West Yellowstone, Montana offers authentic Chinese food options that Los Angeles Chinatown doesn’t. Let me say that again: You can eat Chinese dishes in Montana that you can’t eat in downtown L.A.
I am in no way suggesting that Montana is any kind of Chinese dining destination. However, this improbable but true statement combines two recurring topics I have addressed: the emergence of Mainland Chinese cuisine and the effect of Chinese nationals across the United States.
In most Chinese-American communities, Mainland Chinese regional cuisines are the current face of the restaurant food scene. In all of Los Angeles Chinatown, however, the only Mainland restaurant you’ll find is Qin West. This paucity of Mainland regional cuisines sets Los Angeles Chinatown apart from every other Chinese community in the United States. The nearby San Gabriel Valley, for example, is heavily Mainland-oriented.
Other American Chinatowns, such as Flushing, New York, demonstrate the emergence of Mainland cuisine. And even where Cantonese restaurants remain plentiful, such as San Francisco Chinatown, you’ll still find a good number of Mainland Chinese eateries. Manhattan’s Chinatown also enjoys a significant Cantonese food presence. But immigrants from Fujian province, a Mainland group whose cuisine is uncommon outside of New York, have eclipsed it.
Los Angeles Chinatown remains a conspicuous anomaly, due in good part to its heavy concentration of Hispanic diners. They continue to crave the older-style Cantonese L.A. offers, helping to perpetuate what might otherwise be a dying cuisine.
In past articles, I’ve discussed the effect of Mainland Chinese students at American universities. These students have helped proliferate authentic Mainland Chinese restaurants and food trucks in and around dozens, if not hundreds, of university towns. Cities like Fayetteville, Arkansas, Ithaca, New York, Iowa City, had never been exposed to authentic Chinese food of any kind.
I have also mentioned the effect of Mainland Chinese tourists in triggering the first-time establishment of authentic Chinese food options. For example, Chinese tourists heavily patronize regional shopping malls around greater Los Angeles, including Hollywood’s City Walk at Universal Studios, Glendale’s Americana, and Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza.
Authentic Mainland cuisine also appears in more general U.S. tourist attractions, such as California’s Monterey Peninsula and Maine’s Bar Harbor. Of course, Monterey and Bar Harbor are also within hailing distance of San Francisco and Boston, respectively. Each of these major cities has large Asian populations.
At first blush, it seems improbable that remote West Yellowstone could offer authentic Chinese food, so far from Chinese communities and even sources of ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns.
But given the strong attraction of Yellowstone National Park, it becomes less surprising that an enterprising restaurateur would appeal to Chinese visitors in the vicinity. Red Lotus, a mostly Americanized Chinese restaurant, added salt and pepper pork chops, hot bean paste tofu, lobster with ginger and green onion, and Chinese-style braised elk to its menu. Of course, except for the elk, Red Lotus probably didn’t offer anything that you couldn’t find in Los Angeles Chinatown.
What is perhaps more surprising is that authentic Chinese food in West Yellowstone didn’t stop with Red Lotus. At China Fun, you can enjoy Mainland favorites like pig intestines, hot boiled pork, and stir-fried potato slices, none of which you’d find in Los Angeles Chinatown. China Panda serves cumin chicken. Chinatown Restaurant serves a Sichuan-style menu with a separate section of five-spice bean curd dishes, both nonexistent in Los Angeles Chinatown.
With so many Chinese tourists visiting the Grand Canyon, Golden Dragon in Flagstaff, Arizona offers dozens of Sichuan and other Mainland dishes nowhere to be found in Los Angeles Chinatown. Meanwhile, Chinese visitors to Yosemite National Park can get their food fix in restaurants like China Delight in Oakhurst and China Station in Mariposa.
The fact that a town as isolated as West Yellowstone could be included in this list demonstrates a dramatic contrast. On one hand, you’ve got 150 years of Cantonese food in America that is still going strong in Los Angeles. On the other, the recent reversal of Mainland Chinese cuisines across the rest of Chinese America today.
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.