If there’s one thing which causes me to roll my eyeballs, it’s a restaurant that serves both Chinese and Japanese food. Whenever I see a restaurant proclaiming “Chinese and Japanese Food” or “Sushi and Chinese Food,” I’ll bet that there’s a good chance it should be avoided.
Now there are a couple of obvious reasons why combination Japanese and Chinese mix like oil and water. For one, many of these restaurants are geared towards customers who perceive little if any difference between the two — imagine a diner who considers sushi and kung pao chicken to be of common ilk. While not as bad as three-cuisine restaurants (like the restaurant I saw in St. Petersburg, Russia which proclaimed “Pizza – Sushi – Wok”), combination Chinese and Japanese restaurants have such a low common denominator that the result often isn’t pretty.
In addition, Chinese and Japanese cooking are entirely different types of regimes, and it is not likely that a single chef would be adept or even passable at both of them. Japanese food is not particularly adventuresome in its flavorings and spices, while Chinese food is the opposite. Popular Japanese dishes found in the United States like sushi, ramen, teriyaki, and tempura have little similarity to Chinese food, not surprising given the vast differences between Japanese culture and Chinese culture.
Now, not all mixed Chinese cuisine restaurants are necessarily problematic. In contrast, Vietnamese–Chinese restaurants or Thai-Chinese restaurants do not trigger the dread that Japanese-Chinese combinations do, since there is some overlap between those cuisines. Walk into virtually any Vietnamese restaurant and you will find noodle dishes, both stir-fried and in soup, that are identical to what you would find in a Chinese noodle restaurant. You may also find other stir-fry dishes in Vietnamese restaurants similar to what you would find in a Chinese restaurant. While there is less similarity between Thai food and Chinese food, cooking styles and ingredients do overlap, and combination Thai and Chinese restaurants are relatively common.
However, after having stated the general premise, in fact there are some exceptions to the rule against mixing Chinese and Japanese food. The first exception I ran into almost 25 years ago was probably an anomaly. A restaurant called Ginza Garden set up in the city of Gardena, California, just outside of Los Angeles. Gardena had the greatest concentration of Japanese American residents of any city on the US mainland, and while Chinese never moved into Gardena in any great numbers, they did begin to migrate to nearby areas, sufficient to potentially support an authentic Chinese restaurant in Gardena. However, while Ginza Garden served authentic Chinese food (even advertising in the Chinese language press) as well as Japanese food, it had an unusual arrangement. Ginza Garden had two separate dining rooms, one for Japanese food and one for Chinese food. When you walked into the restaurant they asked you which dining room you wanted to be seated in. Perhaps they had separate kitchens, too. Consequently, it was really two restaurants in one, as opposed to one restaurant serving both Chinese and Japanese food.
More recently we’ve seen some cracks in the Japanese and Chinese food combination divide. One of the more common forms of Japanese and Chinese food combinations has been buffets serving sushi and Chinese food. For the most part, these buffets fall squarely within the warning zone for combination Japanese and Chinese restaurants, largely because the Chinese food in these buffets is highly Americanized. However, in localities with large Chinese communities, Chinese buffets serving authentic Chinese food have popped up, and invariably a few Japanese items, including sushi, teriyaki, tempura and miso soup are included in the buffet fare. In most cases, both the Chinese and Japanese items at these buffets are more than decent, though the Japanese selection is limited.
Also in Chinese American communities, one sees some elements of Japanese food creeping in. Ramen is moving into the diets of Chinese Americans, so much so that the Japanese ramen chain Ajisen Ramen targets Chinese communities, with numerous branches in Chinese communities such as in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Toronto and Vancouver. In the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, a restaurant called Lu’s Chinese Kitchen (since closed) touted the combination of Japanese noodles and Peking duck. And a staple at many Hong Kong style cafes in the United States is stir-fried udon, much to the horror of Japanese food purists.
But perhaps the most significant exception to the general rule against mixing Chinese and Japanese food comes from what one might call the Taiwanese overlap. Given the period of Japanese influence over Taiwan, it’s not surprising to see some culinary linkage between Taiwanese food and Japanese food. For example, hot pots have a long history in China and were transformed fairly recently by the Japanese into shabu shabu. But it’s the Taiwanese who have taken shabu shabu and run with it, both in Taiwan and in the United States. Likewise, Taiwanese bento box meals are common throughout the San Gabriel Valley and other Chinese American communities.
Indeed, the Taiwanese overlap has produced some combinations of Japanese and Chinese food that need to be taken seriously. The best example I’ve encountered of Japanese and Chinese food not being a lethal combination is in Plano, Texas, a bedroom community outside of Dallas, with a marked Taiwanese presence. At Umeko’s Sushi and Grill, while one does find sushi and other Japanese food items, the real attraction is the top notch authentic Taiwanese cuisine, making Umeko’s possibly the best Taiwanese restaurant in the Dallas area. However, it appears there is no “Umeko” at the restaurant as I observed that all of the employees were speaking Mandarin Chinese, save the Hispanic sushi chef. Umeko seems to be following a pattern emerging in California where buffets serving primarily Chinese food, but which also offer sushi, operate under Japanese names to enhance the credibility among non-Asian clientele who are primarily enticed by the sushi. Another example of Japanese and Chinese food not gone bad is Wonderful Restaurant in San Gabriel, which serves Japanese and Taiwanese food to a largely Taiwanese audience. But still, when you see Japanese and Chinese food being served at the same time by a restaurant, you need to think twice or maybe even three times before going in.
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.