In perusing the various food message boards, a recurring request which makes me a little sad is the one from first time visitors to places like San Francisco, Manhattan or Toronto asking for recommendations for a great Chinese meal in Chinatown. I get sad because in most North American cities having a historic core Chinatown, the best Chinese food tends not to be in Chinatown, but in outlying areas where tourists are unlikely to visit. And indeed, in most of these Chinatowns the Chinese food pales greatly in comparison to the suburban food. As a result, Chinatown is often not the place to find that great meal.
Now one might wonder why, as a rule, Chinatown Chinese food is inferior to suburban food. Initially, we need to categorize Chinatowns into two groups. First are the historic core city Chinatowns, founded in the 19th and early 20th century, located in or near the downtown area of a major city. These would include still existing Chinatowns in places like Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Brooklyn, Oakland, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland, and in Canada, Vancouver and Toronto. The term also refers to now extinct Chinatowns like in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, Fresno, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Jose, Detroit, Cleveland, and many other smaller cities in the West.
Then there are the more modern, non-tourist “Chinatowns” that developed in the late 20th century, which might not be much more than a commercial area that started out as a Chinese shopping center and surrounding businesses, such as in Richardson (Dallas), Texas, North Miami Beach, Chamblee (Atlanta), Georgia or Las Vegas, or on the other hand, may be a full-fledged Chinese community, such as Flushing, New York.
Having made this distinction, we may now categorically say that if a metropolitan area has a historic core Chinatown, and in addition has a major suburban Chinese community, you’re better off not going to Chinatown in search of memorable Chinese cuisine. But why is this the case? In large part it goes back to the fact discussed in my previous Menuism piece on Americanized Chinese food: that the first century of Chinese immigration to America was almost exclusively from the rural Toishan area of China outside of Canton. Consequently, every historic American core city Chinatown was founded by Toishanese migrants and initially featured the Cantonese-style food of this rural immigrant group. As the prior article noted, the food that the Toishanese brought to America was not the best food to begin with. Then, as the 20th century wore on, historic core Chinatowns became tourist attractions, necessitating the alteration of Chinese food served in Chinatown to suit tourist tastes. Indeed, many Chinatown restaurants totally catered to non-Chinese patrons, and such restaurants exist to this day.
Then came the event that changed the face of Chinese food in America: the loosening of immigration laws which now permitted immigration of Chinese into the United States (and Canada) from Asia, after decades of prohibition. The change in immigration laws was especially propitious since the surviving Chinatowns were in serious decline. Indeed, Los Angeles Chinatown of 1965 was exclusively a tourist trap, with only a handful of Chinese residents actually living in the immediate area, as both storekeepers and workers would pack up and leave the neighborhood after business hours.
The new wave of immigration invigorated Chinatown with fresh blood, with the first wave being largely from Hong Kong. For these urban immigrants, the existing Chinatowns were nevertheless a logical initial stopping off point due to sufficient similarities with the existing Toishanese culture. Also racial residential segregation, while in the process of fading away, still affected housing choices for the initial wave of new immigrants to the United States. With Chinatown reshaped by new residents, obviously the food also changed with the introduction of the more modern Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. Chinatown, though, continued to be burdened with its status as a tourist attraction so Americanized tourist food also continued to thrive there.
The Hong Kong immigrants were later followed by Chinese immigrants from other locales, first from Taiwan, then Chinese mainlanders (a term often used to describe non-Cantonese, non-Taiwanese Chinese from China), and ethnic Chinese from other Asian countries. But a funny thing happened when these later immigrants came to the United States. For the most part they bypassed Chinatown, and settled elsewhere, for two main reasons. First, residential segregation subsided and new housing alternatives were available to these newcomers, many of whom were persons of means. Secondly, these later immigrants, even those from Hong Kong, had relatively little in common with the working class Cantonese-influenced Chinatowns. Consequently, to this very day, all of the historic core Chinatowns remain decidedly Cantonese in flavor, with a healthy dose of food dumbed down for tourists.
So if you go to Los Angeles Chinatown today, you will find that of the dozens of Chinese restaurants, there are only a handful that are not Cantonese, none of which would be classified as “authentic.” Likewise, in San Francisco Chinatown with well over a hundred Chinese restaurants, a similar survey also yields mostly Cantonese restaurants, though there is one authentic Shanghai-style restaurant and a couple of authentic Sichuan style eateries in that Chinatown. New York’s Chinatown is more diverse due to different recent immigration patterns, but the Cantonese influence remains heavy and the general caution about Chinatown dining applies here, too.
Meanwhile, the wealthier and non-Cantonese Chinese immigrants were setting up shop in communities like Monterey Park, California, Flushing, New York, Rockville, Maryland, the Sunset District of San Francisco, Richmond, British Columbia, and Scarborough, Ontario, far away from the core Chinatown. As things have evolved, innovations and new styles of Chinese cuisine are found here, not in Chinatown. So places like these are the real destinations for those in search of a great Chinese meal.
But not every core Chinatown city has an equivalent Chinese community outside the central core. Consequently, in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent, Boston, Chinatown may still be the place to go for that Chinese meal you have been looking for. And in cities which never had (or lost) an historic core, tourist-attracting Chinatown, such as Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, Austin, Dallas and Miami, the areas which are now sometimes referred to as “Chinatown” would indeed be a good bet. But otherwise, think twice about where you want to go for that great Chinese meal.
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.