For over two decades, Vancouver, British Columbia, and particularly its suburban community of Richmond, has been Mecca for Chinese food lovers in Northern America. During the late 1980s, Hong Kongers recognized that control of Hong Kong would revert to Mainland China in 1997. Meanwhile, its 1986 World’s Fair put the spotlight on Vancouver as a prime destination. The result was a mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver, turning the city into Hong Kong East, and creating an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana. The word about the superior brand of Chinese food served in the Vancouver area spread quickly. It wasn’t long before Chinese food lovers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other American locales started trekking to Vancouver in droves to partake of the heavenly fare.
I visited Vancouver in the early 1970s before the Chinese food revolution and returned in the early 1990s, enticed by tales of friends and relatives returning from Vancouver detailing how every Chinese restaurant in Vancouver and Richmond, even the stalls in the food courts, surpassed the best Chinese food in Los Angeles. Indeed, the tales were true. After eating in Vancouver and Richmond, I could not bear to eat the inferior Los Angeles Chinese food weeks after returning, and couldn’t wait for my next trip.
Angelinos continued to make the pilgrimage to Richmond B.C. for Chinese food into the 21st century. As recently as four years ago, I wrote that a top 10 listing of Chinese restaurants in North America would include only Canadian restaurants. Even then, however, things were changing. Fewer and fewer Angelinos trekked to Vancouver, and those of us who did go came back less impressed. Yes, there were restaurants or dishes in Richmond which exceeded anything we had in Los Angeles, but a lot of others were now only “just as good”, or “not any better.” So what happened?
Two things. The main factor is that Chinese food in Los Angeles has gotten so much better in the last decade. It’s been a gradual process, such that we here in Los Angeles who eat Chinese food on a day-to-day basis aren’t as sensitive to how much the food has improved. The point was driven home by three almost random comments made to me in the past two years. One was made by the maitre’d at a two-Michelin star Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong. As I’ve written, Hong Kong is ground zero for great Chinese food, and the best Chinese food there knocks the socks off of anything that we have in the States. The maitre’d commented that he lived in the San Gabriel Valley for many years, had to return to Hong Kong for family reasons, but missed the SGV. He said that “the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is very, very good.” To hear that from somebody tending one of the best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong (and the world) was quite illuminating.
More recently, I met a Chinese foodie from Vancouver who was in Los Angeles for a visit. He told me that he was surprised at how good the dim sum at Happy Harbor in the San Gabriel Valley was. I like Happy Harbor, but I would probably rank it around #7 in the Los Angeles-area dim sum pecking order. It opened my eyes about the Los Angeles/Vancouver comparison.
Shortly thereafter, a disappointed Midwest foodie returned from Vancouver and declared that the dim sum at the two top rated restaurants he visited in Richmond were no better than mid-tier San Gabriel Valley dim sum restaurants. Does this mean that as far as dim sum goes, Los Angeles has surpassed Vancouver? Not necessarily, but certainly food for thought.
In addition, Vancouver Chinese food has appeared to have plateaued. There are two elements at play here. First of all, there has been a degree of migration from Vancouver back to Hong Kong, as fears as to what would happen to Hong Kong under Chinese rule have so far turned out to be largely unfounded. I’ve encountered a number of these Canadian returnees in my travels. Among the returnees were some of Vancouver’s top chefs. More importantly, in every Chinese community outside of Asia, including Los Angeles and Vancouver, the demographics are changing with non-Cantonese Mainlanders, many of them with tremendous wealth, now moving into local Chinese communities. Naturally they’re bringing in their own regional style of Chinese food, and in this regard Vancouver is trailing the San Gabriel Valley, as the Chinese restaurant scene in the SGV shifted away from Cantonese food before Vancouver’s did. As such, Vancouver is playing catch-up as far as regional cuisines are concerned. The point was brought home by the splash that a new Shandong-style noodle house made when it opened in Vancouver. The restaurant looked to be Vancouver’s equivalent of 101 Noodle Express, which opened in the SGV over 10 years ago. However, a scout who went up to try it reported that it wasn’t nearly as good.
The rise of Chinese food in Los Angeles compared to Vancouver has not escaped notice from local Los Angeles food writers. Last year, Clarissa Wei made the once unthinkable statement that Los Angeles Chinese food has surpassed that of Vancouver. At first I thought her article was hyperbolic, but perhaps it should be taken at face value. Another non-Cantonese Los Angeles Chinese food writer has made even stronger comments denigrating Vancouver Chinese food on social media.
This doesn’t mean that people living in Los Angeles should forget about occasionally visiting Vancouver for Chinese food. Vancouver still has the larger selection of high quality Hong Kong-style restaurants, which offer dishes found in Hong Kong, but not available in Los Angeles. On the other hand, as the focus of Chinese dining around the world turns away from Cantonese=style food, Los Angeles has clearly taken the lead from Vancouver in this category. Top Mainland Chinese restaurants that are starting to open up branches in North America are choosing to do so in Los Angeles, where they perceive the action to be, building on the advantage that Los Angeles has. So while Angelinos may still want to trek to Vancouver for unique Hong Kong- and Shanghai-style specialties, Vancouverites will likewise want to travel to Los Angeles for better Sichuan food, dumplings, and other regional varieties they can’t get at home.
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.