Last year I wrote about the dilemma of Chinese restaurants in the United States being categorized as cheap food and unable to charge premium prices for food of equal caliber to other cuisines. I ended my article on the hopeful note that the beginning winds of change had come with a handful of upscale and authentic Chinese restaurants in the past two years. Let’s take a specific look at this new breed of Chinese restaurant.
If there has been a pioneer in the upscale authentic Chinese food movement in the United States, it has been the Hakkasan chain. It began a little over a dozen years ago in London, and its first American location debuted two years ago in Manhattan — a wise choice since New York City was already home to a number of fancy Chinese restaurants. When Hakkasan first opened in Midtown Manhattan, many assumed it was just another expensive Chinese restaurant serving Americanized Chinese food à la Mr. Chow. However, it did not take long for observers to realize that Hakkasan was the real deal, and that its mantra of offering modern authentic Chinese food was a valid description rather than doublespeak. True, some of the dim sum items such as shrimp toast with foie gras may not be traditional, but it is consistent with the current evolution of dim sum varieties and Chinese food dishes occurring in Hong Kong, Vancouver, and California. Of course there’s a price to be paid for all this. Dim sum may run $60 per person, compared to a more typical $10 to $20. The Peking Duck special runs $288, albeit with add-ons. Hakkasan now has additional locations in San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills, and one could easily argue that the New York, Miami, and Las Vegas locations currently represent the best Chinese restaurant in each of those respective metropolitan areas.
Meanwhile, other players have established an upscale authentic Chinese beachhead in California. First to market in the San Francisco Bay area is M. Y. China, a collaboration between celebrity chef Martin Yan and the team from Koi Palace in Daly City, CA, a restaurant considered by many to be the best Chinese restaurant in the United States. Setting up shop in the Westfield San Francisco Center shopping center on Market Street in late 2012, M. Y. China has introduced authentic Chinese food to a new class of diners in a bustling atmosphere. M. Y. China does a great Peking Duck — the skin is not excessively fat, perfectly crisp and glistening, with the best flavor I’ve had for duck skin. The ginger onion Dungeness crab is as good as it gets. And while I seldom pay attention to presentation, I have to comment on M. Y. China’s xiaolongbao (called XLB for short, and known on the east coast as soup dumplings). Each XLB is served in its own dish masquerading as a giant serving spoon, a presentation totally unique and visual. A second Bay Area location has opened, and further expansion would appear to be in the cards.
A different phenomenon has occurred in recent months in the Los Angeles area, as two well-known restaurant chains from China have set up their first American branches, taking the upscale road. The Chinese chain Meizhou Dongpo chose (of all places) the Westfield Century City shopping mall on the west side of Los Angeles to make its debut this past December. As mentioned in my article on finding Chinese food in Los Angeles, probably 300 of the 300 best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles County were located in the San Gabriel Valley. As such, there are only a handful of even decent Chinese restaurants on the west side of town, leaving Westsiders with the dilemma of driving to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese food (which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours, depending on the day and time), or settling for lesser fare. Meizhou Dongpo is clearly an upscale setting, with nearly $2 million spent on the premises with materials mostly imported from China. Though the prices at Meizhou Dongpo are probably double what you would pay for comparable Sichuan-style food in the San Gabriel Valley, the restaurant is drawing crowds of Chinese and non-Chinese diners alike to sample its pork hock, Chinese sausage, and other authentic dishes. The one concession made to the West Los Angeles setting is that the chain offers dishes not highlighted in its locations in China, such as Peking duck and XLB. The restaurateurs must have thought these were more suitable for local tastes, but the authenticity of the dishes has not been sacrificed. Indeed, just one look at the chefs, imported direct from the old country, tells you that they wouldn’t even know how to dumb down the food beyond using fewer peppercorns.
While Hakkasan, M. Y. China, and Meizhou Dongpo have set up shop away from the Chinese community, and hence draw a mixture of Chinese and non-Chinese diners, the Chinese hot pot chain Hai Di Lao has located itself in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, in Arcadia’s Santa Anita Mall. Outdoing Meizhou Dongpo in opulence, Hai Di Lao spent $3 million building its first American location. Opening to reservation-only crowds of Chinese diners, Hai Di Lao fills a major gap in the Chinese food scene in Los Angeles where the quality of hot pots lagged far behind that found in Asia, or even Canada. But one pays dearly for this, as even a lunchtime hot pot meal can run $60 or more. But if you’re lucky, the noodle dancer will show up and provide some entertainment for you. Hai Di Lao is already planning a second location in the Chinese-centric location of Irvine in Orange County. Meanwhile, Meizhou Dongpo is looking to Arcadia for its next location.
Finally, while not falling entirely into the upscale characterization, the new regional shopping mall expansion of the famous Taiwanese XLB chain, Din Tai Fung, is definitely evidence of the evolving upscale trend. Din Tai Fung has been in the United States since 2000, but it only had four American branches, two in Arcadia and two in Seattle. The incessant clamor from places like the San Francisco Bay area and New York City to open local branches there caused Bay Area landlords to start rumors about Din Tai Fung opening on their property to call attention to their centers. Instead, Din Tai Fung has chosen to open its newest locations away from concentrations of Chinese residents, in two highly upscale Los Angeles regional shopping malls: the Americana in Glendale and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The already open Glendale location has the upscale feel of places like Hakkasan and M. Y. China, but aside from the $22 truffle XLB, the menu prices are modest — which helps explain wait times of an hour or more.
Hopefully these pioneers are just beginning of a bigger wave of authentic and upscale Chinese dining in the United States.
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.