Since Chinese food first came to America in the mid-19th century, the best Chinese food in the United States has generally been found in California. With by far the largest Chinese population from the 1850s through the mid-20th century, it is no mystery why San Francisco had the best Chinese food for well over a century. However, with the late 1960s immigration act once again permitting large-scale immigration from China to the United States after more than eight decades of tight immigration restrictions, changing immigration patterns had shifted the apex of Chinese dining in the United States in the 1980s to New York, and in particular, Manhattan Chinatown.
By the late 20th century, the pendulum for Chinese food supremacy had swung back to California, though this time to Los Angeles. But one area where New York kept the lead over L.A. was in upscale authentic Chinese food. New York has a number of pricey authentic Chinese restaurants, geared to a mixture of Chinese as well as non-Chinese diners, a category not prevalently found in Los Angeles. This difference could well be due to New York being much more of an “expense account” town, home to Wall Street, as well as innumerable corporate headquarters. In contrast, Los Angeles is neither an investment banking or financial markets center, nor does it have a critical mass of corporate headquarters aside from the entertainment industry.
Of course, there is expensive, authentic Chinese food to be found in Los Angeles, given the large numbers of well-heeled Chinese residents who love Chinese food. However, the rich Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley and other parts of Los Angeles do not generally frequent dedicated upscale Chinese eateries. Rather, they patronize Chinese restaurants that serve the entire spectrum of Chinese diners, from economical diners looking for lunch and dinner specials to deep-pocketed business owners willing to spend up to $10,000 per table.
There are at least a couple of reasons for this Los Angeles phenomenon. I’ve previously discussed the dilemma of Chinese food in America, wherein many diners at Chinese restaurants, both Chinese and non-Chinese alike, expect Chinese food to be economical, if not downright cheap. Consequently, most Chinese restaurants are unwilling to ignore the lower end of the market. Secondly, the ultra-expensive Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley has been of a singular type: Hong Kong-style restaurants that serve live seafood, quite often imported from the other side of the world. These high-priced meals are made expensive by the cost of the ingredients themselves, rather than by posh settings, a high level of service, or the talents of a celebrity chef.
However, seeds of change in Los Angeles could usurp New York’s dominance in upscale authentic Chinese dining, albeit under a different model. In the past two years, new Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have been upping the price point of the entire menu beyond what restaurant regulars are used to paying, often in elegant surroundings not previously encountered. And like other changes to Chinese dining in the United States in the past decade, we can thank the people from Mainland China for this new paradigm, too.
With about 300,000 Mainland Chinese college students studying in the United States, in less than a decade, authentic Chinese food has come to practically every college campus in the country that is home to at least a few hundred Chinese students. More recently, authentic Chinese food has sprouted up for the first time in areas frequented by Chinese tourists. So how are Mainland Chinese now driving the opening of upscale Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area? This time, the triggering factor is real estate.
There has been a massive upsurge in residential property purchases in the United States by Mainland Chinese nationals. According to a presentation by Professor Richard Green of the USC Lusk Institute of Real Estate, in roughly the past five years, Chinese have supplanted Canadians as the leading foreign buyers of homes in the US, and by a wide margin. During this time period, Chinese purchases of US homes have jumped from 10 percent of foreign home buyers to a whopping 30 percent. Furthermore, the geographic distribution of Chinese purchases of US homes is heavily skewed. 32 percent of these purchases were in California, with the next most popular state being New York, at 10 percent. To put it bluntly, rich Chinese buyers are piling into residential areas in California, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Whether or not they live full-time in California, they have money to spend on the best Chinese food when they are here. As a result, Mainland-style Chinese restaurants are opening in communities from Temple City to Rowland Heights, where most entrees are offered for $20 and up, well beyond previous typical price points.
The poster child for this new trend is Bistro Na’s, which opened in Temple City in late 2016, offering the first “Chinese Imperial Court Cuisine” in the United States. Bistro Na’s is the US beachhead of the Beijing-based Na Jia Xiao Guan, offering opulent food that was supposedly served to the Chinese emperors, in an equally opulent setting. Bistro Na’s top dishes include crispy shrimp for $24, prime beef rib for $39, and peppered lamb chop for $36. Notably, when I had lunch at Bistro Na, virtually all of the other customers were women, which may indicate that this restaurant is a gathering spot for the “Real Housewives of the San Gabriel Valley.”
A number of other newly opened Chinese restaurants have similarly pushed price points into new territory. At Hai Di Lao in Arcadia and YuTianXia Hot Pot in San Gabriel, one can easily drop $50 on a hotpot lunch. In Rosemead, steampot restaurant Fresh Qbake provides a live seafood option which can up the ante to $100. In Rowland Heights, Bian Yi Fang charges $88 for its Beijing duck. Arcadia’s Chengdu Impression adds an upscale option to the growing market for Sichuan-style food with its $45 per person tasting menu. Most of these restaurants are branches of restaurants headquartered in China.
With these and other newly opened upscale Mainland Chinese restaurants leading the way, Los Angeles is leaping further ahead of New York in the race for Chinese food supremacy.
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.