People who read my Menuism columns or who have heard about my visits to over 6,000 Chinese restaurants sometimes react in disbelief. One commenter said he’d have done the math, and asked how could I possibly have eaten at over 6,000 different Chinese restaurants, since it would require trying a new Chinese restaurant every day for over 16 years? Even if you tried one per day, unless you kept moving from city to city, wouldn’t you run out of new Chinese restaurants to try?
The question is a valid one, and I hope this explanation clarifies my journey and satifies the skeptics. For starters, I’ve been doing this for a lot longer than 16 years. My spreadsheet began in the 1970s, some 35 years ago, so at a steady pace of nearly 200 new restaurants a year, I wound up trying over 6,000 restaurants. But even 200 new Chinese restaurants per year might sound implausible — it still means more than one new restaurant every other day, and there certainly aren’t 200 new Chinese restaurants opening up in and around my Los Angeles base in the course of a year. Indeed, when I’m home, I can find on average maybe two new Chinese restaurants per week, a pace which would make reaching 6,000 unattainable.
My biggest advantage to adding to the list is traveling around the country. When I’m out of town, I literally eat four, sometimes even five meals per day, each at a different Chinese restaurant. Consequently, a five-day business trip to destinations like New York or San Francisco can easily add 20 restaurants to my conquests, with most of my non-work hours devoted to scouting for food. I’ve perfected the breakfast and lunchtime subway dash between Midtown Manhattan and Chinatown (take the B or D train from under the Sheraton New York Hotel to Grand Avenue). San Francisco is an especially fruitful destination. Besides the large quantity of good Chinese restaurants there, if I order a bad dish somewhere, I don’t have to finish it. Rather, I pack it up and give it to one of the homeless people around San Francisco Chinatown at night (where I always stay, though do not necessarily eat). That’s what I call a win-win situation: food for the homeless without having to fill myself up on something that’s not very good.
Sometimes I’ll get even more ambitious, like my dim sum crawl through the suburbs of Toronto, when I hit up six dim sum restaurants in six hours one Sunday. Similarly, I took an eight-hour drive from Miami to Boca Raton (a straight-line distance of less than 50 miles) and zig-zagged across south Florida to the scattered restaurants I found in the local Chinese newspaper. Admittedly, however, I can only do these kind of eating sprees once in a great while.
I also choose to drive rather than fly to meetings in places like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Phoenix so I can sample Chinese restaurants on the way. (When else would I get a chance to try the dim sum in Palm Springs, Fresno, or Bakersfield?) When I do fly, for instance, to a meeting in San Francisco, I often land in San Jose instead, so I may dine at Chinese restaurants in Silicon Valley. A couple of times I flew to New York and rented a car on my way to meetings in Washington, D.C, so I could sample more eateries. I also make it a point to choose a hotel near the focal point of Chinese food rather than near my business site. Plus, it makes me feel more like a local as I drive 20 miles to my work destination, rather than staying on-premises.
If my destination doesn’t have a large representation of Chinese restaurants, I’ll look for nearby localities that expand the pool. For example, after attending numerous meetings in Orlando and trying pretty much all of the worthwhile Chinese food there, I’ve driven at dinnertime to Tampa, St. Petersburg, even Gainesville and Cocoa Beach. A trip to San Antonio meant arriving two days early to enable side trips to Austin and Houston. And, as I noted in a previous article, there have been numerous same-day trips, including the time I drove 240 miles from Dallas to Houston and back on the same day I landed in Dallas from Los Angeles; flying from L.A. to D.C., then hopping in a car and driving to Philadelphia and back to D.C.; or the day I drove from Monterey to Silicon Valley — twice.
A side benefit to my excursions is that I get to see sights that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see, and which I find to be quite enjoyable. Yes, that was one circuitous trip around south Florida, but I got to drive along the “other Hollywood Boulevard,” and ride the entire length of Hypoluxo Road wondering why would anyone would name a major street after a chemical process? (Hypoluxo turns out to be a Native American chieftain). While the food was always the immediate goal, there are definitely major non-culinary benefits to long and winding roads.
Closer to home in Los Angeles, the restaurant count is enhanced by the faster turnover of Chinese restaurants compared to other parts of the country. In many smaller Chinese restaurant markets such as Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, and St. Louis, one finds that many of the leading Chinese restaurants from 15 or 20 more years ago are still the top choices today. Presumably, it is easier to create a brand worth preserving in these markets, so even if a restaurant changes hands, it continues in its existing guise. But in the L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, which houses 600 or more Chinese restaurants, branding is less valuable, and turnover happens more frequently. Indeed, a single restaurant location in San Gabriel has had added 15 different Chinese restaurants to my list in less than 25 years.
So, I hope you see the road to 6,000 is authentic, just like the Chinese food I am passionate to sample.
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.