As I have mentioned in a number of previous articles, Mainland Chinese students studying at American universities have created a demand for authentic Chinese regional food that has resulted in many campus towns and cities across the country getting their first taste of authentic Chinese food. But these students do not get their homeland food fix solely through restaurants. Newer options are available for Mainland Chinese students longing for a taste of home.
Despite this nationwide trend and much to my surprise, I found little in the way of authentic Chinese food near the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC’s 5,000 Mainland Chinese students have to eat somewhere, and it’s hard to believe that USC’s Mainlanders would somehow be the only group of their compatriots in the US not to be subject to the “Chinese stomach,” whereby Chinese visitors prefer to eat mediocre Chinese food over even great food of any other cuisine.
In trying to solve the USC puzzle, I found vague information referring to a group of Chinese food trucks camping near USC’s international student housing. When I drove there, I did see one Chinese food truck called Tasty Wok Express, but the other three trucks were taco trucks with names like Guadalajara Tacos and Fluffy Tacos. While finding the one truck was encouraging, it could hardly service 5,000 Mainland Chinese students alone.
Finally, I got the lead I was looking for. A food writer living near campus said that despite the names of the trucks parked there, all four of them sell Mainland Chinese food. Returning on foot, I found the menus all in Chinese lettering and with posted pictures of dozens of Mainland Chinese dishes. Between the four trucks, it added up to about 200 Mainland Chinese dishes, enough to keep USC’s Mainland students very happy. Who cares if the trucks said “tacos,” given that at one of the trucks I visited, neither employee understood English, and a customer had to translate my order to them for me.
As it turns out, Chinese food trucks have carved a niche for themselves at many universities, particularly at large city campuses where the cost of opening a sit-down restaurant is high. This is certainly the case in Los Angeles, and it’s not surprising to see the same pattern near Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At Columbia, the phenomenon has taken on a slightly different personality, supplanting the full-sized food trucks seen at USC with smaller carts typically found on the street corners of midtown Manhattan, and serving more limited menus.
Perhaps the star of the show at Columbia with the longest lines is Uncle Luoyang. The Uncle Luoyang truck features Shaanxi- and Henan-style food, with its liang pi cold noodles and pork burgers among its best-selling items. Also popular are the $7 three-item rice combos, perfect for hungry students. The Uncle Luoyang truck was featured in a student film:
Uncle Luoyang now also has a sit-down location on Amsterdam Street, though it has to humor the locals with sushi and Americanized Chinese dishes, too. There are a number of other Chinese food carts around Columbia. The Healthy Food cart also features $4 and $7 rice combos with a rotating daily menu of 15 entrees. Two other Mainland Chinese food carts near Columbia don’t even have English names. These carts are all based out of Flushing, so it’s a long trek for the operators in addition to the nine-hour days spent on campus.
The city with the greatest number of college campus Chinese food trucks is not Los Angeles or New York. Rather it’s Philadelphia, with multiple trucks on multiple campuses. The University of Pennsylvania boasts the largest number, with seven Chinese food trucks plus other Asian food trucks parked along Spruce and Walnut Streets. Additionally, Chinese food trucks serve nearby Drexel University and Temple University.
However, unlike the trucks near USC and Columbia, Philadelphia’s campus food trucks tend largely to Americanized Chinese fare, rather than Mainlander food. This trend likely reflects that campus food trucks are a longtime staple in Philadelphia, with probably 70 trucks of different stripes in the University City area alone, and aimed at the student population in general.
Though food trucks aren’t as big of a thing in Chicago, near the University of Chicago, trucks do line up on Ellis Street between 57th and 59th Streets. Regular participants in its scene are the Yum Dum dumpling truck and BAO Mobile.
In the Boston area, the Savory Food Truck has turned Chinese campus food truck dining into a cottage industry with trucks permanently parked by Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, MIT, and Northeastern University.
Food trucks are not the only nontraditional option used by Mainland Chinese college students to get their provincial-style Chinese food fix. To Go 626 is a delivery service that ferries food from the San Gabriel Valley outside LA to campuses. Dozens of top Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, such as Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impressin, Sinbala, Xi’an Tasty, Class 302, Gui Lin Noodle, Din Tai Fung, Shaanxi Gourmet, 101 Noodle Express, Savoy Kitchen, and Beijing Pie House, have aligned themselves with such delivery services.
Though the delivery services derive most of their business from local residents, they’ll deliver almost anywhere if you pay the approximately $1-per-mile delivery charge. Consequently, the San Gabriel Valley Chinese food delivery businesses do a thriving business delivering food to Mainland students 45 miles away at UC Irvine. While a food delivery charge of $45 may seem incomprehensible to you or me, it’s a pittance to rich Mainland Chinese students. You may still wonder why a UC Irvine student would pay $45 to have authentic Chinese food delivered from the San Gabriel Valley when Irvine itself has dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants, all within convenient driving distance in your Maserati or Lamborghini. The answer lies in the fact that Irvine’s Chinese restaurants skew toward their local residents, meaning they mostly serve Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese-style food. Irvine has only a small (though growing) number of Mainland-style Chinese restaurants, so if you really want the food of your home province and have money to burn, delivery from the San Gabriel Valley is the only way to go.
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.