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Jan 2, 2007 02:13 AM

How do east- and west-coast Chinese-American food differ?

Follow-up to a question on the San Francisco board about where to find "east coast" Chinese food, such as "a real pupu platter," "shrimp toast," and "foil triangles with chicken and peas."

As a San Franciscan visiting New York I remember noticing that New Yorkers thought stir-fried watercress was a standard Chinese dish.

I also noticed when watching Seinfeld and other sitcoms that they'd order unfamiliar dishes such as moo goo gai pan.

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  1. New York Chinese food is Chinese food. Blake said you can find the universe in a grain of sand, and you can find a universe of food along the gritty byways of New York. If you think of NY food in terms of Seinfeld wolfing down a takeout carton, just remember that Seinfeld was written and filmed in California. One thing I loved about the film "Woman on Top" is that it had as accurate a view of the San Francisco food scene as most Californians have of ours.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Brian S

      The thread which this one spun off of was about RETRO Chinese-American food, which apparently has persisted longer on the East Coast than on the West. The reference to "a real pupu platter," "shrimp toast," and "foil triangles with chicken and peas" came from a transplanted East Coaster who lamented not being able to find it out here.

      By and large, our concept of what New York Chinese food is is shaped by the maudlin recollections of ex-New Yorkers in our midst.

      Seinfeld, BTW was WRITTEN by a New Yorker.

      1. re: Gary Soup

        Sorry. I'm overly sensitive about this. But I'm surprised you can't find this retro food in Calif. A lot of people grew up on it and then moved to the left coast, and they'd be willing to pay a lot for it for Proust-madeleine type reasons.

        1. re: Brian S

          You can still find retro Chinese-American food on the west coast, but there are some differences.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            the problem with the west coast is that we have actual chinese people who brought along actual chinese food so we aren't limited to the trader vics junk and consequently its popularity has waned here.

            1. re: choctastic

              Until recently, most Chinese restaurants in California outside of Chinese communities made Chinese-American food for non-Chinese customers and served few if any dishes that you'd find in a real Chinese-Chinese restaurant.

              My question is, how is/was that kind of food different in the two areas.

              Note also that Trader Vic's started in California and was enormously popular for decades.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Say what you will, but the Rum Cup at Trader Vic's was awesome.

              2. re: choctastic

                Ever been to Flushing? Actual Chinese people who brought along actual Chinese food. They have actual Chinese people in most major cities.

          2. re: Gary Soup

            Now I'm "Maudlin" ...who knew!!??
            I still say properly prepared Lobster Cantonese or Shrimp with Lobster sauce..could EASILY hold its' own against R&G crab ...and the additional extra crisp crunch from freshly fried wonton skin noodles, adds another layer of texture which is frankly absent from West Coast Chinese.... retro, or not...!
            Now this doesn't mean I don't get similar pleasures from the myriad Chinese cuisines available in ALL immigrant cities in the US...New York in addition to SF...however, I Honor those Chinese who came and created an additional Jewel to the Chinese Culinary Crown!!!

            1. re: ChowFun_derek

              Durst you think I was referring to you? Are all those exclamation points the work of a maudlin person?

              You're certainly right in being grateful to the creators of New York Chinese cuisine; after all, they went to great trouble to create it for YOU.

              1. re: Gary Soup

                Soup...then I am surely blessed...but unlike you I can but say "Thank you" in only one Chinese dialect...

        2. I well remember the pupu platters with the sterno flames shooting out the top, the foil packets of "hacked chicken", the complimentary bowls of deepfried wonton "chips" with bowls of duck sauce and mustard, and the endless plates of mushu pork with the dessicated flour pancakes alongside. Let's not forget the full page of Trader Vic-ish tropical drinks on every one of these ostensibly Chinese restaurants' menus - I was too young to sample the wonders of the Zombie or Suffering Bastard, but was certainly curious as hell what they were like.

          Since I spent my childhood on the East Coast, that's what I grew up with as "Chinese food," but I never thought the experience was a uniquely East Coast one. My impression had always been that this is what America as a whole once thought Chinese food was about. Or has California ALWAYS been awash in painstakingly authentic eateries serving up the fare from every region of China?

          17 Replies
          1. re: Spatlese

            I'm on the east coast too but can't recall ever eating any of the items you've described or even the any of the items described on the original post on the SF board.

            1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

              I grew up in Connecticut and went to school in Boston and those dishes were common in Polynesian restaurants like the ones mentioned in Melanie's link.

              My first 'Asian' food ever was a pupu platter at a Polynesian place just outside of Hartford. It had a full working waterfall.

              Before that my only Chinese food was canned Chung King which made me wonder what the appeal of Chinese food was all about. The only Chinese restaurant in my hometown served warmed up canned Chung King.

              As an acting student in Boston, my classmates would get together at the Polynesian place near the theatre across from the Boston Common and feast on pupu platters after getting the $5 balcony tickets for whatever play/musical was in town.

              I have a fondess for pupu platters.

              Regular Chinese restaurants were more of the sweet & sour pork, egg fu yung and moo goo gai pan types. I think the original Dick Van Dyke show used to have the writers ordering moo go gai pan ... probably the reason I first ordered it.

              1. re: rworange

                I always felt that Moo Goo Gai Pan was so popular in the East because it was so fun to say, much more fun than "mushroom chicken." One difference between the two coasts was that Chinese menus on the West Coast typically had Chinese characters and an English translation, but not a transliteration of the Chinese names. Therefore we didn't have a bunch of us gweilos attempting Cantonese and sounding silly.

                A correspondent of mine, perhaps eavesdropping on this thread, just emailed me a link to the website of a big Boston area restaurant which still carries the pupu platter torch (and even markets it as nostalgia). I can envision a pilgrimage there by tiki mavens.



                1. re: Gary Soup

                  The Kowloon is really a throwback to the 60's and before. About 6 miles north of Boston. Huge restaurant, volcano in one room. I would love to know how many pupu platters they serve. Loved it when I was a kid- and would go nowhere else if I am craving a pupu platter even today! There is a comedy club on the second floor- and believe it or not, I saw Jerry Seinfeld there! How weird is that??

                  1. re: Gary Soup

                    When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 50's, some East Coast Chinese menus...said "Wonton" and had "kreplach" in parantheses as a description..
                    When I arrived here in SF some West Coast Chinese menu's had.."Wonton", with "ravioli" as a description..!
                    The remembrance still makes me giggle!

                    1. re: ChowFun_derek

                      Now west coast menus have Spanish translations, e.g., arroz frito con pollo.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        ....and that reminds me of all the Chinese/Cuban restaurants in New York City!

                        1. re: ChowFun_derek

                          This brings back memories of the Chinese-Dominican restaurant I used to get lunch from when I attended college in Brooklyn. The place was a gold mine, always packed, great food. You could get rice or fried plantains with your entree. I really miss that.

                  2. re: rworange

                    There was a Honeymooner's episode where Norton claimed he could tell what time it was from the smells coming from Hong Kong Gardens. He said something like, "At 2:00 they start making the moo goo gai pan."

                    1. re: Peter Cherches

                      Moo Goo Gai Pan was also the subject of a great doo-wop number by the Rays:


                      1. re: Gary Soup

                        Here's another doo-wop classic (very un-PC, but hey, it was 1955) mentioning a retro Chinese dish:


                2. re: Spatlese

                  Here's an old thread on the Chinese-American Polynesian genre that you might find interesting.

                  1. re: Spatlese

                    In California, for pupu platters and tropical drinks you went to Trader Vic's or one of its knockoffs. It would have seemed bizarre to encounter them in a Chinese restaurant.

                    1. re: Spatlese

                      re:" Or has California ALWAYS been awash in painstakingly authentic eateries serving up the fare from every region of China?"

                      California has some good regional Chinese food but not all the regions are represented. Cantonese is the most common and many other regional Chinese cuisines can be hard to find.

                      1. re: Spatlese

                        I still harbor the impression that Trader Vic's/pupu platters/tropical drinks in weird containers were supposed to be Polynesian and not Chinese.

                        1. re: ClaireWalter

                          yes I thought that too. The one in the Berkeley CA marina, is defitnitely Polynesian with some Chinese dishes. But the decor is not Chinese.

                          1. re: ClaireWalter

                            The decor was ersatz Polynesian, the food ersatz Cantonese, and the rum-and-fruit drinks ersatz Caribbean.

                        2. The biggest difference I find is the produce. With less access to fresh, quality (Asian) produce on the East Coast, it meant impro and any decent chef of any cuisine would do.

                          The produce on the EC has gotten better but historically this means the use of more fried foods, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, water crest, peas (long storable or freezable) and sauces in cooking that became instituationalized.

                          1. I just spent 2 weeks with the fam in Fresno CA, and as a 10-year New Yorker, nothing beats the pan fried noodles in Cali! There is nothing even remotely like that in NYC.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: jenhen2

                              I've been eating pan-fried noodles in NYC for many a year (still miss the "House of Dumplings/House of Noodles" on Pell & Bowery, which offered a choice of "one side seared" or "two sides seared"). I'm curious - what have you found in the Fresno vicinity that you haven't been able to find on the EC?

                              1. re: Striver

                                Actually, It was "House of Dumplings, Home of Noodles," an excellent Shanghai place.

                            2. I'm on the East Coast where bad Chinese restos abound. I think this is particularly true in the suburbs which have relatively small Asian populations. My husband's family avoids the subject around me because they like the awful glop that's served in so many Chinese restos around where we live.

                              In the Chinatowns I think you'll find decent Chinese food with never a pupu platter in sight.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: cheryl_h

                                Were you raised in downtown San Francisco or something and reluctantly relocated to the EC with its "bad Chinese restos"?

                                I guess I'm just saying that I also genuinely "like the awful glop," but on its own terms as sort of a comfort food from childhood. I don't confuse it with "authentic," "good" Chinese food. I find part of the joy of eating is being able to appreciate variety, and I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that my (admittedly, American-reared) palate would probably be more satisfied with Egg Foo Young than the most well-prepared Goose Web with Sea Cucumber.

                                I'm also not sure "East Coast" and "West Coast" means much in this entire thread, since there's a big difference between Manhattan and Asheville, and Monterey Park and Redding.

                                1. re: allegro805

                                  No, I'm not a reluctant transplant. I'm Chinese and grew up eating good homecooked Chinese food. My idea of comfort food is red-cooked pork belly or white-cooked chicken with steamed rice and lightly stir-fried vegetables, a meal most Chinese would recognize. The brown glop that is served in the Chinese restaurants around Boston would not be recognized by my family or by most of the Chinese I know.

                                  1. re: cheryl_h

                                    Dongpo pork is my idea of (fattening) comfort food too! And it's certainly available on the East Coast. If you check the Boston board, I'm sure you will find it... perhaps at CK Shanghai in Wellesley.

                                    1. re: Brian S

                                      I've had belly pork a couple of times in Boston, I think King Fung Gardens does it and somewhere else. But it doesn't have the same flavors as my mother's which was made with red rice wine, homemade, which I can't find anywhere. I have a recipe from one of her friends which I might try someday. One of my mother's last gifts to me was two yeast balls to make the wine. But no recipe. We're Hakka so perhaps it's a regional dish, only my relatives make it the same way.