In Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, Yong Chen explores the rise of Chinese food in America and how it became ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape. In today’s post, he lists and describes his ten favorite Chinese restaurants in the U.S., and offers some advice on dining in a Chinese restaurant.
Yong Chen’s Ten Favorite Chinese Restaurants in America
This is a list of some of my personal favorites, rather than an attempt to rank the top ten among all the more than 30,000 Chinese restaurants in America. Taste is highly subjective, shaped by a wide range of socioeconomic and geographical factors as well as personal preferences and backgrounds. Those who have attempted to rank Chinese restaurants can seldom achieve a consensus. In 2012 CNN, for example, came up with a list of the best 50 Chinese restaurants in the United States. Many Chinese food lovers would find several of its selections quite questionable. Among them, Class 302, a decent Taiwanese style establishment that started first in Rowland Heights, California, is a great place for shredded/shaved ice but it would not make my list of top Chinese restaurants.
[Note: tips on dining in a Chinese restaurant.
1. If you are in a non-Chinese neighborhood and want “authentic” Chinese food namely, the kind of Chinese food that the Chinese like to eat, always ask for a pair of chopsticks.
2. Talk to the servers and ask if they have a menu in Chinese (it helps even if you do not read Chinese). Try to order at least one dish in Chinese.
3. Find a restaurant with Chinese customers inside. But do not be fooled by a token Chinese person sitting by the window (I was unconsciously made to play that role several times).
4. If you want plain rice, order it steamed, not fried.]
1. Blue Ginger, 583 Washington St., Wellesley, MA 02482; (781) 283-5790.
I cannot claim that I know which Chinese restaurant is the best in metropolitan Boston. Before my 2004 trip there, I had heard a great deal about Blue Ginger. I went there with a friend from China, and we both were very satisfied with its service, décor, and food. The chef owner, Ming Tsai, graciously came out to greet us. My favorite was the tender butterfish marinated in sake and miso. My friend liked his grilled Long Island duck breast with Asian duck confit, but he asked: “Do you consider this a Chinese restaurant?” Indeed, if there is something Chinese about the restaurant, it is well hidden in the background. The restaurant represents the creative efforts of Chinese American chefs to blend Asian food with other cuisines.
2. Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise, 655 Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA 94111.
San Francisco is where Chinese restaurants first started in America. The Bay Area remains an area for great Chinese food. Tommy Toy’s was an interesting restaurant because it was one of the few Chinese establishments to serve traditional Chinese food in a fine dining environment and charge find dining price – the two things that few other Chinese restaurants have been able to do (see chapter seven of Chop Suey, USA, for more discussions). But in early 2013 the restaurant ended its twenty-seven-year run, revealing how difficult it still is for Chinese food to climb up the gastronomical hierarchy.
3. Cheng Du Tian Fu (Heavenly City of Chengdu), 41-28 Main Street, Flushing, New York.
For Chinese food lovers, metropolitan New York is another exciting place. Manhattan’s Chinatown and the other Chinese communities in the area offer a great diversity of food representing different regions in China. In New York proper, culinary connoisseurs can have unforgettable dining experiences in several upscale establishments like the dazzlingly decorated restaurant Buddakan. The multiple-course banquet that the documentary film maker Julia Marchesi invited me to in Mr. K’s, in the summer of 2011, rivaled the signature dinner at Tom Toy’s.
But I have found even more interesting Chinese food in small places. One of them is Cheng Du Tian Fu in Flushing’s Golden Mall. The food at the little basement stall is almost as spicy as that in the provincial capital of Sichuan. When I dined there early in 2011, I was surprised to see two European visitors. “Why are you guys here?” My curiosity made me almost rude. “We read an article in the New York Times.” The Times article they remembered, as I found out later, was a piece published by Julia Moskin back in 2008 (in her article, she described several dining stores in the basement food court of the Golden Mall but not Cheng Du Tian Fu, which was discussed by Joe DiSefano in “Off the Beaten Path” Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing”). Among the dishes I tried, the dan dan noodle ($4) and ox tongue & tripe ($6) were more than worth the money, reminiscent of the same dishes in Chengdu. The most famous dish was the “hot spicy soup” – a dish consisting of vegetables and other ingredients boiled in pork stock served with spicy sauce. Served by numerous restaurants in Flushing, it represented the increasingly popularity of simple local foods from China in a fast changing community.
[The following seven restaurants are all in Southern California, a region that I have become quite familiar with in the past twenty years. It is the mecca of Chinese dining in the United States. The region has been a favorite destination among new comers from China in recent decades. Innovative restaurateurs and established restaurants from Asia have come here to serve the growing market.]
4. Beijing Pie House, 846 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, California; (626) 288-3818.
This restaurant serves typical and simple northern Chinese food. The owners are a couple from Beijing, where they owned a restaurant. The wife is the mastermind of the kitchen, while the husband takes care of the business operation. It is one of the best places to go in Southern California for reasonably priced flour-based foods. Its homemade meat cake for less than $8 is a favorite of my two boys. Also under $8, the lamb pie (there are four in each order) is also worth a try. Such cakes and pies are good for two reasons: the flour skin is chewy and tender; and the stuffing is well seasoned. For people, who like something lighter, the leak and egg pie for under $6 is a great alternative. Do not forget to ask for a free bowl of millet congee.
5. Shanghai Number One, 250 W. Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 282-1777
As its name indicates, the restaurant makes no effort to project an air of modesty. This is a fairly high-profile restaurant in Shanghai, where is has three stores, generating over 300 million Chinese dollars in 2011. After its opening a couple of years ago, the boldly decorated restaurant has become a hit among Shanghai natives and Chinese food lovers in the southern California. Jonathan Gold, known for his 2010 article “99 Things to Eat in L.A. Before You Die,” called it “the most ambitious Chinese restaurant to open in Los Angeles in a decade” in his 2012 review. The menu, a thick and loud book with stories and photographs about old Shanghai, is as appetizing as the food. The old Shanghai smoked fish is a great way to start the dinner. The rice cooked with ham and vegetables on a stone pot gives the longstanding Chinese staple food a lasting rich flavor. The lo mein with thick crab sauce goes well with another dish, the yellow croaker, in flavor. The signature pan friend bun, sheng jian bao, nicely upholds the reputation of this famous traditional Shanghai food. Do not order the drunken crab here; wait until you get to one of the branches in Shanghai.
6. Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle, 2710 Alton Parkway Irvine, CA 92606; (949) 756-0088.
In the conclusion of Chop Suey, USA, I mentioned beef noodles, which are loved by the Taiwanese. Now an award winning noodle house in Taipei has opened a branch in Irvine. Going to the restaurant involves no hard decisions. The menu is simple and straightforward, especially when you just focus on its hand-made beef boodle soups. These are better than many that I have tasted in various restaurants, including specialty beef noodle places in California or Beijing. The noodles are chewy, and the restaurant uses high quality beef. The Champion Beef Shank with Noodle in Soup is my personal favorite.
7. New Capital Seafood, 140 West Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, CA 65292; (626) 288-1899.
Cantonese food (broadly defined) is the first among China’s regional foodways to arrive in the United States, but it has retained its broad appeal. Dim sum, in particular, has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Good dim sum can be found in many Cantonese restaurants in all major American cities. In Southern California, one of the top places for dim sum is Capital Seafood in San Gabriel. In the summer of 2011, I took a group of visitors from Colorado there for dim sum. They were amazed by the wide variety of food and by how crowded the place was. We were lucky to have reserved two tables (they usually do not take reservations for dim sum). You can get eight good dim sum items, such as tripe, shrimp dumplings, steamed spare ribs with black beans, and fried taro dumpling with meat for about $20 altogether.
8. Din Tai Fung, 1088 S Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA 91007; 626-446-8588.
Several people, who found it too difficult to get in a Din Tai Fung in Taipei, realized that they needed the same patience to get a table in Southern California. Since its arrival at the corner of Baldwin and Duarte more than a decade ago, it has opened a second branch nearby, but the line has remained long. The steamed buns, which the restaurant calls dumplings, are legendary. Among the best are the juicy pork dumplings and pork & crab dumplings. The house chicken soup is a soothing treat. Now the restaurant has opened a third branch in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.
9. Ish New Asian Kitchen, 5612 Rosemead Blvd. Temple City, CA 91780; (626) 309-1338.
It is a jewel hidden in a small strip mall. The culinary artists, who conceptualized this restaurant, clearly do not charge a premium for their creativity in blending tradition with modernity, and Chinese with Western food. The sophisticated taste and elegant presentation of the reasonably priced food make you feel you are in a Michelin-starred establishment. For starters, the spicy tuna over crispy rice blends appetizing elements of Japanese and Chinese cooking in terms of flavor and texture. The arugula in the beef carpaccio roll up enhances the delicate flavor of the finely sliced meat. The angry chicken actually made me quite happy and changed my perception of chicken as a dull food.
10. Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant, 3939 Rosemead Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770; 626-288-3939.
I was never once disappointed in this restaurant. Nothing is ordinary here. Its rice cooked in a clay pot with ham, Chinese sausage, and vegetable, for example, is the best of its kind in California. The best reason to go there is the exquisite dishes, which the restaurant does extremely well, such as Ah-tung’s abalone and spiked sea cucumber. The best way to get several such dishes at once is to go with a group and dine in family style. If you go there on special occasions like birthdays or the Chinese New Year, make sure to ask for their banquet menu.