I previously wrote about a conspicuous lack of sit-down Chinese restaurant chains in the United States. However, potential winds of change are blowing as overseas Chinese restaurant chains based in Asia have begun to open branches in the United States. In each case, the initial foray is in California, in recognition that the best Chinese food and the most sophisticated Chinese food audiences are found there, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles. As successful operations are established in California, the beginnings of further expansion are appearing.
The leading candidate for a true crossover United States chain is Din Tai Fung of Taiwan. Famous for setting the gold standard for xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), Din Tai Fung was one of the earliest Chinese restaurant transplants, opening its first US location in 2000 in Arcadia, CA. (Beijing’s famed Quanjude Beijing Duck chain also opened a branch in the San Gabriel Valley some 20 years ago, but it did not last.) Din Tai Fung’s Arcadia location quickly rose to cult status. After sending its chefs to Flushing, NY for sold out tastings in 2005, New Yorkers thought it might be a prelude to their own branch of Din Tai Fung. However, after a couple of years, the pop-ups in the Flushing Sheraton stopped, and New York never got its own restaurant. Meanwhile, rumors periodically swept the San Francisco Bay Area that they might be getting their own branch, but again, no dice.
Indeed, by 2013 Din Tai Fung had added only three more U.S. locations: a second in Arcadia, a half block away from its original location, and two in Seattle. Loud rumors abounded that Din Tai Fung employed an in-house astrologer who nixed most suggested new locations. Din Tai Fung publicly denied the assertion, though it might explain the lack of what would seem to be no-brainer expansions to San Francisco and New York.
Shortly thereafter, Din Tai Fung suddenly changed its strategy into an active expansion mode, triggered by appeals from two of the largest and most upscale regional shopping malls in the greater Los Angeles area: South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, and the Americana in Glendale. Both malls were desperate to appease well-heeled Chinese tourists who flocked there, but were put off by a lack of authentic Chinese food. After Din Tai Fung opened branches in both the malls, to say they have been wildly successful is a gross understatement. On some nights, the wait for a table at the Costa Mesa location runs three and a half hours. Talk about a license to print money! Additional regional mall locations have been announced for Del Amo Plaza in Torrance, CA, Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia, and Westfield Valley Fair in Silicon Valley. Can more be far behind?
As far as sheer numbers are concerned, Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot out of Mainland China (but now owned by Yum! Brands of Louisville, KY) has the most extensive chain of US restaurants, with two dozen locations in seven different states. But unlike Din Tai Fung, which has managed to succeed outside of the Chinese community with regional mall locations, Little Sheep locations are concentrated within the Chinese community. Shortly after Din Tai Fung opened in Arcadia, three Little Sheep branded restaurants appeared in the San Gabriel Valley. The openings made a big splash, but then an eagle-eyed diner made an interesting discovery: the Little Sheep corporate website made no mention of branches in the United States. After word of this revelation spread, these “Little Sheep” restaurants all changed their names. Yep, they were imposters. Of course, seeing the success of the fake Little Sheep locations, it wasn’t long before the real Little Sheep opened up in America. Strangely, the first locations were in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area, and the chain avoided the San Gabriel Valley until about five years ago. Perhaps its owners were wary of the geographic region that tried to rip them off!
Another potential crossover candidate is Wang Xing Ji, which opened in San Gabriel in 2012. Its “since 1913” signage created some puzzlement, as 1913 far predates any Chinese restaurant in Southern California. The reference turned out to be the fact that it’s a branch of a large and long-established chain in Wuxi. Wuxi-style food, which tends to be sweet and savory, may not seem the likeliest contender for a successful U.S. chain, but when the restaurant opened its second branch, it was located in a large non-Asian shopping center in a non-Asian community of Orange County, CA, and re-named Super Juicy Dumplings, so perhaps a mainstream push is forthcoming.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen more U.S. openings of overseas Chinese restaurant chains. The best crossover candidate may be Meizhou Dongpo which opened up two years ago in the Westfield Century City mall in the Chinese-food starved Westside of Los Angeles. As I wrote, the majority of the clientele skews to Chinese diners, but the restaurant has been drawing enough Century City office workers at lunch to become somewhat mainstream. What’s interesting is that besides the planned new locations in the California’s Chinese communities of Arcadia, Irvine, and Universal Citywalk, there is a branch nearing completion in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, a 19,000 square-foot facility, which may well also feature a nightclub à la Hakkasan.
Hai Di Lao is another Mainland China-based restaurant chain, specializing in hotpots, which has plans to expand its U.S. footprint. The first branch in the Westfield Santa Anita mall has been a rousing success, with popular dates booked weeks in advance, and a second branch forthcoming in Irvine. However, given its concentration on hotpots, a genre generally unfamiliar outside Asian communities, it may not yet be a candidate for going mainstream. Still, another Mainland hotpot chain, Chengdu Pot, has opened in San Gabriel. Another Mainland Chinese entrant in the San Gabriel Valley is HJH Sauce Simmer Pot (simmer pots are essentially hotpots with gravy instead of broth), whose parent company has hundreds of branches in China, and Greedy Cat, specializing in Sichuan charcoal grilled fish. Herembag, the Mainland Chinese Uyghur specialist is opening three branches in the San Francisco area under the Eden Silk Road name.
These beginnings are hopeful, but not every overseas chain finds success in the United States. A year ago, China-based Singapore Leaf created a stir when it opened. Though its waitresses dressed like Singapore Airlines stewardesses, locals found the menu wanting. First week turn-away crowds turned into shuttered doors in less than three months. Meanwhile, in Industry, CA, Shanghai-based fried food purveyor ChickenPapa lasted more than three months, but didn’t make it to its first birthday. Taiwan’s Ay Chung similarly opened and closed several branches. And the fabled Crystal Jade chain out of Singapore had a rough opening in 2015 with its first US branch in San Francisco’s downtown Embarcadero Center. The initial review by the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic Michael Bauer was so devastatingly bad that management back home in Singapore essentially had to issue a public apology. The restaurant has somewhat gained its footing, but further US expansion plans for Crystal Jade are now on hold.
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.