Cantonese restaurants have declined in the United States amid a corresponding rise of what is often referred to as Mainland Chinese food. In the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Cantonese restaurants represent only about 10 percent of total new Chinese restaurant openings over the past five years. The story is the same throughout the country, where coast to coast, non-Cantonese restaurant openings are surging compared to Cantonese restaurants. Historically Cantonese Chinatowns such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia now have numerous non-Cantonese restaurants in their midst. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, perhaps demographically the most Cantonese/Toishanese remaining Chinese community in the United States today, Sichuan and other Mainland-style restaurants, including two branches of Z & Y Sichuan, Pot & Noodle, Chong Qing Xiao Mian, House of Xian Dumpling, Spicy King, and Bund Shanghai have diversified the Chinese dining scene with regional Chinese cooking styles. Even in Phoenix, whose old Cantonese Chinatown disappeared decades ago, food writer Lauren Saria recently lamented the seeming disappearance of Cantonese food.
Quizzically, Los Angeles Chinatown remains an exception. Certainly, the dining scene is changing rapidly here. Chinatown has risen as a major center of non-Chinese dining, and that trend continues unabated. People wait in line for up to four hours to eat at Howlin’ Ray’s Nashville Hot Chicken, and perhaps the toughest sit-down ticket right now is David Chang’s West Coast Korean entry, Majordomo. The only source of authentic Mainland food in is still Qin West, which opened with little fanfare back in 2014. Back then, I predicted that Chinatown would soon see more Mainlander restaurants and that you would finally be able to find Sichuan-style cuisine here. But so far I’ve been wrong. While Lao Tao and Baohaus recently joined Howlin’ Ray’s, Chego, and some other notable non-Chinese restaurants in Far East Plaza (formerly called the Food Center), both are Taiwanese eateries (certainly not Mainlander food) and indeed are eateries that blend in with the hipster feel of that particular center.
So in most Chinese American communities, the question has become “Where is the Cantonese food?,” but in Los Angeles Chinatown, the question here is “Where is the Mainlander food?”
One might posit that the demographics of L.A. Chinatown, with relatively few non-Cantonese residents in the immediate vicinity, explains the lack of Mainland food options. But San Francisco has had an influx of authentic Mainland style restaurants, despite being demographically more Cantonese than L.A.
Meanwhile, less than five miles from L.A. Chinatown, thousands of Mainland Chinese students are camped at the University of Southern California, eager for a taste of home cooking, which is not particularly plentiful on or near campus. Anecdotal evidence indicates that USC’s Mainlanders head to Koreatown for food somewhat similar to their own home style of food. Why not Chinatown?
In pondering this puzzling anomaly, I may have found the explanation. Last year, while eating at Hong Kong BBQ, I looked at the table next to me where there were two Chinese diners. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was full. Hong Kong BBQ is a typical Los Angeles Chinatown Cantonese restaurant in that the food pales to what’s available in the nearby San Gabriel Valley. While the food is not inauthentic, it is behind the times, but it draws its share of Chinese-American diners who will accept a lesser product as an acceptable alternative to driving east.
As I looked across the rest of the dining room, I saw every other table occupied by Hispanic diners. I started paying more attention while dining at various Chinese restaurants around Chinatown and observed that Hispanic diners are invariably a good portion of the crowd almost every time. On lazy Sunday afternoons, the pedestrians in front of the shops on North Broadway are more likely to be Hispanic than white or Chinese. So does this mean that we can thank Hispanic diners for keeping the cuisine so solidly Cantonese?
Obviously, the restaurant scene is a multifaceted issue without a single explanation, but the conspicuous presence of Hispanic diners goes a long way to explain things. Historic 20th century Americanized Chinese food was the food brought to the United States by the Toishanese-Cantonese community that almost exclusively populated the United States for over 100 years. Their original style of food persists in some parts of the U.S. but has pretty much disappeared in Los Angeles, as new forms of Americanized Chinese food developed in the post-immigration reform era starting in the 1970s.
The 1970s immigration reform revitalized the Chinese community, turning Chinatown into the center of authentic Chinese dining. However, as the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley grew, reaching a tipping point in the late 1980s, Los Angeles Chinatown food stagnated.
At the same time in areas of central L.A., the Hispanic population grew, with Chinatown’s largely Cantonese dining options to serve them. Unlike the panoply of more modern Chinese cuisines with its various regional styles found in the San Gabriel Valley, the Cantonese food is approachable and familiar. In contrast, while the San Gabriel Valley has its own sizable Hispanic population, Hispanics are almost never seen in San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants.
Who knows whether or for how long the Cantonese dominance will remain in effect, but it has certainly lasted longer than I would have predicted. I have seen at least one “fake Canto” restaurant that serves Cantonese food but with Mandarin speaking waiters, so maybe the end is near. In any event, the relationship between the Cantonese food in Chinatown and Hispanic diners is an interesting localized cross-cultural interaction.
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.