I first heard the term “fake Canto” used by Los Angeles area food blogger Tony Chen, to refer to Cantonese restaurants run by Mandarin-speaking non-Cantonese immigrants from mainland China. Well before the advent of fake news, fake Canto restaurants launched, occasioned primarily by a lack of Cantonese restaurateurs in the locality.
American Chinatowns founded in the 19th century and early 20th century were all Cantonese in origin because few non-Cantonese Chinese lived in the U.S. at all. As violence and anti-Chinese sentiment in California grew, Chinese Americans headed eastward. While they generally landed in major urban centers, not every major American city attracted a major Chinese settlement. For example, in Texas, Chinese settled in Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio, but not in Dallas, mainly because Dallas was not a stop along the Southern Pacific Railroad. More curiously, a Chinese community grew in Augusta, Georgia, but not in Atlanta.
With the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and more importantly, the 1960s reform of America’s immigration laws, non-Cantonese Chinese started arriving in the United States in major numbers. To some extent, they migrated to cities that had a pre-existing Cantonese community, such as San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. But they also moved to cities that had no Chinese community at all, like Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Orlando, and Flushing, New York and to cities with a small remnant of an old Cantonese community, like Phoenix, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.
Today, the impact of Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants has completely flipped the historic ratio of Cantonese and non-Cantonese Chinese food in Chinese American communities. In California’s San Gabriel Valley, for instance, only about 10 percent of new Chinese restaurants serve Cantonese food.
While Chinese are partial to their own regional cuisine, Cantonese food has broad appeal to Chinese of all backgrounds. For example, Cantonese dim sum is extremely popular with all stripes of Chinese. Likewise, weddings, birthdays, and other auspicious celebrations are almost entirely confined to banquet-sized Cantonese restaurants. Consequently, in new or revived Chinese American communities, the demand for Cantonese food exceeds the local pool of “native” Cantonese restaurateurs.
In the eastern, midwestern, and southern US, immigrants from Fujian province, dominant players in the Chinese restaurant industry, largely fill the Cantonese void. While better known for setting up Americanized Chinese buffet, takeout, and sit-down restaurants, the Fujianese have, over the past two decades, also opened fake Canto dim sum and seafood restaurants in Chinese American communities that lack a significant local Cantonese population.
It may be fair to assume that Cantonese restaurants in any city with a negligible Cantonese population are fake Canto. But in a place like Flushing, it’s a bit more complicated. True, Flushing has few local Cantonese residents, but nearby Manhattan and Brooklyn still have a significant Cantonese presence. Likewise, identifying a fake Canto restaurant is even more difficult in Manhattan Chinatown where the Cantonese population, though receding, is still substantial. Even here, however, Fujianese operate some of the Cantonese restaurants.
So what are the signs of fake Canto food? Most notably, hearing the staff converse among themselves in Mandarin. Similarly, look for other regional Chinese dishes that would traditionally never be seen on the menu of a Cantonese restaurant. For example, at a Los Angeles-area Cantonese restaurant, I recently spotted pork rolls, a dish commonly seen in Taiwanese restaurants. It may even be as subtle as the use of simplified Chinese characters, which were introduced by the Communist government on the Chinese mainland, but would not be used by a restaurateur originally from Hong Kong.
Still, it’s hard to know for sure. I’ve heard unconfirmed whispers that one of the San Gabriel Valley’s top Hong Kong-style restaurants might be fake Canto. And now, the fake Canto restaurant has just come to the most unlikely location in America: Los Angeles Chinatown, culinarily the last bastion of Cantonese food in the country. With the opening of East Garden Restaurant, fake Canto has arrived even here.
My labeling of fake Canto restaurants doesn’t imply that the food isn’t satisfactory. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a fake Canto restaurant is its clientele is primarily Chinese, and these patrons often don’t realize the Cantonese restaurant is run by non-Cantonese. So don’t feel bad if you find you’ve eaten at a fake Canto restaurant because the rest of us might not know either. Even fake Canto is often authentically delicious.
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.