As a whole, Los Angeles’s Chinese food scene surpassed New York’s over 20 years ago and continues to pull away. However, you’ll find some things Chinese food-wise in New York that simply don’t exist in Los Angeles, including these four restaurants.
Situated in the Chinese-owned Waldorf-Astoria, La Chine is the type of high-end authentic Chinese restaurant on offer in New York, along with Fung Tu, Cafe China, and Hakkasan. After the demise of Hakkasan Beverly Hills (and perhaps Chi Lin), there are no longer such posh Chinese dining options in LA. Perhaps Los Angeles is just not as much of an expense account town. Sure, it does boast the entertainment industry, but still pales in comparison to New York, with Wall Street, the investment banks, and all the corporate headquarters.
To be fair, there are high-end Chinese restaurants in LA, like WP24, Mr. Chow, and Philippe. But none of these serves authentic Chinese food. So where do LA’s rich people go to eat authentic Chinese food? The same humble places where you and I eat. Virtually all of the seafood palaces where you’ll find $3 dim sum and lunch specials, you’ll also find uber-expensive premium menus, such as the $10,000 per table banquet menu at Grand Harbor in Temple City.
Back at La Chine, we passed on the $125 per person tasting menu, but because it was restaurant week, got a good substitute. The special menu included a Long Island fluke appetizer (nothing special), wagyu beef tenderloin (the hit of the evening), crispy shrimp (quite tasty), and black cod (just OK). For dessert, we had excellent mango with pomelo tapioca soup (pictured above), and a bland coconut pudding square.
Walking near my hotel on 45th St. in Midtown Manhattan, I passed a restaurant called Modern Szechuan. It had all the earmarks of a restaurant catering to local office workers, including a $6.99 per pound buffet. What caught my eye were the handwritten signs touting Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles and xiaolongbao — certainly not Midtown office worker fare. Walking in, I saw a couple of lo wai (non-Chinese people) eating and a few more carrying out buffet items. The menu was largely Americanized Chinese food, and all in all the place didn’t look promising. But a section of the menu offered knife-cut and hand-pulled noodle soups that looked authentic, so I ordered the chicken hand-pulled noodles and the Shanghai wonton. After I placed my order, the manager directed me past the buffet to the back of the restaurant to pay for my food and wait for it.
What a shock: Most of the people eating adjacent to the buffet were old Chinese guys, like the old-timey bachelors you’d see in Chinatown. In Midtown? The back part of the restaurant also had a separate menu posted on the wall of authentic Chinese items (ironically, nothing Sichuan-style). Young Chinese families filled the separate seating area. It was like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant had been transplanted from Chinatown into the heart of Manhattan!
The chicken and the noodles were fantastic, so we ordered a second bowl. The Shanghai wontons made with ground beef were also standout. But the lasting impression? You’d never see a restaurant like this in downtown Los Angeles.
As I have previously written, Flushing has become my favorite Chinatown. Unlike the Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even most of Manhattan, the sidewalks in Flushing don’t roll up after dark. It wasn’t that way when I first visited Main Street 20 years ago, when the area was only partially Chinese, but it has certainly transformed since.
In my previous trips to Flushing, we’d mostly stayed in the vicinity of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, within walking distance of our hotel. But this time, we were driven to a Malaysian restaurant called Satay. This was not a Malaysian restaurant as you or I might think. Satay specializes in Chinese Malaysian food, that is, food of the ethnic Chinese who live in Malaysia. The proprietors, staff, and customers all speak Cantonese, and the menu is in both English and Chinese.
We had a Malaysian Chinese New Year’s salad, pictured, that included red envelopes filled with sesame seeds to top the salad. The salad was served unmixed, so the diners would use their chopsticks to mix the salad for good luck. We also ate golden spare ribs with pineapple, okra with green beans and smelt, an odd duck dish, and in-shell shrimp cooked like crispy crab. It was a wonderful meal!
Last year, I visited with recording artists the Fung Bros. before they moved back to the West Coast. We had dinner at Congee Village, where they said the one thing New York did better than Los Angeles was old-fashioned Cantonese barbecue roast meats.
In that regard, the grandaddy of them all is Wah Fung #1 Fast Food on Chrystie Street in New York Chinatown. It has a simple menu: chashu, roast chicken, roast duck, and/or roast pork layered on vegetables with a mound of white rice. The standard price for a single item is $3.75.
Long before Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken brought snaking long lines to LA Chinatown, there was Wah Fung #1. In over 30 trips to New York City, the lines at Wah Fung kept me away. Though the wait time is nowhere close to those at Howlin’ Ray’s, I’d guess Wah Fung’s volume of business is higher, given the fact that it is takeout-only, and it only takes a minute or so to fill an order. As a bonus, unlike the scenesters at Howlin’ Ray’s, the line at Wah Fung’s is mainly composed of Chinese senior citizens.
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.