While change occurs gradually over time, sometimes identifiable watershed moments herald the beginning of a new era. In music, for instance, you can point to songs like “Rock Around the Clock,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Good Vibrations,” “The Hustle,” and “Sugarhill Rap” as examples. Likewise, certain restaurant openings exemplify major developments of Chinese food in America, marking a dramatic change in dining trends.
Chinese food arrived in the United States during the Gold Rush. Most Chinese residents during this time period came from rural Toishan, a direct result of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which explicitly prevented Chinese from other regions from immigrating here. Therefore, Chinese food of the Toishanese/Cantonese variety dominated until the late 1960s, when a change in American immigration laws allowed large numbers of immigrants from other parts of China to come to the United States and usher in the modern era of Chinese American dining.
Yet even before the effect of new immigration laws took hold in the late 1960s, subtle but clear changes occurred in Chinese American cuisine. As a goodwill gesture to our World War II ally China, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. This repeal, however, was mostly symbolic, as the annual quota for Chinese immigrants to the U.S. stood at a mere 105 individuals. Despite the paltry number, non-quota immigrants such as students, war brides, refugees, and relatives of Chinese already living in the U.S. brought some diversity to the Chinese community. Consequently, beginning in the late 1940s, a trickle of non-Cantonese restaurants opened in cities like New York and Chicago.
Non-Cantonese food made its first notable impression on the American consciousness in 1961, when Cecilia Chiang opened her famed The Mandarin Restaurant on San Francisco’s Polk Street. Chiang, a native of Shanghai, a thousand miles to the north of Toishan, rightfully felt the Bay Area’s Cantonese-dominated restaurants did not represent “real” Chinese cuisine. Her restaurant introduced what was then referred to as “Mandarin” or “Northern” Chinese food. However, with the relatively small number of non-Cantonese Chinese living here at the time, non-Chinese patrons were The Mandarin’s main clientele, so the food was not truly authentic. Nevertheless, with The Mandarin’s tremendous success, other non-Cantonese style Chinese restaurants, such as Twin Dragon in Los Angeles and Shun Lee Palace in New York, soon followed.
The effects of immigration reform completely changed the face of the Chinese American community, and accordingly the face of Chinese food in the United States. In the 1960s, the U.S. and China were adversaries, so the first wave of post-reform Chinese immigrants arrived from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Taiwanese quickly made their presence felt in New York, with a number of chefs with a background in Hunan-style cooking coming to the forefront in the early 1970s. Even though theirs was faux Hunan food, it nevertheless marked a major milestone in the development of Chinese American cuisine.
Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, who opened Uncle Peng’s restaurant in Manhattan, is the most notable of this wave of Taiwanese chefs. In the early 1970s, he introduced a dish he called General Tso’s Chicken. Peng’s creation spread like wildfire, first across New York, then to other parts of the country, subsequently becoming the most popular Americanized Chinese dish outside of the West Coast. The 2014 movie The Search for General Tso, in which I am interviewed, chronicles the dish’s meteoric rise. However, it was not Chef Peng’s restaurant that propelled Hunan style food onto the American scene, but rather another New York restaurant, Hunan, which captured the imagination of New York City and became the “in” place to dine. These trends ultimately made Hunan-style food the Chinese cuisine of choice in the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, new immigration from Hong Kong had an equally significant impact on the Cantonese food scene in America. Hong Kong immigrants flooded into America’s Chinatowns bringing a new, more modern style of Cantonese food. The pre-existing style of Cantonese/Toishanese food in America hardly resembled what was being served in Hong Kong, then emerging as an international culinary center. It is no surprise, then, that the old cuisine was quickly displaced by a broad variety of new dishes, including crispy chow mein with thin egg noodles, baked barbecue pork buns, Cantonese fillet steak, West Lake beef soup, braised duck, and rice noodle rolls. Dim sum now became a sit-down affair, rather than a take-out or casual bakery-like operation. At first, waiters carried dim sum table-to-table on trays, then subsequently, ladies pushed dim sum carts.
1970s Hong Kong-style Cantonese eateries became true destination restaurants. The buzz around the 1978 opening of Kam Lok in San Francisco Chinatown was so intense that people flocked from Los Angeles and other points of origin just to eat there. I myself flew to San Francisco on a day trip from L.A. one Saturday shortly after Kam Lok’s opening, eating there at both lunch and dinner.
Modern restaurants like Kam Lok kicked off a golden age of Hong Kong-style Cantonese dining in the United States, marked by new and better dishes and concepts that continues to the present. Coincidentally, I made my first trip to Hong Kong in 1980, where I was astounded to find a plethora of Cantonese seafood restaurants, a genre that I had never seen before. Only a few months after my trip, the first Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants opened in L.A. Within two years, it seems like half of all newly opened Chinese restaurants were seafood restaurants, with “Seafood”, “Ocean” or “Sea” somewhere in the restaurants’ names.
The 1984 opening of ABC Seafood in L.A.’s Chinatown led to the development of the quintessential Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant. ABC’s combination of modern dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood and non-seafood specialties arguably made it the top Chinese restaurant in the U.S. for the next decade. Due to ABC’s relatively small capacity, however, the 1986 opening of its much larger sister restaurant, NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, set the model for the seafood palace: tanks full of live seafood on display and an array of private rooms supplementing the spacious main dining room. Size-wise, these seafood palaces reached their zenith in the early 1990s with the opening of Ocean Star Seafood in Monterey Park and the enlarged quarters of Jing Fong in New York Chinatown, with capacities of 800 to 900 diners.
Indeed, the 1990s were heady times for Cantonese cuisine in North America. In advance of the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents fled to Canada, the U.S., and other destinations around the world. The exodus resulted in an accelerated upgrade to the Cantonese food found in America’s Chinese communities. The 1996 opening of Koi Palace in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, was a true game-changer. Like ABC Seafood a dozen years previously, Koi Palace single-handedly raised the bar with its inventive, delicate dim sum, as well as its expansive selection of seafood dishes. Amazingly, more than 20 years after its opening, Koi Palace has maintained its edge and remains among the top Chinese restaurants in the country, in a Chinese restaurant climate where Chinese food continues to evolve and improve and new innovative restaurants often leave yesterday’s favorites in the dust.
Koi Palace was not the only restaurant to serve a new, more delicate brand of dim sum. Vancouver’s Sea Harbour Seafood, which opened up in the San Gabriel Valley community of Rosemead, replaced the traditional dim sum carts with a menu and checksheet ordering system that had come into vogue in Hong Kong. Of course, ordering dim sum from a menu wasn’t a totally new idea — after all, that was the original system used. But in these new restaurants, the menu system brought several advantages. Since they no longer needed to accommodate carts, restaurants could narrow the aisles and fit more tables in the dining room. In addition, cooked-to-order dim sum enables the creation of new and inventive dishes served fresh to the table. Initially, only the Los Angeles area offered cartless dim sum, but in the past five years, the trend has spread to the Bay Area, enabling the quality of San Francisco’s dim sum at restaurants like Dragon Beaux to now surpass that of Los Angeles.
The 21st century is clearly the platinum age of dim sum in the United States, but the major story about Chinese food during this time is the relative decline of Cantonese cuisine and the rise of numerous other regional Chinese cuisines. While Cecilia Chiang introduced non-Cantonese Chinese cuisine to the American public some 55 years ago, it was primarily geared towards non-Chinese diners, as were the legion of non-Cantonese restaurants that opened in Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980s brought the first few Shanghai-, Sichuan- and Hunan-style restaurants to the San Gabriel Valley, geared to Chinese customers originating from each region. Not until the 1990s did substantial numbers of authentic non-Cantonese, Mainland Chinese regional restaurants start to open. What began as a trickle in the late 1990s has today become a flood. In the San Gabriel Valley, only a small minority of newly opened Chinese restaurants serve Cantonese food. The vast majority of new restaurants specialize in Sichuan, Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, Taiwanese, Wuhan, Sichuan, Dongbei, Shaanxi, Uyghur, and a dozen other different regional Chinese cuisines.
This is not to say that Cantonese food is dying. On weekend afternoons, Cantonese dim sum palaces are still the toughest ticket in town. And in every Chinese American community, the busiest restaurants are Cantonese banquet halls celebrating weddings and birthdays, as there aren’t many large capacity non-Cantonese restaurants to be found.
In the past five years, this lack of destination restaurants serving regional Chinese cuisine is beginning to change. When the Sichuan-style Chengdu Taste opened in the San Gabriel Valley city of Alhambra, its three-hour wait times attracted food critics from across the country, forcing the restaurant to extend its hours and eventually enabling it to open new locations. Significantly, Chengdu Taste features a new take on Sichuan-style food. Because Sichuan peppercorns were once banned from import into the United States, many of the older Sichuan-style restaurants developed menus devoid of them and their signature “ma la” numbing sensation. Working on a new slate, Chengdu Taste has led the charge of a superior next generation of Sichuan-style food.
Shortly thereafter, U.S. operations of the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, once happy to be a cult favorite tucked in a small San Gabriel Valley shopping center, awoke from its dozen-year slumber to grow into a powerhouse. Din Tai Fung has since opened gigantic locations in the most prestigious shopping malls across the greater Los Angeles region, serving a mixture of Shanghai and Taiwanese dishes.
With Chinese cuisine in the United States ever evolving, who knows what the next major era and its signature representatives may be? Perhaps it has already arrived and is in the process of emerging. Stay tuned!
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.