Clarissa Wei is a part of the network of food writers and bloggers formerly known as JGold Scouts, who help legendary L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold uncover the city’s most under-the-radar restaurants. Her area of expertise is Chinese food, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley. Follow her on Twitter: @dearclarissa.
When it comes to Chinese food, the conversation in urban centers of America has long moved past chow mein and into more nuanced arguments about variations of xiaolongbao. But even with cooking shows from icons Martin Yan and Ming Tsai—not to mention Julia Child’s confession that she’d “be perfectly happy with only Chinese food”—awareness didn’t reach its smoking point until the 2000s.
In 2006, travel show hosts Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern began highlighting Chinese on No Reservations and Bizarre Foods, respectively, showing folks firsthand what cuisine in China is actually like. In the same year, Los Angeles writer Jonathan Gold became the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Among his highlighted works: a tribute to the fleshy, cold duck at Chinese regional specialist Nanjing Kitchen.
In New York City, a slew of trendy Chinese places began to appear: BaoHaus for Taiwanese buns; Xi’an Famous Foods for Shaanxi noodles; Yunnan Kitchen and Lotus Blue for home-style chicken soup; Mission Chinese Food for modern Sichuan; and Red Farm for refined dim sum. They appealed to a clientele who either demanded a high level of hospitality, or were seeking out something new and “edgy.”
Now, New Yorkers think they know the real thing when it comes to Chinese food. It has been a topic of hot debate. A lot of folks like to cite Flushing, where there are some legitimate regional specialists. But when it comes to quality, it is Los Angeles that reigns supreme—yes, better than Flushing and Vancouver.
“For probably 140 years, the best Chinese food in the U.S. was in San Francisco,” David R. Chan, a Los Angeles attorney and Chinese food hobbyist says. Chan has eaten at more than 6,500 Chinese restaurants since 1951 and has been documenting his progress on a massive spreadsheet, recording the date and address of his visits. Chan’s interest lies in systematics. A third-generation Taishanese-American and one of the first students enrolled at UCLA’s Asian-American program, Chan uses his spreadsheet as a lens to observe the progression of the Chinese diaspora in America. Food after all, is at the apex of Chinese culture.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Bay Area lost its crown, and all the action shifted towards the San Gabriel Valley. “That’s when Chinese food in Los Angeles experienced a major upswing,” says Chan.
If New York is home to the largest population of Chinese-Americans in the States, why, then, does Los Angeles still hold the mantle for best Chinese food? Chef pedigree, regional diversity, and a strong local food community are part of the story. Here, we break down the key reasons why SoCal is miles ahead of the competition.
Spending Power: The Chinese Beverly Hills
Until 1965, more than half of all Chinese in America came from the coastal rural county of Taishan in Guangdong. They started off in San Francisco, working on the railroads, and opened up restaurants as a means to an end. The Taishan population spread across the country to New York and Los Angeles, and set down the foundations of the Chinatowns in each city.
The Chinatowns were poor, filled with inadequate housing and exploitation of workers. The Taishan immigrants came to the States to escape poverty and rebellion; many of them were uneducated and had to make due with what they had. The restaurants in these Chinatowns reflected that harsh reality: They were basic, and dishes were cobbled together with limited ingredients. Hence, the invention of classic American-Chinese dishes like chop suey and crab rangoon.
With the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, a wave of people from Hong Kong and Taiwan started coming into the United States, shepherding in a higher standard for Chinese food. These folks had more spending power. After all, Hong Kong and Taiwan were not under the poverty-stricken rule of Mao Zedong, and they had relatively strong capitalist economies. Foodie culture was much stronger than that of the Mainland.
“There was a period of government-dominated disinterest in food [in mainland China],” Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in her book Food Culture in China. “This was during the years Mao Zedong ruled China after 1949 to the mid-1970s. Mao saw to it that important chefs were sent to the countryside to dig potatoes.”
This new and wealthier wave of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan opted for the suburbs and moved into Flushing in New York, the Bay Area in San Francisco, and the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles. Chan calls these new suburban Chinese enclaves the 20th-century Chinatowns.
Chef Tony Xu of Chengdu Taste. (Photo courtesy photographybyre.com)
But for those who could afford it, Los Angeles was the preferred destination. In 1970, a real estate agent began to advertise homes in the San Gabriel Valley in Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers. In the 1980s, Monterey Park was heralded as the Chinese Beverly Hills. Today, that title belongs to Arcadia.
With spending power comes the ability to hire trained chefs, and in the 2000s, Los Angeles soon began to see a rise in high-quality dim sum—which is a much more technical craft than the simple stir-fries of rural Guangdong. Asia-based chains like Din Tai Fung and Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot also made their debut in Los Angeles, marking the beginning of international investment in Chinese-American dining.
“The main thing that New York and the Bay Area lacks is the high-quality, innovative restaurants like Sea Harbour, Elite, Lunasia, Happy Harbor, King Hua and Shanghai Seafood Village #1,” Chan says.
While promising culinary talent did make its way to New York—albeit on a much smaller scale—these chefs largely catered to the tastes of a white clientele as opposed to an upper-class Chinese community, which in turn greatly affected the style of food being prepared.
The difference is apparent. In Los Angeles, for example, cart-driven dim sum has long fallen out of vogue. Most dim sum is made to order and buckets of shu mai and har gow come out piping hot and fresh (a practice co-opted much later by Red Farm and Nom Wah in NYC). Service, in recent years, has also become a priority. Vancouver had restaurants of a similar caliber, but slowly, an interesting phenomenon emerged: A lot of the Los Angeles dim sum places began to poach Vancouver-based chefs.
Regional Diversity: Competition Improves Quality
Newsflash: Not all Chinese people are the same.
According to the 2010 American Community Survey, more than four in ten Chinese immigrants in the United States arrived in 2000 or later. Among them, immigrants from Mainland China were more likely to be recent arrivals than their Hong Kong-born peers—a stark contrast to the immigration patterns in the 1990s.
Since the rise of Mainland China immigration, the Los Angeles Chinese community has grown increasingly diverse—much more than the Fujianese- and Cantonese-dominated New York. And with diversity comes better representation of authentic Chinese food.
“Los Angeles has a more diverse Chinese community, in which no single regional or dialect group dominates,” says Min Zhou, a Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations & Communications and the founding chair of the UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies. “The Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles is more mixed to fit the taste of a more diverse and sophisticated clientele.”
Though New York’s regional Chinese food repertoire is varied, Los Angeles’ is far more assorted. Among the regions represented in the City of Angels are Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sichuan, Wuhan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Xinjiang, Shenyang, Guangxi, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Beijing, Yunnan, Tianjin, Liaoning, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangdong. New York does, however, have a leg up in Fujianese cuisine; there are no Fujian specialists in Los Angeles.
With high concentrations of Chinese restaurants and dish diversity (even among restaurants specializing in the same regional cuisine), competition in Los Angeles is extremely fierce, which means the cuisine is constantly improving. “The San Gabriel Valley is jumping ahead with a more contemporary type of food with places like Chengdu Taste and Szechuan Impression,” Chan affirms.
In 2013, Sichuan specialist Chengdu Taste opened in Alhambra and became the talk of the town, prompting hour-long waits (and even the employment of Task Rabbits to save spots in line). While Sichuan restaurants are not new to Los Angeles, Taste was one of the first Mainland restaurants to focus on quality, ingredients, authenticity, and social media outreach—and hit the nail on all counts. Copycats quickly popped up, some even by former employees of Taste.
One important note: The majority of the head chefs at these places are classically trained in Sichuan cuisine. Chef Jack Fang of Fang’s Kitchen, for example, went to culinary school in Chengdu and has been behind the toque for 20 years already. The chef at Szechuan Impression, Tony Lai, has a similar pedigree. His father was a famous Chengdu chef and he himself attended the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.
Sheer numbers come at an advantage. “On Valley Boulevard alone, there are around 200 restaurants, so somewhere around 600 to 800 total in the San Gabriel Valley,” says Chan. “In contrast, New York Chinatown is more likely in the range of 300. Secondly, many of the New York area restaurants are geared to a poorer class of individuals, such as the Fujianese who frequent the East Broadway area, so value is more important than high cuisine. The San Gabriel Valley Chinese population is comprised more of the professional and technical, upper-middle-class Chinese, who expect more out of their food.”
626 Generation: The Power of Youth Engagement
Unlike San Francisco and New York, Los Angeles has a strong community of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-obsessed foodies unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Youth engagement with Chinese food in L.A. has been essential to its continued growth, thanks to an upper-middle-class San Gabriel Valley population that had the means to mobilize and build out brands.
For the immigrant community, there’s Chihuo.org. Chihuo is a Chinese-only Los Angeles food blog launched in October of 2013 by Amy Duan, a Hangzhou immigrant in her mid-twenties. Already, the site has over 177,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese answer to Facebook. Compare that to around 41,000 ‘likes’ on the Los Angeles Times Food’s Facebook page and the 57,000 ones on Eater Los Angeles. And according to a very recent study between the Huffington Post and Yelp, Taiwanese food is the most talked about cuisine in California online.
The San Gabriel Valley is also home to a food-centric subculture of second-generation Chinese-Americans. In 2012, the Fung Brothers launched a music video called “626,” named after the Valley’s area code.
The content? A nearly six-minute collage of Chinese food in Los Angeles and local kids singing while eating. From there, the brothers created a Boba t-shirt line and signed onto various branding opportunities with businesses including McDonald’s, Toyota, and 99 Ranch Supermarket—one of the largest Chinese supermarket chains in the United States.
Squid skewer from 626 Night Market. (Photo: 626 Night Market)
2012 also saw the creation of the 626 Night Market, the largest Asian food night market in North America. What started out as an experimental event generated 8,000 likes on Facebook within a couple of months, and a whopping 40,000 people in foot traffic on opening day. Most of the attendees? Youths of the 626.
Chinese food in Los Angeles started in Chinatown and gradually moved east to the suburbs of Alhambra, Monterey Park, and Arcadia. Today, if you drive to the eastern edge of the San Gabriel Valley, dozens of new Chinese restaurants are popping up by the month in Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights.
And as for New York?
“The breadth of regional cuisine has improved in Flushing,” Chan admits. “But it still has a long way to go.”