When my thoughts turn to my favorite Chinese dishes over the decades, my tastes seem to evolve just as Chinese food in America has.
I did not eat much Chinese food as a little boy growing up in 1950s Los Angeles. Chinese cuisine available at that time exclusively comprised rural Toishanese dishes imported by immigrants from southern China. Plus, it wasn’t particularly good. As a 6-year old, I was disgusted by steamed eggs, preserved turnip strips with ground pork, oxtail stew, pig feet in tomato sauce, or the worst: bean thread in a horrid milky sauce. The thought alone made me sick. The only Chinese dish that I enjoyed was rice with soy sauce.
Contrary to a recent article, rice with soy sauce is no longer among my favorites, nor has it been for many decades.
In the late 1950s, I found new favorites in pig stomach marinated in soy sauce (the stomach itself, not pork belly meat) and bird’s nest soup. Today, however, neither dish is common in Chinese restaurants — pig stomach seems to be a dish of a bygone era, and bird’s nest soup is so expensive that most restaurants won’t bother to offer it. I saw a one-pound package in a Chinese store in San Francisco recently for $1,388.
Los Angeles experienced its first modernization of Cantonese food in the 1960s. The first Chinese restaurant with Hong Kong influences that my family frequented was On Luck Restaurant, in the City Market produce district. On Luck was run by George Cheng, whose family owned Hong Kong Noodle Co., the Los Angeles contender that claimed to have invented the fortune cookie over a hundred years ago. (Mr. Cheng also asked if I wanted to pen some fortune cookie fortunes for him, but as a busy college student, I declined the invitation.)
On Luck prepared a fantastic dish of tomato beef lo mein with thin, yellowish noodles. This marked a major departure from the thicker “Chinese water noodles” that Cantonese restaurants commonly used in chow mein and soup. On Luck’s lo mein also introduced us to tenderized beef treated with baking soda.
The real modern era in Chinese food in the United States started in the mid- to late 1970s with the explosion of Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. The early 1980s brought the opening of Chinese seafood and dim sum palaces, and a wide variety of new dishes we now take for granted, from chow mein made with even thinner Hong Kong egg noodles, to new varieties of dim sum like cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) and baked barbecue pork buns.
L.A.’s quintessential seafood/dim sum restaurant of this era was ABC Seafood in Chinatown. Interestingly, its signature dish was neither seafood nor dim sum. Rather, it was its heavenly version of lemon chicken: perfectly cooked, lightly battered chicken cut into strips with a lemon sauce that balanced tang and sweetness. Everyone I knew made frequent pilgrimages to ABC for its magical lemon chicken.
In 1999, when the owner and cook of ABC Seafood retired, I needed to discover a new favorite Chinese dish. At restaurants like Green Village in San Gabriel, I found Shanghai-style rice cakes.
After immigration reform in the 1960s, Chinese food in America evolved but remained predominantly Cantonese, with a healthy dose of Taiwanese influence thrown in. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, a decade after the U.S. and Mainland China established diplomatic ties, that other regional Chinese cuisines conspicuously appeared in the United States. Shanghai-style food expanded my worldview beyond Cantonese food.
Starting in the late 1980s, Chinese dumpling restaurants sporadically opened in the Los Angeles area. But Y2K marks the start of their proliferation. When Dumpling 10053 opened in 2002, I was introduced to fish dumplings. Interestingly, for many years, Los Angeles was the only American city where you could find fish dumplings. Five years ago, when New York-based South China Morning Post correspondent Jeff Chu interviewed me, he asked about my favorite Chinese dish. When I responded with fish dumplings, he looked puzzled. Fish dumplings didn’t exist in New York at that time, so he had never heard of them. This anecdote typifies how Chinese food in New York has trailed that of California for the past couple of decades. (Shortly thereafter, fish dumplings finally did show up in New York.)
For the last few years, my favorite Chinese dish has been the crispy baked barbecue pork bun, generally made with a crispy round top and a crispy flat bottom. I first encountered a version at Sea Harbour in Rosemead. Its French-style baked barbecue pork bun was good, but not great.
Five years ago, I visited Hong Kong. I ate at Tim Ho Wan, the restaurant that invented the dish. The original is transcendent. Even though I’m sure nobody in America can equal it, I have been on a quest for crispy baked barbecue pork buns ever since.
My favorite version here is Dragon Beaux‘s in San Francisco. I like several other Bay Area versions, too, including the pork buns at Hong Kong Lounge, Koi Palace, and Lai Hong Lounge. Honorable mention goes to Tang Gong in Monterey Park, Pacific Lighthouse in Alameda and the Tim Ho Wan branch in Manhattan (but not the one in Irvine, CA). Decent versions of pork buns are also on offer near Los Angeles, at Lunasia in Alhambra and China Red in Arcadia. And, for only $1.50, you can eat a giant one at Long’s Family Pastry in L.A.’s Chinatown or iCafe on Waverly Place in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
As I have often said, Chinese food in the United States is always evolving and getting better. I eagerly look forward to the new Chinese dishes that will be my future favorites.
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.