While Chinese-Americans made their early mark in rural and small-town America through agricultural, mining and construction activities, for the most part they are identified with urban living. Indeed, the largest historic core Chinatown locations are almost synonymous with America’s largest cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC. Even today’s new emerging Chinese American communities are identified with the large population centers, such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Las Vegas. So with this background, how does one explain that there are as many, if not more authentic Chinese restaurants in Champaign, Illinois (population 82,000) than in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles (population 1.5 million), which represents half of the geographic area and population of the city of Los Angeles (but where good Chinese food is narrowly concentrated)?
Though the question just came to me, I found the answer in the mid-1990s while visiting Oklahoma City. Resigned to finding only the most primitive Americanized Chinese food, I drove to the nearby city of Norman to see the University of Oklahoma. Walking through the village area adjacent to campus, I spotted a Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant called Kim Son, where I went in and happily devoured an order of authentic beef chow fun, a relative rarity on those days. This was my first realization that there could be authentic Chinese food in a city without a Chinese community, if that city housed a university with a sufficiently large population of Chinese students. While one might assume that young adults from China might be more receptive to eating host country food than older visitors from the home country, these younger Chinese seem to be equally afflicted with the “Chinese stomach,” and carry a corresponding preference for Chinese food over the local fare.
I didn’t recognize the true impact of a Chinese student community on the Chinese food in a city until several years later on a visit to Champaign, Illinois and the University of Illinois. Traversing the village area known as Campustown, I found three authentic Chinese restaurants, all on the same block. Since then, the University of Illinois has become one of the top destinations for international Chinese students, and the number of authentic Chinese restaurants in Champaign has grown. Today, at least 10 of the city’s 30 Chinese restaurants serve authentic fare, and not all are confined to Campustown. Frankly, I can’t think of ten authentic Chinese restaurants in the entire San Fernando Valley.
We are now in a midst of a virtual explosion in the number of international Chinese students attending universities and colleges in the United States. This influx of Chinese students has triggered a profound and rapid change in the Chinese restaurant landscape. For those of you who followed my visit to Springfield, Missouri to try their signature Springfield-style cashew chicken, you know that Springfield is a city of about 170,000 people with few minorities, but nearly a hundred Americanized Chinese restaurants, all serving Springfield cashew chicken. The most eye-opening part of the trip for me was the visit to Creasian Restaurant, which had a separate Chinese menu featuring authentic dishes like Guilin rice noodles, cumin beef, marinated beef shank, and Chongqing pepper chicken. Initially I was totally befuddled by Creasian’s menu, which was seemingly replicated only in a handful of major cities in the United States. Eventually I solved the mystery when I learned that the restaurant was close to the campus of Missouri State University. But a very important sidelight is that five years previously, Missouri State had virtually no Chinese students. When the school began actively recruiting students from China, the Chinese student enrollment reached several hundred. And now, with hundreds of Chinese students in town, there was a need in Springfield for more than cashew chicken.
While the phenomenon of authentic Chinese food in college cities with a large number of international Chinese students is not a new one, the manifestation of this effect has changed drastically within the past five years. Yes, when I was in Champaign a dozen years ago there were three authentic Chinese restaurants in Campustown — but they only served Cantonese food. The recent surge in college students comes primarily from mainland China, with many of the students being the sons and daughters of high political officials and wealthy businessmen. This means more authentic Chinese restaurants setting up shop in a greater number of college towns replicating the experience of Springfield, with far different menus from the Cantonese food I had found in Norman and Champaign.
In Eugene, Oregon, home to the University of Oregon, the local newspaper has reported on the impact of the near twentyfold increase in Chinese students attending the university. While the articles focused more on rich Chinese students purchasing expensive cars and associated bling, one article detailed how the 30-year old Jade Palace has adapted its menu to serve its newfound mainland Chinese student clientele. In nearby Corvallis, an enterprising Chinese student has opened up Number One Hot Pot to serve his fellow Oregon State Chinese students. In remote Pullman, Washington, Mandarin House serves fish fillet in hot spicy oil to Washington State students. Szechuan House in Iowa City, Iowa has a stable of dry braised hot pots, including rabbit, duck tongue, and frog dry pots. (We barely even have those in Los Angeles!) In West Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue has one of the larger Chinese student populations in the US, there is a combination Chinese grocery and restaurant, C & T Market, serving lamb with pure cumin among many specialties. The college town trend is also exemplified by Ichiban Sichuan, which has set up branches in both Lafayette and Madison, Wisconsin with a full menu of items like pork blood and intestine guo zai and Sichuan bean noodle salad. And Imperial Palace in Lincoln, Nebraska has a 60-item Chinese menu including pork intestines with wild pepper and ox tripe in chili sauce. Today’s Chinese students come from all regions of China and many have the wealth to be more demanding in the food that they want.
One major caution is that most of these restaurants also serve Americanized Chinese food for non-Chinese students and other local residents, and some of this food may not be very good. Consequently one must ignore star ratings and order with caution. Not every town with a major college campus will have good Chinese food. For example, when I visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the University of Alabama, I found two Chinese restaurants in the Tuscaloosa Strip area adjacent to campus. Both served only Americanized Chinese food, not surprising since the school’s Chinese population is relatively small.
Conversely, for universities located in cities that do have a large Chinese population, there may not be any good Chinese food near campus. The University of Southern California in Los Angeles has the largest Chinese population of any American university, and UCLA is not far behind. But if you expect to find any good Chinese food close to either campus, you’re largely out of luck. Just like the San Fernando Valley dwellers, USC and UCLA Chinese students have to drive out to the San Gabriel Valley to get their authentic Chinese food fix.
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.