Chinese restaurants arrived in America in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until American immigration laws changed in 1965 that the modern era for Chinese dining in the United States began. For the first time in over 80 years, large numbers of immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia invigorated the stagnating Chinese-American community and its pedestrian Cantonese/Toishanese dining options with new and exciting Chinese food.
At the beginning of this modern era of Chinese dining in the United States, San Francisco had by far the largest Chinese-American community, perhaps 10 percent of the city’s population. In contrast, the Chinese populations in Los Angeles and New York hovered at 1 percent or less of the total (census figures from this era are not reliable due to illegal immigration), so it’s no surprise that as changes began to occur in Chinese dining, San Francisco was ground zero. Even though the new brand of Chinese cuisine also appeared in Los Angeles’s suburban San Gabriel Valley in the mid-1970s, the Bay Area was where you would find the best Chinese food well into the 1980s. Indeed, on weekends and vacations, many Angelinos of Chinese descent would make the trek north in search of the better stuff.
In the mid-1980s things began to change. Enough Chinese immigrants made their way to New York that it created a Chinese community rivaling that of San Francisco, and New York’s Chinese food surpassed San Francisco’s. At the same time, the San Gabriel Valley was marketed in Asia as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” L.A.’s Chinese community grew, fortified by well-heeled newcomers, and shiny Chinese restaurants began to spring up all over the valley. Consequently, by the 1990s, Los Angeles had replaced New York as the best city for Chinese food, and Bay Area Chinese food fans started trekking south for it.
That Los Angeles has the best Chinese food in the United States is old news, as even the New York Times acknowledges. What is new is that in the past five years, the gap over San Francisco, and to a much greater extent New York, has widened. Chinese residents in Los Angeles are obsessed with Chinese food to a level unmatched anywhere else in the United States. This food craze began somewhat under the radar, centered mostly in the Chinese-speaking community. Chihuo, a Chinese-language website dedicated to Los Angeles Chinese restaurants, has reached an incredible level of popularity. Chihuo’s founder Amy Duan came to L.A. from China to attend graduate school, and she started the website because she found Yelp ratings of authentic Chinese restaurants highly inaccurate. Founded only four years ago, Chihuo boasts almost 200,000 followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, a testament to the worldwide interest in L.A.’s Chinese food. (In contrast, Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times food reviewer Jonathon Gold has under 70,000 Twitter followers). When Chihuo posts a positive review of a new Chinese restaurant, it is retweeted hundreds of times, and crowds form within hours. Among the throngs are tourists from China who visit Los Angeles and consider the local Chinese food one of its main attractions. Beyond Chihuo, Chinese-language blogs critiquing area Chinese restaurants abound. There are also private Chinese-language dining clubs on Facebook and other social media sites with thousands of members trading restaurant finds and reviews.
The mania is not restricted to the Chinese-speaking community. Equally obsessed with Chinese food is the “626 Generation,” second-generation millennial sons and daughters of immigrants, who, like other millennials, spend a good portion of their disposable income on food. The anthem of this generation, The Fung Brothers’s “626,” is unsurprisingly food-related, shot primarily in and around San Gabriel Valley eateries. The video has garnered almost one million YouTube views.
Perhaps the most conspicuous manifestation of the San Gabriel Valley’s Chinese food mania is the wildly successful 626 Night Market. Night markets are extremely popular in Asia, where on hot summer nights, vendors serve street food and other delicacies to hungry crowds. Several years ago, an entrepreneur thought a Monterey Park night market would be a good idea, but the event bombed. After all, with hundreds of Chinese restaurants open in the San Gabriel Valley on a Saturday night, why would anybody go to a street fair to eat? So when Johnny Hwang decided to start his 626 Night Market in the spring of 2012, observers were understandably skeptical. The initial event, held in a parking lot in downtown Pasadena, was indeed a disaster, but not for the expected reasons. Rather, instead of a projected attendance of 8,000, the inaugural 626 Night Market drew close to 30,000 people, creating a massive traffic jam on the 210 Freeway, normally associated with football games at the nearby Rose Bowl. People lucky enough to find parking waited for hours in long food lines. Fortunately, the market has since moved to more spacious quarters at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, and now the sellout crowds of tens of thousands enjoy the summertime night markets in somewhat orderly fashion.
Of course, this unrivaled obsession with Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is terrific news for all food lovers in Los Angeles, as it creates competitive pressure on restaurateurs in price, service, and quality. Most China-based restaurant chains looking to open in North America choose Los Angeles to launch. The restaurant that doesn’t put its best foot forward is doomed to an ignominious and rapid failure, as well learned by Singapore Leaf. In late 2014, amid much fanfare, the chain from Mainland China opened its first (and perhaps last) U.S. location in Alhambra. Though its first week saw a consistently packed house, the restaurant went out of business only a few months later.
Right now, no other city in the country matches the Chinese food craze in Los Angeles. With a geographically concentrated and affluent Chinese community, alongside millennial Chinese-American foodies and Los Angeles food aficionados, the city’s Chinese food scene is rocketing to new heights daily.
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.