Editor’s Note: David R. Chan has eaten at a staggering 6,000+ Chinese restaurants. How can such a feat be accomplished?, you might ask. For starters, it helps to have the gumption to drive over 400 miles in a single day! – KK
I have a friend who lives in Monterey Park, in the heart of the Chinese food empire of the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles. Though she is a big fan of Chinese food, she won’t drive more than a mile away from home for food. While that still gives her a decent array of Chinese restaurants to choose from, it also eliminates probably 95 percent of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and correspondingly most of the best restaurants there.
Speaking for myself, there are few limits on where I travel in search of food, which led me to wonder how far people might be willing to drive for a single meal. Now I don’t mean vacations that are devoted to or inspired by food, such as travelling to New Orleans or New York or Paris or Barcelona to sample the cuisine there. Rather, how far would you travel from a fixed point in search of a single meal?
The furthest I travelled was 150 miles from Naples, Florida to St. Petersburg, Florida, plus the 150 miles back. And this doesn’t count the 110 miles I drove from Miami to Naples earlier the same day. Here’s what happened. A few years ago we had a firm meeting in Naples, FL, but the closest airport I could fly to was Miami. After landing in Miami, I headed to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where I grabbed a copy of the local Chinese newspaper which, as it turned out, covered all of Florida. Even though I don’t read Chinese, I have learned that Chinese language newspapers are a great source for finding authentic Chinese restaurants in strange cities, and the ads always include the English name and street address.
As I went through the Miami newspaper, an advertisement for a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant in St. Petersburg caught my eye. I had previously visited the neighboring city of Tampa, where at the time I had great difficulty locating any Chinese restaurants at all, let alone anything good or authentic. (That’s not the case in Tampa anymore.) Consequently, I was totally intrigued by the prospect of something authentically Chinese in St. Pete. So the next morning I drove from Miami to my hotel in Naples, checked in, and then immediately dashed out to drive to St. Petersburg and back. By California standards, the food at Lucky Star Hong Kong wasn’t particularly good, but it was surely much better than anything I ate while I was in Naples, Chinese or otherwise.
Honorable mention for my longest drive goes to the time when I was attending a meeting in Monterey, California. Having a long lunch break, I decided to drive to Silicon Valley for lunch. Yeah, that was only 75 miles one way and a 150-mile round trip. Now this was a little different since I didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind — I just drove until I found a likely looking Chinese restaurant (which turned out to be Ocean Garden in Redwood City). But I enjoyed the lunch adventure so much that I also drove back from Monterey to Silicon Valley that same night for dinner, which matches the same 300 total daily mileage on the Florida west coast.
And not quite as ambitious was the 90-mile drive from Chicago to West Allis, Wisconsin, to eat at Fortune Chinese Restaurant and to check out their Chinese menu. This was a perplexing one in that I had assumed some kind of suburban Chinese community must have developed in this Milwaukee suburb, akin to Monterey Park in California, to be able to support an authentic Chinese restaurant. However, when I got there and chatted up the owner, I asked how many Chinese lived in the Milwaukee area. He said about a hundred. Was that enough people to justify an authentic Chinese restaurant? Apparently so.
Now if you count same-day driving trips for multiple meals (in my case, to check out another city’s Chinatown area), my driving range is further. For example, I once flew in the morning from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., landing after 4pm eastern time. I immediately hopped in my rental car and headed to Philadelphia, where I hit up Philadelphia Chinatown for enough food for a large dinner and leftovers for breakfast and lunch. I finally got to my D.C. hotel a little before midnight.
But my longest travel adventure was flying for a meeting from Los Angeles to Dallas, landing around noontime, getting my rental car and driving to Houston, a one-way drive of over 250 miles. I then headed to Houston’s “Chinatown” on Bellaire Blvd., made the rounds, and drove back to Dallas, arriving back sometime after midnight. This time I almost bit off more than I could chew because I didn’t account for arriving in Houston at the start of rush hour. For those of you not familiar with that city, they have traffic which can hold its own with Los Angeles or any other congested city. So my arriving in Houston around 4 pm at the beginning of rush hour and leaving three and a half hours later, led to an unplanned and frustrating encounter with traffic which probably took up more than half of my time. When you add the traffic jams on top of the 500- mile plus round trip after a three hour airplane flight, it almost wasn’t worth it. (Notice I said “almost.”)
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.