For most American businesses, including restaurants, longevity is a badge of honor. An Italian restaurant that has been open for 50 years with the same red tablecloths, fettuccine alfredo, and ravioli is something to be revered. But generally, if you see a Chinese restaurant sporting words like “since 1970,” my advice is to turn around and run away.
While this premise may sound strange at first, it makes more sense if you first look at the evolution of computer technology. Do you know anybody using a Kaypro or Commodore computer, who runs Visicalc or Lotus 1-2-3 software, who uses floppy disks or plays Atari video games? Of course not. Technology is continually evolving, and in most cases the evolution comes from new players, rather than out of existing organizations. Existing organizations tend to be limited by the framework they have created, while new entrants have no such barriers. In this regard, Chinese food is more like computer technology than Italian food, because it is continually evolving as the food-oriented culture in the homeland pushes chefs to create the next, even tastier offering. And like computer technology, evolution is more likely to come from outside sources, which in the case of Chinese restaurants in the United States means new restaurants rather than existing ones.
While I have been aware of the evolutionary nature of Chinese food for quite a while, the impact of this evolution hadn’t struck me until two of my recent Chinese restaurant meals on opposite coasts. First, at Golden King Chinese restaurant in the Washington D.C. suburb of Sterling, VA, I had tenderized Cantonese fillet steak, a dish which I hadn’t eaten in many years. The dish was a favorite for many years since it had been introduced, maybe in the 1970s or perhaps early 1980s, but became less and less common over the years.
More recently I sat down and looked at the food we had just ordered at Tasty Garden, a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Alhambra, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. We had French-style beef cubes, imitation shark fin with egg whites, and Chinese broccoli with dried fish skin. It struck me that none of those dishes were available in Los Angeles even five years ago. Other favorites at Tasty Garden include fried rice with egg white and dry scallops, sliced fish with bamboo pith, and egg tofu with mushrooms and vegetables. While we might have had those dishes five years ago, these items were unheard of in Los Angeles if you go back 10 or 15 years. Of course, while favorite dishes that have been around for a while are still found on menus, they’re in the minority of what we typically order. Likewise when it comes to dim sum, though there are certainly time-tested old favorites like har gow, bbq pork buns and beef rice noodle rolls, it’s the recent newcomers like lamb roll with cucumber and avocado in teriyaki sauce, duck with chive dumplings, chicken with black fungus dumplings, and crispy fried mashed potato cake with shrimp that enhance today’s dim sum experience.
Of course one might argue that just because something is new and different doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. My personal response would be that the difference between the 1980s Cantonese fillet steak and today’s French cut beef cubes is like night and day. But that’s just my opinion and it doesn’t necessarily prove anything.
Fortunately, however, there is a real-life laboratory which shows us that the new version of Chinese food is indeed better. In North America, there are four leading Chinese food centers: Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Yet it was little more than a quarter century ago in the mid-1980s that the best Chinese food in North America could be found in New York City. So how did New York slip from being number one on the continent for Chinese food all the way down into the second tier, particularly since New York’s Chinese population exceeds that of all the first-tier cities?
The answer is that somewhere along the line, probably the late 20th century, New York’s Chinese food stopped evolving, while those in the other cities mentioned continued to evolve and indeed accelerated their evolution. Few if any of the modern dishes I’ve noted can even be found in New York, and certainly not on any widespread basis. One can speculate why this happened but a number of factors are involved. Innovative Chinese chefs stopped immigrating to New York. Immigration of Chinese to New York has become more concentrated in working class migrants, while the other cities have seen a higher proportion of more affluent immigrants who expect and demand quality and innovative food. New York has yet to develop a young, native-born, food-centric generation of Chinese as may be found in the other cities, particularly Los Angeles, with its “626 generation.”
This is not to say that New York has totally been shut out of the evolutionary phase of Chinese food. World Tong in Brooklyn and Chinatown Brasserie in SoHo certainly fit into that category, but both are now gone. And while the Hakkasan chain opened its first American branch in Midtown Manhattan before rolling out to other American cities, one evolutionary Chinese restaurant in New York doesn’t compare to the numerous such Chinese restaurants found in the other cities.
Now why is my cutoff at 20 years, instead of say 10, 15, or 25 years? Actually, I used to have a 15-year cutoff. I developed this 15-year rule when I noticed that the Chinese restaurants which had been on the cutting edge and the top of the heap when they opened in the late 1980s and early 1990s started to lag badly behind newcomer restaurants that started to open at the beginning of the 21st century. But then came Koi Palace in Daly City, California. Its opening in 1996 significantly raised the bar of Chinese food in the United States. Yet when I assembled my Top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the United States listing in 2012, there was Koi Palace, still on top. So how did they do it? It was by the extraordinary strategy of periodically reinventing itself, frequently sending the kitchen staff back to Hong Kong to pick up on the latest evolutionary trends in that mecca of Chinese dining. Many businesses don’t think about this kind of strategy when they’re at the top of the game, particularly relatively small operations like Chinese restaurants. But Koi Palace has, and this is why they’re still on top, and I had to change my rule. Now the question is whether in two years I’ll have to change my 20-year rule, or whether I’ll keep it at 20 years with a Koi Palace exception?
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.