As I’ve previously discussed, the presence of over 300,000 Mainland Chinese university students in the United States has altered the face of Chinese dining in the United States, bringing authentic Chinese food to cities and towns where finding the cuisine would have been unimaginable a decade ago. As a big fan of both college sports and US geography, I’ve tracked down authentic restaurants in many college towns in all 50 states.
Recently I saw a promo for ESPN’s College Game Day telecast. As it was a slow period early in the football season, ESPN decided to do its show from a small (athletically speaking) campus, James Madison University. I had heard of the school but had never heard of the town where it is located: Harrisonburg, Virginia. Looking it up, I saw that it is a rural town about a two-hour drive away from both Washington DC and Richmond. As is my wont, I had to check whether JMU was a school that had enough Chinese students to warrant authentic Chinese food. Indeed it is, with Taste of China Restaurant providing anything a homesick Mainland Chinese student might want to eat.
The menu at Taste of China is absolutely fascinating. As I have written, these college-town Chinese restaurants serve a mixed audience: students from China, students not from China, and local residents. The result is an interesting mash-up of dated Americanized Chinese dishes and cutting-edge items from the Chinese interior. Taste of China’s menu is a stark demonstration of this dichotomy. For example, look at the Soup section of its menu:
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime! Starting with the most primitive Toishanese-American classic egg drop soup, moving to the slightly more sophisticated wonton soup, to the post-1960s immigration reform “northern” Chinese Americanized classic hot and sour soup, then on to the post-immigration reform advanced Cantonese Westlake beef soup, to today’s Sichuan boiled fish soup and pork rib pot — It’s like 150 years of Chinese dining in America capsulized in eight lines.
Likewise, the hot appetizer section of the menu was also like a diorama of Chinese food in America.
The appetizer menu starts with the crudest Americanized Chinese appetizer, the egg roll, followed by the slightly more modern crab rangoon, before transitioning to today’s Mainland Chinese diner-oriented appetizer items.
Typically, I think of US Chinese restaurants in distinct categories: old-time Americanized Chinese, more modern Americanized Chinese, and modern authentic current Chinese regional cuisine. But as Taste Of China in Harrisonburg — and undoubtedly others in different college towns — demonstrate, they can be all rolled up into one.
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.