When the topic of Chinese food in the United States comes up, only three cities really come to mind: San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Besides a deserved reputation for excellent Chinese food, all three have center-city core Chinatowns founded by Toishanese immigrants that date back to the 19th Century, and which were revived by post-1965 change in American immigration policy. They also all have developed newer Chinese communities outside of the core Chinatown where the Chinese food is significantly better. Yet, the three cities have markedly different patterns in where to find good and authentic Chinese restaurants due to the different manner in the way the Chinese population has spread out in each metropolitan area.
In comparing the Chinese food landscape in these three metropolitan areas, there is one unmistakably striking difference. In San Francisco, good Chinese food can be found in almost every corner of the Bay Area. In contrast, in both Los Angeles and New York, the best Chinese restaurants are located in a relatively small number of geographic pockets, with large areas of these latter two communities devoid of worthwhile Chinese eating.
Not surprisingly, the explanation for today’s restaurant landscape lies deep in the history of the Chinese American communities. Using the 1960 census as the transition point of the Chinese American community from historic Toishanese peoples to the new immigrant communities from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the rest of China and Asia, the population statistics show what distinguished San Francisco from Los Angeles and New York. According to the 1960 census, Chinese accounted for nearly five percent of the population in San Francisco. In actuality, due to the large number of uncounted illegal aliens in San Francisco, the Chinese population count was significantly higher — more likely, closer to ten percent. In contrast, the same census figures show Chinese being well under one half of one percent of the total population in both Los Angeles and in New York. Even taking into account a substantial undercount, Chinese were insignificant parts of Los Angeles and New York in the early 1960s.
As noted in my prior article on Americanized Chinese food, the 1960s Chinese American community was molded by two major events: the repeal of laws limiting the entry of Chinese immigrants into the United States, and the end of housing segregation. For the Chinese in San Francisco, who were already a visible part of the community and had achieved a higher degree of acceptance, this meant dispersal into many parts of the Bay Area. Moving out of San Francisco Chinatown, Chinese residents relocated into the Richmond district and the Sunset district within the city, and then the outer suburbs. By the early to mid-1970s, authentic Chinese restaurants were appearing outside of the San Francisco and Oakland city limits. As the footprint of the Bay Area expanded in the ensuing decades, Chinese residents continued to follow into these new suburban communities, most notably Silicon Valley, reaching the point today where Chinese residents have integrated in sufficient numbers throughout the Bay Area to create a demand for authentic Chinese food in most every part of the metropolitan area.
As a result, today one may find numerous large, predominantly Chinese shopping centers anchored by a Chinese supermarket throughout the Bay Area. These centers are a great place to find authentic Chinese restaurants, usually with numerous choices in each center. Milpitas Square in Milpitas has 25 eateries, Cupertino Village in Cupertino nearly 20. At the smaller El Mercado Shopping Center in Union City, standouts include Little Sheep Hot Pot and its signature Mongolian hot pot, Little Shen Yang with its full Northeastern Chinese menu, or Mayflower with its dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood. Other Bay Area communities have such shopping center complexes with restaurants include San Jose, Daly City, Richmond, Newark, and Fremont. Similarly, even cities without a mega Chinese shopping center still may have heavy concentrations of authentic Chinese restaurants. Along El Camino Real in Millbrae are clustered many of the top Hong Kong-style restaurants in the Bay Area, including Hong Kong Flower Lounge, Asian Pearl, The Kitchen, Zen Peninsula, and South Sea Seafood Village. Similarly, along El Camino Real in San Mateo, San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, Richmond and Albany, and throughout other cities such as Foster City, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Berkeley, Burlingame, San Bruno, South San Francisco, Palo Alto, Alameda, and of course, with its Chinatown, Oakland, one will find concentrations of good, authentic restaurants.
But even if a Bay Area city does not have a regional Chinese shopping center or a large concentration of authentic Chinese restaurants, it is likely to have one or more authentic Chinese restaurants within its city limits. From San Ramon to San Carlos, Belmont to Walnut Creek, Hayward to Lafayette, Emeryville to San Leandro, Pleasanton to Pleasant Hill, and Concord to Dublin, good authentic Chinese food is locally available. Only the North Bay area, from Marin County to points eastward, doesn’t share in this Chinese food bonanza. Consequently, most Bay Area residents are within close proximity of authentic Chinese restaurants. You can go to Daly City to dine at possibly the best Chinese restaurant in the country, Koi Palace, with its pantheon of seafood dishes like smoked sea bass and many more upscale seafood items. Or you can go to downtown San Francisco for the innovative and creative dim sum at Yank Sing; to Fremont to Yum’s Bistro for its crab with egg white and other crab and lobster specialties; to Foster City to Cooking Papa for its sticky rice stuffed boneless chicken; the Richmond district of San Francisco for Dong Bei Mama’s beef pancake rolls; and on and on. The only downside to this easy access is that Bay Area residents may be less inclined to travel to other parts of the metropolitan area to sample great Chinese restaurants that may be out of their neighborhoods.
As will be discussed in more detail in future articles, only San Francisco has this model of authentic Chinese restaurants spread throughout the metropolitan area. As we will see, in Los Angeles and New York, those in search of Chinese food will have to pick their spots.
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.