In a couple of different respects, finding Chinese food in St. Louis is similar to the experience in some of the other cities in this series. Like Phoenix and San Diego, St. Louis had a historic 19th and 20th century downtown Chinatown, which actually survived for nearly a century despite a local Chinese population that never exceeded a few hundred residents. And similar to Phoenix and San Diego, Chinatown in St. Louis eventually fell to the wrecking ball, torn down to make way for Busch Memorial Stadium in the 1960s. (A short-lived small replacement Chinese area west of downtown was then condemned in the 1970s to make way for an industrial park). And as was the case with Atlanta, the St. Louis Chinese dining scene was dominated until very recently by Cantonese-style restaurants, despite the fact that the Cantonese comprise a very small segment of the Chinese community.
As readers of this series know, concentrations of Chinese restaurants and stores in cities without a historic core Chinatown often develop in suburban areas 10 to 20 miles away from the city center. In St. Louis, this area is Olive Boulevard, a dozen miles west of downtown, as it passes through University City and Olivette. Why Chinese communities develop in a particular area are often obscured by demographic patterns that cannot be precisely tracked, but for the Olive Boulevard Chinese community, I will proffer the guess that it relates to the nearby Monsanto Chemical facility and its stable of Chinese chemists and technical workers. But we’ll probably never know for sure.
In any event, Olive Boulevard is St. Louis’s closest thing to a Chinatown. The pioneer eating establishments on Olive were Cantonese, and many of them still operate there today. One can still dine at Lu Lu Seafood, choosing at lunchtime from dozens of dim sum selections (including “Home Made Jellyfish”) and at dinnertime from its selection of Cantonese seafood favorites, plus the unusual option of dim sum at night. The smaller and more intimate Wonton King also serves dim sum at lunch and features Hong Kong braised noodles and other favorites. Another Olive Boulevard mainstay, Royal BBQ, is the to-go place in St. Louis for Cantonese barbecue favorites like roast pork and roast duck, and also has a full menu of Cantonese entrées.
The Chinese population began to surge after 1980 as Taiwanese and non-Cantonese Chinese mainlanders made their way to St. Louis, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that authentic non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants began to make their mark on the St. Louis Chinese community. Some Cantonese restaurants like Lu Lu Seafood have adapted by adding hot pots and other non-Cantonese fare to its menu, and there are now new and exciting options on the boulevard. For terrific Shanghai-style food, there’s Jia Xiang Home, so authentic that at last glance the restaurant had removed its English language name from the exterior and the English language translations from the menu. Shanghai-style favorites include pan-fried rice cakes, Wuxi ribs, and Shanghai roast duck. For Taiwanese, there’s Shu Feng, offering Taiwanese fried pork chop, Taiwanese noodles, and Taiwanese rice plates. For ma la fans, Famous Szechuan Pavilion is as tongue-numbing as you want for Sichuan-style cuisine. And though technically Cantonese in classification, perhaps the most intriguing spot on Olive is KC Chinese Rotisserie, a specialist in Chiu Chow cuisine, a subregional style which is even elusive in New York and the San Francisco Bay area. Like neighboring Jia Xiang, few concessions are made to non-Chinese speaking patrons at KC, which assures every item on the menu is authentic, unlike many of the other restaurants mentioned in this article.
Since most of the authentically good Chinese restaurants are on Olive Boulevard, one must be cautious in looking to other parts of the city for Chinese dining. One exception is Mandarin House, located about a mile north of the Olive corridor. Despite its name, Mandarin House serves dim sum, possibly the best in St. Louis, but the real developing news is the point emphasized in my previous article on the explosion of authentic Chinese restaurants in university and college towns, attributable to ever-growing numbers of mainland Chinese students on American campuses. The article stated the effect has been less on campuses in cities that also have an existing resident Chinese community, since Chinese students have been happy to make the trek from campus to the nearest centers of Chinese commerce. However, things are starting to change near big city campuses too, as campus-convenient authentic Chinese restaurants are starting to open up within walking distance of Washington University and St. Louis University. Even though Washington University is not that far from Olive Boulevard, nearby Delmar Boulevard offers boba parlors like Corner 17 and St. Louis Bubble Tea, as well as eateries like Chinese Noodle Café. To the east of campus is the extremely popular Bobo Noodle House. Choices near the St. Louis University campus are lesser, most likely due to differing school demographics, but Sunrise Chinese Restaurant does have a section of authentic homestyle Chinese dishes on its menu.
Finally, we can’t leave the St. Louis Chinese food scene without a mention of the St. Paul sandwich, profiled previously in my article on unique Chinese American regional specialties. The St. Paul sandwich is an egg foo young patty on white bread, garnished by bean sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and other condiments. It is served at dozens of Chinese restaurants in St. Louis and southern Missouri. By all rights, it should probably be called the St. Louis sandwich, but the Chinese restauranteur who invented the dish named it after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Few if any of the restaurants mentioned above offer this item, as it is a throwback to the old-style Americanized Cantonese cooking of the 20th century. A shortcut to knowing whether the food is old-style is to seek out any St. Louis Chinese restaurant with “Chop Suey” in its name. While there are almost no remaining Chinese restaurants in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York with “Chop Suey” in their names, there still are plenty in St. Louis, such as Park Chop Suey, Old St. Louis Chop Suey, Chop Suey Inn, and Big L Chop Suey, so finding that St. Paul sandwich is a cinch.
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.