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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.