Why don’t we have real Chinese food in the United States?

We don’t — just believe me — outside of a few places such as Monterey Park or Flushing, Queens.

Dan Drezner poses the query, and considers immigration restrictions as a factor, though without endorsing that hypothesis.  Immigration can’t be the key reason, since I can learn to cook the stuff (really), there is plenty of excellent Chinese food in Tanzania (really), and most French food in America is cooked by Mexicans (that you already knew), albeit with instructions.  The main problems are simple:

1. Cantonese food requires super fresh ingredients, lots of vegetables, and amazing seafood.  That’s three strikes right there, especially below the gourmet price level.

2. Sichuan and Hunan foods are oily, often very spicy, and most of all use lots of animal fat.  Nor do they hesitate to serve up chicken kidneys, pig’s maw, and the like.  This is essential for these cuisines to taste good but it all goes against the American grain.  To cite one example, Mexican food cooked with fresh lard tastes much better than with vegetable oil, yet most Mexican families, within a generation and a half, make the switch to vegetable oil (que triste!).

3. Even today most Chinese cities are huge gardens with massive swathes of small-plot farmland, right within the city.  Shanghai too.  The short food supply chain makes many things tastier, as they are sold fresh in daily markets.  The cuisine is designed around that system, whereas mass-produced American cuisine meshes with long-distance trucking.  This clash of culinary civilizations penalizes true Chinese styles, though I’ll still predict that real Sichuan will be the next big food trend here in the U.S.  In my household, it already is.

Since there is excellent and reasonably authentic Chinese food in densely populated Chinese-American communities, consumer demand (see #2) is probably the major factor.

For the comments I’ll stipulate no rehashing of the usual immigration debates; you all have enough chances to do that.

p.s. On MR it’s China Day!


Americanized Chinese food sells pretty well, and it would take inspiration as well as appropriate local culture to try more authentic food here. It's getting easier to get good veggies, so perhaps it's more likely to get tried.

A lot of American Chinese food is heavily sugared, especially at the low end. Is that part of Chinese cooking in China?

The problem is that most chinese restaurant are just poorly run operations.

If you review the weekly health department reports it become apparent that it is the Chinese restaurants that routinely fail health inspections. If they cannot keep the roaches out of the walk in cooler and they use expired food, how can they be innovative in their cuisine.

Second, I tried a Chinese restaurant in Fairfax County that is recommended by Tyler. The experience was less than satisfactory. The waitress/server could barely speak English. Even though it should have been obvious to anyone that I was there to be adventuresome, the serve could make no suggestions, could not help at all, and seem to want to discourage me from ordering off the chinese language part of the meny. It lead me to believe that most chinese restaurants seem to exist to create no paycheck jobs for relatives and are not there to produce a good produce.

Chinese food has become nearly synonymous with takeout. Could this have lead to a decline in quality, as items are prepared to "travel" well and not necessarily to taste good when served immediately after preparation?

The real mystery to me is that the Chinese food we do have here (sugar-coated, greasy, nondescript hunks of a vaguely meat-like substance) tastes so good, in a disgusting sort of way. Also, the homogeneity between carryout places, in the absence of chains (that I know of), is surprising to me. Do all of these places buy sauces from the same supplier?

Maybe part of the answer for the lack of authentic Chinese here is branding: Saying "I want Chinese" to me means "I want junk food." Fresh vegetables and seafood (except shrimp fried rice) don't even enter my mind. If Tyler is right and Sichuan cuisine will be the next big thing, maybe people will go out for "Sichuan" and "Cantonese" and whatever other culinary traditions from China become popular, and going out for "Chinese" will still mean junk food. Just a thought.

the real reason, which nobody wants to admit, is that most chinese food in china (esp northern and shanghainese) is greasy, fatty, and not very good. there's also an overreliance on lesser-quality meats: frogs, mutton, chicken feet, turtles, pork knuckles/elbows, sparrow nests, intestines, etc.

food from sichuan can be much better than other regions -- but when made properly it's usually too spicy for the american palate.

How about Fu Mei, the funky place in Great Wall Market on Gallows? If that's not authentic, then they've gone out of their way to make it just plain weird!

To make a bit of an analogy, I think it's great that I can go for "Italian" food at places like Pizza Hut, Dominos, or California Pizza Kitchen -- or I can go for real Italian food at a more authentic restaurant. They all have their place. Likewise, at least locally we see the same sort of diversity in Chinese/"Chinese" restaurants, and I would love the trend to continue, with both sorts getting better and more common.

Also, while Dominos and your average mediocre carry-out "Chinese" place both make lousy food compared to the best examples (Americanized or "authentic") of their genres, their food is fantastic compared to your average McDonald's or Burger King.

I think it's fair to consider "Chinese food" similar to "European food", given the vast differences in style in different regions. I certainly think we'll see Chinese food broken down into regional cuisine, particularly for things like Mongolian (think hotpot, literally huagua in Mandarin), Hunanese, Sichaunese and Cantonese. I can't imagine a large market for cuisines like Tibetan, Pekinese (aside from duck, of course), Dongbei, etc. To continue the analogy, these are the Irelands and Norways of the Chinese food world.

It's safe to say that American Chinese food is heavily Southern at the moment; Cantonese, Fujianese and Sichuanese were the most common early immigrants to the States. The major difference is the spiciness (and inclusion of rice) in the South versus the blander, noodle-heavy Northern diet.

d.chou -- interesting what you say about branding. I'm Southern Chinese and was raised on said diet, and when I think "I want something healthy and light for dinner tonight", my automatic options are Chinese and Japanese. A noodle soup, roast meat on rice, some fresh vegetables, etc. When I think "Italian" and "French", OTOH, I associate those cuisines with being rich and heavy - cream based sauces, pastas, platos muy fuertes.

and to hanmeng -- jiaozi aren't hard to make... why would you doubt that, out of all there is to doubt? I'd be more interested to see if he could rustle up a good stirfry with genuine wok hei, since I suspect that (like most of us) his home stovetop lacks the BTUs...

hmm, maybe it's time I opened that donkey burger restaurant.

What's wrong with dongbei food? People who went from the north to Shanghai always told me the food there was too bland.

Oh, foo. "Real" is the most meaningless adjective in the English language, particularly when applied to food.

Unless you seek to reproduce a particular terroir, which is nearly impossible, there is no such thing as authenticity, and a terroir only really means anything to those whose taste is imprinted from birth on it. To anyone else, particularly American diners, quality is what matters - an achieving it means not slavishly adhering to principles irrelevant outside of China, but looking at what principles make that cuisine worthwhile and applying them to the best available ingredients (which are necessarily going to be different). Authenticity is overwhelmingly a tool used by pretentious people to put down everyone else.

That said, San Francisco and Vancouver both have exceptional Chinese restaurants at the high end. While my month in Beijing exposed me to many wonderful things that are unavailable here, there was also a lot of things that are available here, and the quality is equivalent.

Two comments:

First, what the heck does "real" mean?

Second, sorry Tyler but a better explanation for this alleged phenomenon is that its assumption is false, and you and Dan just don't know where to go.


I'm talking jiÇŽozi made from scratch, with home-made wrapping.

In order to have good restaurants of whatever cuisine, you need a critical mass of well-educated, demanding customers, people who know what they want and are willing to pay for it--and are willing to stop patronizing any restaurant that doesn't provide it. Bad Chinese restaurants can thrive just about anywhere in the U.S.--but not in Monterey Park, which is why you'll have a hard time finding one there.

My neighbor, who is Cantonese and who also likes "real" Chinese food, says that Toronto is by far the best place to get Cantonese food in North America.

(Obvious exceptions on the "What is it" deal if you have dietary restrictions or food allergies. But if you're just trying to divine beforehand whether you'll like the food? Just take a small bite, dammit.)

I go once or twice a week for lunch to a Chinese buffet restaurant where I can get all the vegetables I want plus chicken or pork prepared in several ways, some heavily sauced some lightly sauced. They even have potatoes if rice isn't your thing. I'm sure a purist would look down his nose but it's the best and cheapest way I've found to eat out healthy.

I think that dj superflat has it sort of right: I don't know many people who like the 'mystery-meat' pseudo Chinese food. Then again someone has to be buying and eating it or these places would be going out of business.

Hmmm... I don't know. I worked for six years (!) as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant on the campus of the U of MN and it was pretty damned good: no mystery gloop, real gai lan instead of frozen broccoli, etcetera. The menu ran to some 400 items. Most of the seafood came via overnight on FedEx, etcetera, etcetera. The biggest problem was people in for a visit to the U of MN for a performance or lecture & who insisted on sticking to the same crappy shit they could find at the suburban strip mall, rather than exploring the 360-370 additional items on the menu. Also, a lot of the Vietnamese places in town are fantastic: which is to say: you sort of have to know where to look for the good stuff. If any of you are ever in Minneapolis, check out The Village Wok or Quang Restaurant and I doubt you'll ever go back to Moo Goo Gai Pan or General Tso's Chicken ever again.

In the meantime, I'm sure the same is true for every other metro area in the U.S.: 90% of the "Chinese" restaurants are run by Chemical Engineering or Accounting grads with a real estate fetish--but that if you look/ask around you'll find a Hong Kong/SF chef who really knows how to cook & who's trained his Mexican/Vietnamese prep chefs how to do the same.

I meant to say "no such dense area in the Washington metro area."
Clearly there are places in other metro areas that have such areas.

jiÇŽozi made from scratch, with home-made wrapping isn't that hard to make...it's hard to roll them with with authentic quickness, but they're not inherently hard to make. There are other varieties of dim sum that are much harder to make, in my experience.

I've only been to China twice, many years apart. Based on the most recent trip, I'd say we have China's favorite food in every US city...we have KFC!

Alex's eight-year old has the right answer. "Supply and demand." Well, that and competition.

Why would there be authentic Chinese food, where there is insufficient demand for it? And why would there be good authentic Chinese food, if there is no competition amongst multiple vendors for customers?

To answer the points of previous posters, in no particular order...

... Toronto has the best Cantonese food outside of Asia, hands down. It may well have the best Cantonese food in the world. Vancouver runs a not terribly close second outside of Asia. There are still certain (admittedly obscure) things you can only get in Hong Kong and China.
... The US has the least authentic ethnic food in the Western world? I can safely say that the US has more authentic Cantonese than England, Italy, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil. (The Hong Kong diaspora reaches far, and one finds relations in odd places.)
... U of MN? Surely you jest.

As per Tyler's comment, it is interesting to note that, outside of the Chinatowns in Flushing, Sunset Park and Chinatown/LES, the only authentic Chinese food in New York basically comes from two Sichuan chains, Grand Sichuan and We Liang Ye. But both are reasonably authentic, though somewhat light when it comes to more exotic ingredients (pork kidneys and the like), and while each has its strengths and weaknesses, overall they're every bit as good as the well-known Sichuan palace in Flushing, Spicy & Tasty.

None of them, however, is quite as good as (Giovanni, pay attention) Little Pepper on Roosevelt a block and a half west of the Flushing stop on the 7.

I had Chinese-American food in Istanbul.

What Tyler alludes and most Americans cannot get their head around is--our produce sucks. Its true, anybody who has spend time overseas and has some food sense will tell you--American produce while attractive and plentiful is not that great. Try fruit/veges in France, Australia, Taiwan and well you will see. No ex cathedra we are Mericans and we are the best in everything. Nope--our produce sucks. Tyler help me on this!

Of course a cheap restaurant in a strip mall that has to support 15 relatives is not going to have good produce.

I think part of the problem is that Americans who are into food know that the dining experience is more than just the main dish. The setting, the service, the beverage all matter as part of the marketing mix. Chinese restaurants are the worst of all of the types of restaurants at the marketing mix. Lousy service; the servers cannot tell you about the food, language barriers; poor atmosphere; a two part menu that gives most chinese restaurants a dishonest,they're hiding something atmosphere in addition to the 15 family members hanging around; the lack of a wine list that matches the food; no deserts; lack of cleanliness; and even as something as simple as no refills on soda make the dining experience at virtually all Chinese restaurants something that is not that enjoyable. When the meal is not enjoyable, then price is the only way to compete and quantity becomes more important than quality.

My Vietnamese friend, the son of a chef, scolds me when I say that Vietnamese food might be better there, than here in California. He assures me that California has the better ingredients (because we are a rich country). Not saying that's true, but it's funny how things are sometimes turned on their head.

Isn't the more important question, why don't we have real Mexican
food in the States? Even in California it's not half as good as what you
can find in Pueblo, DF or Veracruz. Maybe it's too many immigrants from the
north of Mexico that are the issue.

"Anybody know of a Yucateco restaurant anywhere in the US, even a bad one?"

Tha may be very hard to find. Yucatecs do not make up a big part of the migrant flow, so unless someone wanted to venture a go in some food-savvy market, it wouldn't happen. Too bad; they could get their banana leaves at the Viet grocery stores. Look for Oaxacan, Michoacano, Poblano and other southern style places in California and along the I-5 corridor, on up into in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys - lots of Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Tarascans in those areas. Ask someone in Immigration for suggestions.

When you are in a Chinese restaurant where the Chinese wait staff are anything but contemptuous of the non-Chinese customers (and usually the Chinese customers, too) you are most likely in a Chinese restaurant that is going (or already is) downhill or that charges way too much. As a very rough generalization, the less the staff pay attention to what non-Chinese customers and food reviewers want, the better the food. If you want Chinese food cooked for American palates, and that is fine if that's what you want, then go to a place like Lee Ann Chin.

In my limited experience, in the US and China there is little correlation between "great" customer service and good food in a Chinese restaurant. (Hi! I'm Lee and I'll be your waiter today! :-) )

Please come to conan gold, we will give you a great surprise.

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