Chinese food in Los Angeles is the best you’ll find in this country. And yes, that means that Chinese food is better here than in San Francisco.
But what qualifies me to make such a statement about Chinese food, given my professional background as an attorney and in accounting? Add on the fact that I hated Chinese food as a kid, and that even now I am unable to use chopsticks. Who am I to make this argument?
Let’s take a short journey through the history of Chinese food in America, and see how that history has been reflected in my own personal experiences. The two intertwined stories will illuminate how my home city of Los Angeles has become the center of Chinese food in America, and why it’s not so outlandish for me to proclaim it so.
For the entire 20th century, Chinese food in America was something unrecognizable to 95 percent of the people living in China. What passed as Chinese food in America is a historical accident molded by immigration patterns, U.S. immigration laws, and demographic factors.
The Chinese started to come to America during the California gold rush (1848–1855). But these Chinese fortune seekers did not come from the whole of China. Rather, they came primarily from seven rural districts in Toisan county, 60 miles outside of the city formerly known as Canton (now Guangzhou), in southern China. Three reasons explain this narrowly concentrated migration:
For three decades, the rural Cantonese from Toisan county and nearby areas immigrated in large numbers to America in search of a better economic life. They built the railroads and developed California’s natural resources. It was said that in some Toisanese villages, every adult male had left for California.
As the numbers of migrants grew, and because these migrants were mostly adult males, resentment towards the Chinese festered, especially among European immigrant workers. In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited most residents of China from migrating to the United States until its repeal in 1943.
The Chinese Exclusion Act did not completely shut off immigration from China. Illegal immigration continued, virtually all by the family and friends of Chinese already in the United States. So for all of the 1900s, nearly the entirety of the Chinese community in the United States consisted of rural Toisanese migrants and their progeny. To use a reverse analogy, it would be as if all of the Americans living in China came from someplace like the Salinas Valley.
With this background, it’s easy to see how 20th-century American Chinese food was hardly Chinese. Chop suey, sweet and sour pork, wor wonton, moo goo gai pan, and egg foo yung were not the national dishes of China. These dishes may have had some roots in rural Toisan, but they were adapted for the local ingredients found in the United States and ultimately to suit the tastes of non-Chinese diners in the United States.
My paternal grandfather came to the U.S. in 1880 from Toisan, prior to the enactment of the Chinese exclusion laws. In the early 1900s, he brought his concubine into this country in violation of the laws, which would only allow his wife to enter the U.S. legally.
Around 1915, my maternal grandfather immigrated illegally from Toisan. He brought his wife (illegally) to Los Angeles around 1920.
I am the grandson of three illegal aliens.
As I grew up in Los Angeles, the local Chinese population numbered between 10,000 to 20,000, almost entirely of Toisanese background. In comparison, of the 600,000 Chinese in L.A. today, few are Toisanese. As a little boy, I didn’t eat much Chinese food, as it wasn’t particularly good.
Los Angeles was a minor Chinese community at the time, especially compared to the big dog of the day, San Francisco. The Toisanese name for San Francisco was literally “big city,” and to show L.A.’s spot in the pecking order, the Toisanese term “second city” referred to Sacramento. Back then, San Francisco’s Chinese population was approximately 75,000, though official census figures show less than half that amount, attributable to the sizable number of undocumented community members who didn’t want to be counted.
So how did we get from the point where Chinese food in America was a bastardized mutation that I refused to eat in my L.A. neighborhood, to today’s vibrant Chinese food scene which fully represents the wonderful varieties of regional cuisines in China? Not surprisingly, it goes back to immigration laws.
As I indicated, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. But the U.S. continued to operate on a national origins immigration quota system. Because there were few Chinese officially living in the States, the Chinese were given an annual quota of a whopping 105 immigrants. Therefore, the 1943 repeal itself didn’t change immigration patterns. Rather, we must forward to the late 1960s, when the national origins quota system was abandoned for a system that gave the same quota to all countries. Suddenly, just as many Chinese immigrants could enter the country under quota as could immigrants from a place like Great Britain.
Keep in mind that the U.S. and Mainland China were not on speaking terms at the time. So originally, the entire Chinese immigration quota was filled by immigrants from Hong Kong (then still a British colony) and quasi-independent Taiwan. Their effect on Chinese food in America was immediate. Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong rejuvenated America’s Chinatowns, bringing a new, different, and delicious form of Cantonese cuisine. Old-time Toisanese peasant dishes that I hated as a kid were supplanted by the urban flavors of Hong Kong.
Los Angeles Chinatown was especially transformed by this Hong Kong migration. In the early 1930s, L.A.’s original Chinatown was torn down to make way for Union Station. Though a replacement New Chinatown was built, it was largely devoid of Chinese residents. So when the new Hong Kong immigrants arrived and moved into New Chinatown, they effectively turned what had become an ethnic tourist trap into a true Chinese American community.
Meanwhile, the Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese did not gravitate to the existing Chinatowns, which were all Cantonese-speaking. Manhattan became one notable landing point. Taiwanese chefs opened dozens, if not hundreds, of Chinese restaurants that offered newfangled Sichuan and Hunan regional cuisines, never seen before on these shores.
As these Taiwanese chefs had themselves fled from Mainland China two decades previously, theirs was a faux Sichuan and faux Hunan cuisine, once removed the original. Because New York City had few residents from Hunan or Sichuan, a restaurant’s target clientele was local New Yorkers. A second degree of separation from original Hunan and Sichuan food resulted as chefs adapted their dishes to suit American tastes. Nevertheless, these quasi-Hunan and quasi-Sichuan cuisines swept the country with new dishes such as hot and sour soup, sizzling rice soup, General Tso’s chicken, Mushu pork, and kung pao chicken, adding to the pantheon of Chinese American dishes.
While changes in immigration laws were taking effect, I attended UCLA. Reflecting the ’60s-era ethnic studies movement, the university offered its first ever class on Asian American studies. The class opened my eyes to the experience of Chinese people in the United States. Learning that Chinese people in America indeed had their own history helped to trigger my lifetime study of Chinese food here.
More intervening factors grew my fascination with American Chinese food. When I entered the workforce, I met colleagues from Hong Kong with a passion for food that I had never encountered before. My Hong Kong friends had been the vanguard of the late 1960s immigration of Chinese to the United States, and they showed me where to find this exciting brand of Chinese food that was so much better than what I was used to. As I started to travel around the United States, I made it a point to eat at Chinese restaurants and to see what Chinese residents and communities were like throughout the country.
Even as Los Angeles began to grow as a center of Chinese community and cuisine, San Francisco retained its lead. New food trends from Hong Kong, such as Chinese seafood restaurants and dim sum palaces, spread across the United States. While the gap between San Francisco and Los Angeles Chinese food clearly narrowed in the 1980s, Angelinos still talked amongst ourselves about heading to the Bay Area to try the latest new restaurants. My friends and I would map the latest Chinese restaurant openings in San Francisco, plan when we would travel up north and what we would eat when we got there. In the mid- to late 1980s, our attention turned from Chinese restaurants in San Francisco to even better Chinese restaurants in Manhattan. I actually have no idea how New York supplanted San Francisco as #1, and New York’s time in first place was relatively brief. But San Francisco’s reign was clearly over.
Any jockeying for Chinese food supremacy between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York quickly became irrelevant due to one major event: the planned 1997 takeover of Hong Kong by China, adopted in 1990. Suddenly, just about anyone in Hong Kong with the means to relocate did so. And starting in the late 1980s, the primary destination for these Hong Kong expatriates was not San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York. Instead, it was Vancouver, British Columbia, which soon became a near culinary equivalent of Hong Kong itself. All the talk among Chinese food enthusiasts was when we could plan our next trip to Vancouver and what restaurants we should try. The quality differential was so great that whenever I returned home from a food-filled Vancouver trip, I wouldn’t bother to eat Chinese food in L.A. for at least a month.
Of course, not every great Hong Kong chef landed in Vancouver. A few made their way to San Francisco, and even more to Los Angeles, which helped the latter’s Chinese food surpass the former’s in the early-1990s. But another major immigration-related factor came into play to reshape Chinese food in America, eventually surpassing even Vancouver.
When the U.S. finally established diplomatic relations with China, the first migration of non-Cantonese Chinese, including from more developed areas such as Shanghai and Beijing, began to arrive. By the mid- to late-1980s, Shanghai- and Beijing-style restaurants started opening in Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent, San Francisco. This authentic non-Cantonese Chinese food led the L.A. region to become the clear leader of Chinese food in the U.S., particularly in the past decade, as the depth and breadth of these regional cuisines are unmatched.
After a century and a half where Chinese food in America was largely synonymous with Cantonese food, the full range of Chinese cuisines, from Sichuan to Hunan, from Fujian to Shandong, and even the rare Wuhan and Lizhou, may be appreciated in Southern California. Mainland Chinese restaurant chains such as Din Tai Fung and Meizhou Dongpo opened their first American locations in or near L.A. because they’ve decided this is the place to be. A food writer I know was stunned to find that China Taste, which opened in early 2017, offered Anhui-style cuisine to Angelinos before it had reached Hong Kong. Meanwhile, in barely five years, Los Angeles restaurants Chengdu Taste and Sichuan Impression have turned Sichuan-style food in America on its head with their modern new take on the traditional cuisine. And the presence of the “626 generation,” millennial Chinese American tastemakers, continually ups the ante.
I’ll add some anecdotal evidence. This past Chinese New Year, the San Francisco Chronicle put out a special Chinese food section, including an article on how San Francisco now lags behind in the Chinese food scene. Yours truly is quoted as saying, ”The San Francisco Bay area is still five years behind Los Angeles when it comes to Chinese food.” This, of course, isn’t objective proof, but the article’s author and another well-versed food writer who covers Chinese food in L.A. and S.F. agree. In the same article, Jack Wang, a San Francisco Chinese restauranteur, reflected on the flood of Mainland China-based restaurants opening in Los Angeles by adding, “Los Angeles is a testing ground for a lot of Chinese restaurateurs. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
One last point: Occasionally, I like to take a group vacation designed to attract Chinese tourists from across the US and Canada. The tour always provides an interesting mix of traveling companions. Inevitably, the discussion turns to Chinese food. Bay Area tour members frequently comment that Chinese food in L.A. is better than the Bay Area. They’ll mention how they like to drive down to SoCal on weekends for Chinese food. Often, their destination restaurants puzzle me, but that probably just reflects the depth of Chinese food to be found here. Meanwhile, it’s probably been 20 years since anybody I know in L.A. has suggested we drive to the Bay Area just to get better Chinese food.
Mind you, I’m not saying Chinese food in San Francisco is bad. The dim sum there is substantially better than here (though L.A. dim sum keeps getting better). I have a few other favorite Bay Area restaurants that my family loves to visit. But right now, there is no question in my mind who is #1. The home team wins across the board.
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.