Once upon a time, the term celebrity conjured up visions of movie stars and superstar athletes, but somewhere along the line, the term deteriorated into something much less exclusive. Nowadays, there are celebrity chefs, celebrity doctors, celebrity hair stylists, celebrity houseguests, and celebrity pets. A guy I know has been described as a celebrity real estate developer. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were celebrity plumbers and celebrity gardeners. But the term really reached an extreme when I was labeled a “celebrity diner.”
I’m not the first person to gain attention for restaurant dining. Morgan Spurlock ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month and made a movie about it, and the discredited Jared Fogel became famous for his Subway sandwich weight loss diet. Before I came along, a man went on a campaign to eat at all 415 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. So how did I earn my “celebrity diner” status?
Clearly, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time — the right time coinciding with an expansion of public interest in celebrities of all types. Five years ago, I made the acquaintance of food writer Clarissa Wei. I mentioned in passing that I had eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants. Immediately, she jumped on the topic and asked whether anybody had ever written me up. My response was “Why would anybody do that?” In a week’s time, we met for an interview and she wrote an article that was published in L.A. Weekly.
Even after the article was reprinted in the Huffington Post, I didn’t give it much thought. The Huffington Post runs a good number of food-related articles, and I assumed mine would only interest a small group of foodies. However, food columns in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times linked to the Huffington article, which was then picked up by websites like Eater and The Daily Meal. I even received a message from the Smithsonian about its Chinese restaurant exhibit and did an interview with National Public Radio. Gee, my 15 seconds of fame had actually come!
Things really got weird when a few days later, I received a message from my cousin Regina that said my story was featured on People.com. Indeed, it was the lead current news item for three hours, until it was bumped by a piece about Britney Spears. I really couldn’t comprehend why People decided to feature the story, not to mention labeling it with a “Celebrity” heading. Things turned immediately from weird to crazy, as the People article went viral. It was picked up by celebrity, news, and food websites all over the world. Interview requests poured in. The Asia Society invited me to write an article on the Top 10 Chinese restaurants in the US, which itself blew up the internet due to some negative comments I made about the quality of Chinese food in New York. Then came an invitation to visit Springfield, Missouri, responding to the part of the People profile when I mentioned my desire to try Springfield-style cashew chicken. The city whisked me there for a weekend of sampling different versions of that signature Chinese American dish. I even received a key to the neighboring city of Branson from Mayor Raeanne Presley, a distant relative of Elvis himself. Then best of all, I got the opportunity to write for Menuism on a variety of Chinese restaurant topics.
I settled into a new normalcy of writing historically-tinged Chinese restaurant articles for Menuism and doing occasional interviews, including the Chinese restaurant documentary film The Search for General Tso. Little did I realize I’d be in for a second 15 seconds of fame the following spring, thanks to Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Shyong. Frank had not seen the initial round of publicity about me, but in searching for Chinese restaurants to take his visiting parents, he kept running across my name in online restaurant message boards. At some point, he started digging and found my earlier interviews and Menuism articles, and was fascinated that my search for Chinese food was in part a related quest for Chinese-American identity. Several interview sessions eventually led to a front-page article in the Times about this dual quest.
Surprisingly, the 2013 Times article created an even bigger ripple effect than the previous year’s People profile. The reaction from Times readers was so great that an online chat session was set up for the next morning, and lasted three times as long as Frank had planned. Meanwhile, ABC News phoned for an interview which turned into the lead headline on both its website as well as Yahoo! News. Good Morning America called to say it was sending a film crew to my office, though that it was eventually scuttled when GMA and the management of my office building couldn’t agree on insurance arrangements. Somebody even posted a professional quality 90-second video on the Times story on YouTube. Meanwhile, hundreds of people from all over the US tracked down my Twitter account and asked me about the best Chinese restaurant in their hometowns. And even more incredibly, newspapers in Canada and Ohio wrote articles based on my responses to those Twitter questions.
A third 15 seconds of fame came with the theatrical release of the Search For General Tso. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2014, then had a limited general release in 2015, followed by much broader availability on cable and streaming video. The documentary cracked the top 100 streaming videos and garnered my listing in a number of motion picture databases (described as an actor playing myself). To this day, I still run into people who didn’t know I was in the movie and who tell me how stunned they were when they saw me on screen.
Back in the old days, when celebrities were real celebrities, a common description used for them was “star of stage, screen, radio, and television.” Well, I’ve never done live theater, but I have given auditorium and theater presentations on my dining adventures. I was in the General Tso movie, and have even received feelers from an independent filmmaker to be the subject of a documentary short, though that fell through. I’ve certainly had my share of radio and television appearances. So maybe “Celebrity Diner” isn’t so far-fetched after all.
As a whole, Los Angeles’s Chinese food scene surpassed New York’s over 20 years ago and continues to pull away. However, you’ll find some things Chinese food-wise in New York that simply don’t exist in Los Angeles, including these four restaurants.
Situated in the Chinese-owned Waldorf-Astoria, La Chine is the type of high-end authentic Chinese restaurant on offer in New York, along with Fung Tu, Cafe China, and Hakkasan. After the demise of Hakkasan Beverly Hills (and perhaps Chi Lin), there are no longer such posh Chinese dining options in LA. Perhaps Los Angeles is just not as much of an expense account town. Sure, it does boast the entertainment industry, but still pales in comparison to New York, with Wall Street, the investment banks, and all the corporate headquarters. (more…)
Five years ago I opened up a hornet’s nest when I wrote my Top 10 listing of Chinese restaurants in the United States. The list included 10 California restaurants and none from New York, because even though New York once had the best Chinese food in the US, it now lagged badly behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite howls of protests from outraged New Yorkers, the ranking of New York Chinese food is no longer arguable. Even New York Times columnist Mark Bittman stated rather matter of factly that, “for Chinese food, there’s no place in the United States like Southern California,” and in particular, the San Gabriel Valley.
More recently, I made a comment which on the surface might be viewed as an even greater insult to New York Chinese food. I said, “pound for pound, authentic Chinese food in Phoenix is better than that in New York.” I did not intend it to be a derogatory comment about New York Chinese food, and I didn’t mean to say that there wasn’t a lot of good Chinese food in New York. Rather, it was a reflection of the current state of Chinese food, where excellent Chinese food can be found in a lot more places than just a few years ago. (more…)
In this ongoing series covering American cities with a historic center city Chinatown, there have been two distinct models. In most cities, the best and most authentic Chinese food migrated out of the historic Chinatown into either suburban Chinese communities or to secondary areas away from the downtown core. However, exceptions such as Philadelphia and Chicago illustrate the second model, where the historic Chinatown still reigns supreme, with a few secondary locales to find authentic Chinese food.
In the case of present-day Boston, however, neither model seems to fit. Ten or fifteen years ago, Boston’s historic Chinatown was still dominant, and indeed at that time, I commented that Chicago and Boston were the main exceptions to the suburbanization of Chinese food in America. Today, Boston Chinatown still dominates as a cultural and commercial center (though its borders are threatened by development and gentrification). While Chinatown has not been entirely eclipsed for dining, there is now significantly good Chinese food to be found outside its boundaries. (more…)
For any city with a historic 19th century Chinatown, the original locus of Chinese dining was obviously Chinatown. However, as my series has chronicled, the best Chinese dining in most of these cities has shifted to various suburban communities. In the case of Los Angeles, the shift has been especially complex. Like an army marching onward to the next hill, there has been a continuous eastward migration of Chinese residents, followed by a like movement of Chinese restaurants. The key to this push eastward is a strong preference of Los Angeles-area Chinese Americans for new housing developments, as capsulized by longtime resident Gordon Chow, who said, “You have to go east to find newer and cheaper homes.”
One of the more contentious Chinese food topics is the question of whether dim sum lunch is better served on carts, as opposed to ordered off a menu or check-off sheet. Traditionalists claim that dim sum carts are the heart of the dim sum experience, with the anticipation of seeing what lies under the lids of the metal containers in the cart a primary attraction. Meanwhile, cook-to-order partisans point out your dim sum is absolutely fresh if you order off a menu, while dim sum on a cart may have been sitting out. New varieties can be concocted without worrying if they’ll last on a cart. Plus, with menu-driven dim sum, you don’t have to worry about strategically choosing your table to get the freshest possible food as the carts emerge from the kitchen, or your item no longer being available by the time the cart rolls to you, or having to chase after a cart if it bypasses you.
Even though carts are widely believed to be the traditional method of dim sum delivery, they are of fairly recent origin. I remember when dim sum wasn’t something you ate while seated in a restaurant. My first recollection dates back to the 1950s at the legendary Man Fook Low restaurant in the hidden City Market Chinatown on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. According to legend, Man Fook Low introduced dim sum to LA in the 1930s and didn’t even list dim sum on its restaurant menu. Like the neighboring New Moon Café, Man Fook Low sold its dim sum via take-out window. The restaurant made only a handful of dim sum varieties; there was steamed barbecue pork bun, much larger than those we see today, and then referred to as hom bao. There was ha gow, pork siu mai (which my mom called “stacks” because of its haystack shape), and the sweet and glutinous bak tong go. Our dim sum orders were placed in large pink boxes that we would take home to enjoy. Any leftovers were re-steamed the next day. (more…)
Recently, one of the leading Chinese food authorities in the San Francisco Bay area made an astounding discovery. In the small town of Willits, California, he found a Chinese restaurant called Mom’s Buffet, which in addition to the Americanized Chinese buffet, had a Chinese language menu that offered such items as Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, rou jia mo (Chinese pulled pork sandwich), salt and pepper baked squab, Toishanese congee, and numerous goat dishes. So what was a restaurant like this doing there? (more…)
My series has traced the general pattern of historic center city core Chinatowns in the United States. In most of these cities, much of the population, and correspondingly the authentic Chinese food, has fled to the suburbs, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, or Flushing and Brooklyn in New York. The only real exception to this rule that I’ve discussed so far is Philadelphia, whose Chinatown has gone through an unexpected revival in the past five years, though it has not expanded geographically.
Happily, another exception to this pattern is Chicago Chinatown, which not only is thriving, but also experiencing significant population growth and geographic expansion. Chicago Chinatown’s population increased by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010 and its boundaries are spilling into adjacent neighborhoods. But why is Chicago the great exception as a Chinese culinary center with a growing Chinatown? Especially when contrasted to Los Angeles Chinatown, which has become a hotbed of non-Chinese restaurants, or Manhattan Chinatown, which is gentrifying and losing turf particularly on the Lower East Side, or San Francisco Chinatown, abuzz in rumors of technology industry incursion, or Washington, DC Chinatown, which may be on its last legs? (more…)
For over two decades, Vancouver, British Columbia, and particularly its suburban community of Richmond, has been Mecca for Chinese food lovers in Northern America. During the late 1980s, Hong Kongers recognized that control of Hong Kong would revert to Mainland China in 1997. Meanwhile, its 1986 World’s Fair put the spotlight on Vancouver as a prime destination. The result was a mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver, turning the city into Hong Kong East, and creating an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana. The word about the superior brand of Chinese food served in the Vancouver area spread quickly. It wasn’t long before Chinese food lovers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other American locales started trekking to Vancouver in droves to partake of the heavenly fare. (more…)
As readers of my series on Chinese restaurants across the country know, the general rule is that if a city has an existing 19th or early 20th century Chinatown, that Chinatown is almost certainly not the best place for a great Chinese meal. However, like most general rules there are exceptions, and one prominent exception is Philadelphia. (more…)