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.
For almost the entire history of Chinese food in the United States, from its arrival in the mid-19th century to the end of the 20th century, very few cities were privy to the best Chinese food by this country’s standards. For some time, San Francisco stood alone, as it had the largest Chinese community in the country, both in terms of absolute numbers and in percentage representation of the overall population. With the end of restrictions on Chinese immigration to the United States in the late 1960s, new immigration patterns changed the focus, with New York surpassing San Francisco as the pinnacle of Chinese dining in the 1980s, and then Los Angeles eclipsing New York in the 1990s.
Even into the 21st century, when it came to Chinese dining, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York stood above everywhere else. My “No Chinatown? No Problem!” series has chronicled over a dozen cities from Pittsburgh to Dallas to St. Louis, where you can find authentic Chinese food, but certainly the quality in any of these secondary cities did not match up with the Big 3. And if you weren’t anywhere close to the Big 3 cities or one of these secondary Chinese American communities, you were pretty much stuck with inauthentic, Americanized Chinese food.
But in less than a decade, things have markedly changed. More Chinese nationals are coming to the United States to stay, to study, or to visit. As I have recounted on numerous occasions, from the mid-19th century until the 1960s, the rural Cantonese were the dominant group of Chinese immigrants to America. After the end of restrictions on Chinese immigration in the late 1960s, arrivals from Hong Kong and Taiwan dominated the flow. In the 1990s, Mandarin-speaking Chinese mainlanders immigrated to the United States, becoming the vast majority of today’s Chinese newcomers. San Francisco, then New York, and then Los Angeles were primary immigrant destinations resulting in each area having over 600,000 Chinese residents. And with Hong Kong-style restaurants dominating the Chinese food scene until quite recently, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with their higher quotient of Cantonese residents, became the dominant locales for Chinese food.
But where the Cantonese food in Los Angeles and San Francisco clearly eclipsed the rest of the country due to the long and rich history of those cuisines in California, the face of Chinese food in America’s Chinese communities has turned away from Cantonese food to other regional styles, and quite dramatically so. Yes, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York were the first ports of entry for the new wave of Mainland Chinese immigrants and new regional cuisines which flourished in these cities. But essentially in the past 15 years, Chinese immigration to the United States has doubled, and increasingly, the Chinese are fanning out to other parts of the US. Consequently, authentic non-Cantonese restaurants that are similar in quality to what you will find in the San Gabriel Valley now reside in cities like Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix.
Meanwhile, non-immigrants from China have made their mark on Chinese dining, bringing the first taste of authentic Chinese food to many localities across the States. The biggest influence has been the surge of college students from Mainland China into university communities. Unlike previous waves of Chinese students, most of today’s international Chinese students plan to return to China after their studies are done. They arrive with conspicuous wealth, demand the native food of their home provinces, and have the money to pay for it. Consequently, in any university town where there is a significant Chinese population, you’re almost sure to find Chinese restaurants serving Sichuan-style hot pots, cumin lamb, fish in hot oil, and Chongqing spicy chicken. Less than a decade ago, the only place you could easily find these dishes was in the San Gabriel Valley, but now they are in dozens of college towns like in Iowa City. Iowa City not only houses the University of Iowa, but you will find three times as many boba shops there as Starbucks. The wave has finally hit Los Angeles, too. The city’s Westside has historically been a wasteland for authentic Chinese food, but just in the past two years, several authentic Chinese restaurants have opened to target Chinese nationals studying at UCLA.
Chinese tourists have also done their part to spread Chinese food, as their strong preference for authentic Chinese food over any host country’s food has also led to authentic Chinese food in new locales. The Taiwan-based Din Tai Fung restaurant chain is targeting rich Chinese shoppers, opening its sixth upscale regional shopping mall location, while Beijing’s Meizhou Dongpo has opened a fast-casual concept, Dongpo Kitchen, at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Citywalk. Meanwhile, Red Lotus outside of Yellowstone National Park serves salt and pepper lobster, Chinese hot pot, and Chinese-style elk and bison to busloads of Chinese tourists.
And in some cases, a combination of these factors leads to the appearance of authentic Chinese food. In Monterey, CA, Full Moon Restaurant added a supplementary menu with authentic Sichuan dishes. After much head-scratching, I realized that Chinese tourists on day trips from San Francisco, Chinese real estate investors looking for new horizons, and Chinese students at a nearby specialty school together created this demand.
So these days, for Chinese food, it’s “everywhere goes.”
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.