Can Chinese American Restaurants be Upgraded

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Dumplings & Dynasties 2008

In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee states that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings and Wendys combined. So why are there no outstanding Chinese restaurants in America?

Chinese American food is consistent, reliable, familiar and extremely boring. It has served the American public well and most Americans consider it comfort food. But when I yearn for good authentic Chinese food I usually end up at a small family-operated restaurant tucked away in Chinatown where the service is almost non-existent and the level of cleanliness leaves much to be desired.

Sure there are some high-end restaurants. They charge two and three times the going rate in Chinatown and often the food is no better. It seems you’re often paying only for the fancy linen and the Westernized service, which tries to be sophisticated but ends up being simply impractical.

I asked Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, in my email interview with him on their upcoming Gala Dinner and Auction, if he shared my feeling that Chinese restaurants in America have always had an image of being inexpensive and rather standard and boring. And if so, what would it take to elevate the cuisine to a higher level? He says, “I agree. We are hoping that our event will help tip the scale in the other direction. There are so many social issues wrapped up in this phenomenon, from income disparity to racism that I think it will take a lot of work to shift the balance. There are gastronomic issues, too, of the sort that some of the prized ingredients and dishes (abalone, shark’s fin) are not as highly valued by western palates. This means that when Chinese chefs want to up the ante in America, they have to fall back on other things that tend toward the inauthentic… But I think we have a long way to go before the average American diner is willing to pay a lot for a Chinese dining experience. Still, I think if it will happen any time, it might be now.”

Separately, in my interview with Jennifer 8. Lee she pointed out that there are countries such as Turkey and the Czech Republic where Chinese restaurants are more upscale. She correlates this to a lack of significant numbers of Chinese immigrants in those countries. She suggests that as long as there are large numbers of new immigrants entering America to compete with already established Chinese restaurateurs, there will be too much pressure to maintain the current low-end Chinese restaurant pattern.

As a Chinese food enthusiast, I think there are two factors that might encourage Chinese restaurants to serve more refined and authentic food. First is the availability of exotic ingredients from Asia now that there is more trade between America and China. There are many more Chinese culinary ingredients available than in only a decade ago and recent immigrants are providing a strong market for them.

The second factor is that many more Americans are visiting China for work or pleasure. They are returning to America and craving the wonderful Chinese food they experienced there. Hopefully, this demand will drive the market to offer the American public more authentic and refined Chinese cooking.

What is needed now is for Chinese restaurant operators to be more adventurous, and bring their Asian operation expertise and talented chefs across the Pacific to create the real Chinese dining experience in America.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted November 9, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the situation; I also agree that a more well-traveled public, will demand more. Here’s hoping!

  2. Posted November 9, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Check out New Hampshire. There are two AMAZING upscale Chinese restaurants there. Chen Yang Li in Manchester is, hands-down, the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in my life. They easily got 90% of our dining-out budget.

    Lilac Blossom in Nashua, NH is a close second to Chen Yang Li.

    If two relatively small cities in New Hampshire can pull it off, surely others can as well!

  3. Posted November 10, 2008 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I was chuckling at your comment about the cleanliness issue. In the L.A. area, a Chinese restaurant given a C rating (not so good on the cleanliness scale) is often considered to be more authentic than one earning an A (very clean). I think we around here are so used to the typical dirty lowscale Chinese restaurants that concentrate more on good food rather than one that keeps a clean place but which has mediocre food.

  4. Posted November 15, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Years ago I asked several Chinese restaurant owners this question and they always say that Americans told them what they liked and didn’t. Hence all the Sweet and Sour sauce, “Chop Suey”, and Egg Rolls. Seldom do you see a good regional dish unless the restaurant is in an area frequents by folks of Asian descent. Often when I speak Chinese and tell them I love Chinese food they will bring me something that they are cooking for themselves. It is always good and often they give it to me for nothing (just the fact I like it is what they want).

    Also, good Chinese food doesn’t have to be expensive. The best food that I have had is in noodle shops in China that are extremely cheap (by western standards). I agree that most of these shops fall down in the cleanliness department, though. I lived in Nanning for awhile and have visted southern China often and it is ironic that the only place I have ever gotten sick eating food was in a so called 5 star restaurant. I never once was sick from noodle stands, which I ate at most of the time.

    I hope good restaurants are on the rise in the USA. It would be a welcome sight!

    Mike
    史道德

  5. Posted November 16, 2008 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, It is very often that Chinese restaurants take the easy way out and cater to a clientele demanding of familiar sweet and sour, and chop suey. In fact this is why American Chinese food became so popular. Because the food is familiar and non-threatening. This business model works very well for many of the new immigrants running take-out Chinese restaurants all over America. Jennifer 8. Lee contends that as long as there are these type of new immigrants coming to America the take-out Chinese restaurant model will persist.

    Unlike Canada, where authentic Chinese food offerings have been available since the huge migration from Hong Kong in the early 1990’s, America does not have an upper middle class immigrant population that demands the level of authenticity and sophistication in dining. In order to change this situation there must be restaurant operators who are willing to take the risk and the effort to educate a younger and more adventurous consumers to appreciate the wonderful world of authentic Chinese food. Unfortunately there are few restaurateurs willing to make such a commitment.

    I do not dispute that good Chinese food can be found in a simple meal. But there are many more exciting offerings that can be found in the more refine culinary repertoire. I advocate improvements in all variety and sophistication of Chinese cooking in America. My only hope is that the improvement is based on a traditional culinary culture.

  6. xin
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Kho, I have often wondered about the topic. Considering the wealth of culinary background China has to offer, it is literally an untapped gold mine if it can be played with forethought and careful deliberation. Here’s a thought. Have you thought about opening up such a higher-end, more inventive, more creative Chinese/Asian restaurant? Esp in NY, people are always looking for something stimulating. It would be the prime place for such a venture. You seem to possess the know-how, the contacts, the relatability to both sides, a sense of refinement, and certainly the passion. That sounds like a nexus of providence to me. Perhaps you could be the champion and pioneer to elevate the cuisine here. Be the next Corton of Chinese cuisine.

    • Posted June 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Xin, Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m flattered by your confidence in my cooking ability. I’ve had many conversations with restaurant owners on the subject of introducing authentic menu items to their customers. Unfortunately we always end up talking about how the general American diners end up demanding familiar sweet and sour dishes they. I don’t blame them for wanting their operations to be successful by offering what their customers want. Part of my intentions for writing Red Cook is to educate the American public. Hopefully when there is enough people out there demanding the authentic Chinese cooking we can see restaurateurs becoming more adventurous. Every once in a while I do work with other restaurants to create special guest chef events serving authentic Chinese cooking. I also create special Private Chinese Kitchen events showcasing some of my banquet food. All these activities are efforts I’m making to spread the enjoyment of real authentic Chinese food.

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