, whose Chinatown has gone through an unexpected revival in the past five years, though it has not expanded geographically.
Happily, another exception to this pattern is Chicago Chinatown, which not only is thriving, but also experiencing significant population growth and geographic expansion. Chicago Chinatown’s population increased by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010 and its boundaries are spilling into adjacent neighborhoods. But why is Chicago the great exception as a Chinese culinary center with a growing Chinatown? Especially when contrasted to Los Angeles Chinatown, which has become a hotbed of non-Chinese restaurants, or Manhattan Chinatown, which is gentrifying and losing turf particularly on the Lower East Side, or San Francisco Chinatown, abuzz in rumors of technology industry incursion, or Washington, DC Chinatown, which may be on its last legs? (more…)
For over two decades, Vancouver, British Columbia, and particularly its suburban community of Richmond, has been Mecca for Chinese food lovers in Northern America. During the late 1980s, Hong Kongers recognized that control of Hong Kong would revert to Mainland China in 1997. Meanwhile, its 1986 World’s Fair put the spotlight on Vancouver as a prime destination. The result was a mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver, turning the city into Hong Kong East, and creating an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana. The word about the superior brand of Chinese food served in the Vancouver area spread quickly. It wasn’t long before Chinese food lovers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other American locales started trekking to Vancouver in droves to partake of the heavenly fare. (more…)
As readers of my series on Chinese restaurants across the country know, the general rule is that if a city has an existing 19th or early 20th century Chinatown, that Chinatown is almost certainly not the best place for a great Chinese meal. However, like most general rules there are exceptions, and one prominent exception is Philadelphia. (more…)
Having set foot in nearly 7,000 Chinese restaurants, there is a certain sameness to the premises. Yes, there are fancy restaurants, dumpy restaurants, big restaurants, little restaurants, restaurants with large fish tanks, restaurants with steam tables, Americanized Chinese restaurants, authentic Chinese restaurants, big city restaurants and small town restaurants, and so on. But after all these years, I’ve seen them all many times over. However, nothing prepared me for the shock I received when, on a cold, damp February evening in 2008, I walked into East Market Seafood Restaurant on East Broadway in the Little Fuzhou section of Manhattan Chinatown. (more…)
With the arrival of restaurants like Roy Choi’s Chego, Little Jewel of New Orleans, Scoops, Pok Pok and Pok Pok Phat Thai, Burgerlords, Unit 120, Amboy, Endorffeine, Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken, Lobsta Shack, Oleego, and Ramen Champ, Los Angeles Chinatown is once again a dining destination, albeit not particularly for Chinese food. Unbeknownst to many Angelinos, however, this is not Chinatown’s first dining renaissance. Decades ago, it emerged from a dining slumber to become a culinary hot spot. (more…)
The weakest link in Chinese American dining has always been dessert, or the lack thereof. The Cantonese scene, which defined Chinese dining in the United States for nearly a century and a quarter, was nearly devoid of sweets. The only dessert I remember as a kid was the agar-based dish which we referred to as “almond jello,” topped with canned fruit cocktail and hardly the highlight of the meal.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that I encountered a different dessert in a Chinese restaurant. Green Jade was one of the first non-Cantonese restaurants to open up in Los Angeles Chinatown, back when anything not Cantonese was referred to as “Mandarin” or “Northern.” Not encumbered by the Cantonese disdain for desserts, Green Jade actually had a short dessert section on its menu. I remembered how fascinated I was with its candied banana and candied apple dishes, dunked in ice water. (more…)
I previously wrote about a conspicuous lack of sit-down Chinese restaurant chains in the United States. However, potential winds of change are blowing as overseas Chinese restaurant chains based in Asia have begun to open branches in the United States. In each case, the initial foray is in California, in recognition that the best Chinese food and the most sophisticated Chinese food audiences are found there, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles. As successful operations are established in California, the beginnings of further expansion are appearing. (more…)