You see them in all media outlets, in newspapers and magazines, on the television, and especially on the internet: Top 10 restaurant features or other best restaurant listings. The listicles are crowd-pleasers and contain interesting and useful information, though they have their limitations, reflecting the author’s subjective opinion and the breadth of his or her dining experience. Nevertheless, such listings are eagerly anticipated and are widely shared. However, when it comes to ten-bests for Chinese restaurants, a number of factors make such lists dubious, if not downright dangerous.
You might think it would be odd for me to disparage such lists, since by far my most widely circulated article was Top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the United States, garnering over 3,100 likes on Facebook, generating 300 tweets (including one by New York Times editor Sam Sifton), and which was the subject of a number of news articles. Indeed, I suspect that if you took everything else that I have written about Chinese food, the combined audience would be less than for that one article. My entire top ten consisted of Chinese restaurants in California, creating a firestorm on restaurant message boards, predominantly fueled by outraged New Yorkers unwilling to believe that the Chinese food scene in the United States had passed their hometown by, and accusing me of west coast homerism. The fact that I subsequently commented that a Top 10 of best North American Chinese restaurants would consist solely of Canadian restaurants, without any in California, did little to defuse the charges of Golden State bias.
So against this backdrop, why haven’t I done another top Chinese restaurant listing, and why do I consider these lists to be so unredeeming, particularly since I don’t have such a low opinion of similar listings not involving Chinese restaurants? There are several factors, but my primary reason is that for a top Chinese restaurant listing to generate any degree of readership, it requires a geographic balance, which is inherently in conflict with the distribution of solid Chinese restaurants in the United States. The truth is that with just a very few exceptions, the best authentic Chinese restaurants in the United States are located within proximity of a sizable community of Chinese-American residents. This is true on a national level, where the metropolitan areas with the best Chinese food are those with the largest Chinese populations, as well as on a local level, where the best Chinese restaurants are generally concentrated in neighborhoods with the most Chinese residents. Most people are not interested in reading a top Chinese restaurants list if all the choices are in another county or another state.
Three years ago, CNN came up with its own listing of the Top 50 Chinese Restaurants in the United States, penned by Clarissa Wei, a well respected Chinese restaurant critic. To her credit, most of the Chinese restaurants in this top 50 are high-quality, authentic Chinese restaurants, among the best Chinese restaurants in their respective communities. But included in this national top 50 are restaurants in Phoenix, Detroit, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Charleston, Denver, Portland, Miami, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, none of which would even crack the top 500 Chinese restaurants in a true ordinal ranking of the best Chinese restaurants in the United States. Clearly a nod to geographic pluralism.
Likewise, a Los Angeles television affiliate recently did a feature on the top five Chinese restaurants in the area. As I wrote in my most recent Menuism article, the Westside of Los Angeles is definitely not a hotspot for Chinese food. I quoted a prominent food blogger’s backhanded compliment that Westside Chinese food had improved so much recently that it was no longer uniformly terrible. Yet the station included a representative from the Westside. When I questioned the critic about the inclusion, his response was that the TV station required that one Westside Chinese restaurant had to be included in the televised report.
While virtually all top Chinese restaurant listings appearing in the media are burdened by the need for widespread geographic appeal, there are additional reasons that make top Chinese restaurant listings particularly problematic. First of all, the sheer number of Chinese restaurants in the United States. The latest survey indicates there are over 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, which dwarfs the 14,000 McDonalds locations nationwide, and is comfortably ahead of the 28,000 combined McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King locations. Imagine trying to winnow down 50,000 Chinese restaurants to a top 10 or even 50! Of course many of the 50,000 are categorically out of the running, serving Americanized Chinese food that emphasizes economical dining to unsophisticated audiences. But that still leaves many thousands of good and authentic Chinese restaurants to choose from.
Indeed, the perils to restaurant critics of the sheer number of authentic eateries was vividly demonstrated earlier this year when Alan Richman wrote GQ‘s top 25 restaurants in the United States for 2015. At #25 is Shi Hai, a San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant (and only Chinese restaurant to make the list), that never gets named by anybody locally as being a top tier Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. Not to say the restaurant in question is not good — indeed, it is quite good, but there are so many better places in the immediate area. Needless to say, the head scratching was widespread. Nobody would question Richman’s credentials. So what happened? My best guess is that the New York-based critic was not familiar with the depth of great Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and did not know that this restaurant, which surpassed any other Chinese restaurant he knew of, was only an also-ran among Chinese restaurants.
A final contributing factor is the evolution of Chinese food in America, starting with purely Cantonese-style food for well over a century to the rise of all kinds of regional cuisines now showcased in Chinese American communities today. Though non-Cantonese regional cuisines first appeared here roughly 45 years ago in bastardized form, more authentic versions have only been commonplace in the last 20 to 30 years. And destination non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants are an even more recent development. So with at least two dozen regional Chinese cuisines now vying for attention in the United States, it has become much more difficult to evaluate and compare Chinese restaurants today, compared to the old days when all your destination Chinese restaurants served Cantonese food.
I’m glad I did write my one listing of the Top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the United States, which was not geographically balanced and which created a massive food fight that made the editor of the publication very happy. But no more top 10s from me.
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.