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Chinese Restaurants Today

I'm trying to figure out whether Chinese food in America has changed radically since I could count myself among the under 30 crowd, or if I'm just embelishing memories beyond their reality. Whatever is happening, I find today's Chinese food pretty disappointing across the board.

The best Chinese restaurant I've eaten in over the last two decades was a place called "Asia Garden," in El Paso. They "imported" their chefs/cooks from Hong Kong, with the agreement they work there for two years. GREAT food! For me, the acid test for any Chinese restaurant is whether they make good egg foo yung. Very few places do. Asia Garden's egg foo yung was to die for! Figuratively anyway. Big luscious rounds of egg and vegetables that were like clouds full of divine flavor. Just fantastic. And so was everything else. You could only order by menu number, because no one there spoke English. Your bill would be written in Chinese. An adventure for both the soul and the taste buds. And then they had a kitchen fire and never again opened their doors. <sigh>

Chinese food was exciting when I was a kid too. Not just the Chinese food I had along Grant Avenue, when I spent a couple of weeks each summer with grandparents in San Francisco. All Chinese restaurants had unique and delicious dishes. I have no idea what it's called, but one restaurant in San Diego (George Joe's) did a special order dish in which chicken skin was wrapped around shrimp, stewed to perfection and served in a sauce with lotus root, snow peas and ginger. Made your taste buds dance and clap their hands!

I don't remember brocolli in anything back then. Today everything has brocolli in it. There was a lot of lotus root back then. And celery, bell peppers, cucumbers (cooked!)(good!), and more bean sprouts than you see today. The sauces came in a variety of colors. Today everything seems to be pale tan. And sweet and sour sauce was! Dark, like soy sauce. No red food coloring! And pungent with vinegar. If you inhaled while putting it to your mouth, you risked choking from inhaling the vinegar vapors. Fantastic! The only way I can get that today is to make it myself.

So I'm asking you... Is it me, or has Chinese food really changed as much as I think? And where do you stand? Is it an improvement, or does anyone else miss "the good old days?"

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  1. Wow, I don't even know where to start. So let me be brief. Chinese restaurants in the US have passed you by. You were left in the last century. And El Paso and San Diego are not the best place to experience Chinese food.

    There was a long discussion about the evolution of Chinese food in the US. Search for that thread, read it and learn.

    19 Replies
    1. re: PeterL

      I agree with Peter. Chinese food HAS changed, but for the better, certainly if you know where to look. The Sichuan invasion only started, AFAIK, in the 70's for example, and before that good Chinese food was very limited, and only found in Chinatowns in a few big cities such as SFO and NYC and Toronto. Now, you can find really good Chinese food in lots of places.

      But, that said, there's still also a lot of bad "Chinese" food out there, and indeed I must admit that one of the most pervasive, and frightening, developments, has been the establishment of AYCE "Chinese" buffets in every large and small town in America it seems, serving mostly awful glop that any self-respecting Chinese person would pass by in a heartbeat (I on the other hand, cheap glutton that I am, have tried many of them, and there are some exceptions, but generally they are baaaaaad).

      Where have you been eating? Just El Paso? Surely there's something worthwhile within driving distance of you. (That's Chowhound driving distance, which could be further than around the corner).

      1. re: johnb

        I've been eating Chinese food all of my life, so that means California (all over the state), Mississippi, Ohio, Nevada (LV), New Mexico, Texas, Mexico, England, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, and Greece. I moved to the Dallas area from El Paso two and a half years ago. I've been seeking good Chinese food ever since. The thing that leaves me totally dismayed is that I could find good Chinese food in El Paso, but I'm having a rough time finding it here. Can't figure that one out.

        I don't do Chinese buffets any more, but when they first hit El Paso, there was one that was truly great. All you can eat that included mussels, octopus, clams, oysters, squid, sea cucumbers, crab, and all sorts of fish. And a whole bunch of non-seafood dishes. Truly exceptional food, buffet or not. And then the owners discovered they could increase their profits by making EVERYTHING quasi-Szichuan and loading it all with pepper oil. No one could handle seconds of anything. But the price stayed at twenty bucks a pop. And the parking lot stayed full, though without my car.

        I stopped doing buffets when the last one I went to -- "Hong Kong Super All You Can Eat Royal Banquet Happy Delight Dining Hall" -- expanded their choices to include four types of pizza, a lettuce bar, bubble gum nori wrapped around rice/cheese/carrot stick "sushi," and a huge tray of wasabi nestled between the huge trays of chocolate and vanilla puddings. One diner took a large serving thinking it was pistachio pudding. Only the name of the restaurant is fictitious!

        1. re: johnb

          A side historical note on Texas and Chinese food. San Antonio once had a "reasonable" size Chinese population due to Mexican Chinese coming after the Mexican Revolution. Chinese food in some parts of Texas probably wasn't all that bad, relatively speaking. Chinese food has gotten better since the 1960s but at times I wouldn't mind some old school "pre-HK" Chinese food.

          BTW, even the owners of those AYCE buffets wouldn't eat at them.

          1. re: ML8000

            You know, I think any time there is an ethnic population of five or more adults, somebody has GOT to be a fairly good cook! If they open a restaurant, voila! For that reason, I think it's too broad a generalization to say that after such-and-such a date, Chinese (or German, or Brazilian, or Ethiopan) food greatly improved because (supply your own reason here)...

            I am a lifetime optimist (pretty much), and I'm trying desperately to hold on to it here, but...I am just so damned tired of three out of every four Chinese dishes I order locally coming with a light tan flavorless sauce and huge globs of (non-Chinese) broccolli...!

            I'm thinking of putting together a dart board with the name of every Chinese restaurant withing forty miles listed on it, then once or twice a month throwing a dart at it, and off we go for pot luck! Maybe by the year 2024...? '-)

            But maybe there's another factor here that we are all overlooking. I suspect that the first time we have something new, be it an ethnic cuisine or our first banana, who we are with, what the shared expectation is, and whether our own taste buds are pleased will have a lifetime impact on how we percieve subsequent experiences. Maybe I need to lighten up a bit on my expectations of Chinese food? But I am damned tired of soggy clumps of broccolli...! <sigh>

            1. re: Caroline1

              No, Caroline1, it's definitely not too braod a generalization. Chinese food in North America definitely took a turn for the better at a couple of defining moments in time due to politics and immigration policy. Just becasue someone opened a restaurant means nothing if there is not a significant population who appreciates and demands a certain level of quality. I can tell you that Chinese food in LA before the early 80's was limited to some restaurants in Chinatown and Americanized versions outside. Then several factors coverged: economic boom in Taiwan, perceived threat from China, enterprising individuals who marketed Monterey Park housing to wealthy Taiwanese. And suddenly, to quote Mao, a hundred flowers bloom. I was there and watched the whole evolution with amazment.

              Similary, Richmond BC was nothing but farmland. Then the British and the Chinese signed an agreement to return HK back to China. And huge waves of HK immigrants flooded the area in the late 1980's. Prior to that there was some pretty good Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, sure. But now the Richmond BC area is one of the top Chinese culinary destinations in the world.

              You problem, the way I see it, is where you live. Great Chinese food in the US can be had in only a few locations. El Paso ain't one of them. Actually, the whole of Texas ain't one of them.

              1. re: PeterL

                Sorry you're having trouble with the concept that broad generalizatons do not apply to individual restaurants. I had the positive experience of finding good Chinese restaurants. Let me put it another way... If the odds "across the board" are that 12% of the people in the U.S. will be struck by lightning in the next nine years (a fake statistic off the top of my head), and you are one of the people who is struck by lightning, the odds are not 12% for you, they are 100%. I grew up eating in exceptional Chinese restaurants. I don't subscribe to your broad generalizations. Sorry.

                1. re: Caroline1

                  OK then. But going back to your first post in search of a good egg foo young, I am afraid that your taste and what you think of a good Chinese food is radically different from mine.

        2. re: PeterL

          I agree with PL. My family had a take-out place of the type that the OP states (egg foo young and sweet/sour sauce-Cantonese style).

          What I do want to say is that the reason you find other vegetables now is that back in the 'good old days' the Asian veggies were not as easy to get a hold of, especially if you were not a coastal city. Bean sprouts are like a filler and acted as such in the 'old days.' But now you can find so many other veggies on the plate, not just broccoli. I think part of the problem is the location as suggested above.

          Please also remember that there are sooooo many types/varieties of Chinese food. And finally, I always consider the Asian factor. In my circle of friends, if we walk into a place to eat Chinese and we see none to few eating there, then we know what to expect. I will admit that once in awhile I am pleasantly surprised, but it is rare.

          1. re: PeterL

            Peter, I'll look for the thread in hopes that you're not wrong and I will learn something, but I don't think I'm exactly a country bumpkin when it comes to Chinese food. Or any food, for that matter. I grew up in San Diego, summered in San Francisco, and have lived on three continents, including Asia, even though it was the eastern edge.

            I'm curious where you got the idea that San Diego, now or in the past, is not the "best" place to experience Chinese food? Have you been there? When I was a kid, San Diego was the truck farm capital of this country, and grew every kind of fruit and vegetable known to man, including Chinese, such as lychees, kumquats, lotus root, bamboo shoots, exotic mushrooms, and all sorts of Chinese cabbages and not just bok choy. An eight to ten inch abalone was run of the mill, sea cucumbers were common, and about any other sea food you can think of, and they all found their way onto Chinese menus.

            I won't defend El Paso. It is what it is. But there was one great Chinese restaurant there until it burned down. A great loss. But now I live in Dallas, and don't particularly want to drive 600 miles to grieve over the long-cold embers. But I will keep trying. And hoping.

            But let me ask a couple of simple questions of you: Where you live, do Chinese sauces only come in two colors; light beige and bright red? And do three out of four dishes contain broccolli?

            1. re: Caroline1

              Caroline1, the post PeterL is referring to might be this one, by me:


              This post is an edited version of a much longer post in which a link is provided at the bottom.

              The Immigration and Nationality Act was passed by Congress in 1965, not 1963. The real improvement in Chinese cuisine in America started after Nixon's 1972 visit to China. Waves of new mainland Chinese immigrants started arriving in 1977 when relations with China were normalized.

              In NYC we've seen the rise of Fujian cuisine with some half dozen or more restaurants here in the past few years - all run by immigrants from Fujian.

              1. re: scoopG

                Thanks, Scoop. Nice post, but being a native Californian, it's all information I've either lived through or studied extensively in school.

                I really can't subscribe to the notion that any specific date is when Chinese food changed from worse to better simply because there are always exceptions to any rule.

                As a child, spending summers in San Francisco with my paternal grandparents meant at least one trip to Chinatown with my grandmother to visit her herbalist. I may have been in first or second grade on my first trip. The old Chinese gentleman (the herbalist) would seat me on top of a barrel at the front of the shop while he and my grandmother stepped in back to mix whatever it was he mixed for her. My time seated on the barrel was a nightmare. Strange things not meant for the eyes of a child. Dried critters, ugly roots, obnoxious smells. And when the two of them came out, he always brought a cup of freshly brewed tea I was obligated to drink. It was truly abominable. A smoked tea. I think it may have been lapsang souchong, but I'm not certain. But suffering the tea and the barrels full of frightening things was worth the horror because afterward I was always taken to Chinatown San Francisco's very best dimsum restaurant for lunch, with no limits on what I could have. And that was heaven! Steamed yeast buns filled with pork that had lovely red designs on top of them, smooth and glossy white and simply delicious. Beggars purses that were magic because no child can figure out how to work that kind of magic with dough! My grandmother's Chinese friends would take us to restaurants where we were the only caucasions in the places.. And the food was magic. So I cannot subscribe to the idea that Chinese food improved after 1960.

                I lived in San Diego, and most of the family''s big outings to Chinese restaurants were with Japanese friends who would order two or three days in advance. Again, fabulous food. If you knew where to eat. And what to order. And that appears to be the problem I'm having now.

                For the record, I don't recall who said it, but Szichuan is not new. There were Szichuan restaurants in San Francisco when I was a kid. Again, you had to know where to go and what to order.

                So while there is truth to your generalities, it is not gospel. Everything boils down to knowing how to get what you want. And I'm having a rough time doing that. The last time I had a snowy white dim sum bun stuffed with pork and with pretty red designs on top was when I made them at home. <sigh>

                1. re: Caroline1

                  The Chinese brought their cuisine with them, where ever they went so there were always some good Chinese meals to be had where they settled. As my report stated, there were 3 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco by 1849. We even have Cuban-Chinese food here in NYC, brought from 3rd and 4th generation Chinese immigrants who had migrated to Cuba in the 19th century. In California, the Chinese diaspora is spread though out the entire state. Here, there are over 300,000 Chinese in Manhattan's Chinatown alone. And we have 4 more Chinatowns in the outer boroughs!

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    "My time seated on the barrel was a nightmare. Strange things not meant for the eyes of a child. Dried critters, ugly roots, obnoxious smells."

                    Hmmm...and when I was a little girl, I use to love to go to these shops with my grandpa and figure out what was good for what ailment. I was always sniffing the different open cases and asking what was good for what? Please, just b/c it may seem strange to you, please remember that you are commenting on a culture that is not your own. Ugly to you is a dream to others because it can cure their pain. What is an obnoxious smell to you, may be a flower to the one whose now feels good enough to enjoy the scent.

                    1. re: justagthing

                      I seem to have offended your sensibilities. That was not my intent. As a lifelong student of cultural anthropology, I greatly value and cherish the cultures of all men. My greatest regret about our modern age of universal instant communication is that all of these treasures of man are being homogonized into nothingness.

                      What you seem to have missed in my post is that I was trying to share the fears of one specific young child -- me -- over being abandoned in the store front with no adult either attending the shop or me, alone with things that were totally unfamiliar to me, and that I found threatening.

                      It was a time not too long after the Tong Wars of Chinatown, San Francisco. My grandmother (actually step-grandmother) was somewhat bizarre, and used to tell me, as we were treading the sidewalks of Chinatown, stepping on manhole covers as we went, that the tong warriors travelled the sewers below, and that if I was not good (and I had NOT been bad!) that they would spring out from under the manhole covers and shanghai me to Shanghai, where a little blond girl like me would bring lots of money. Adults are not always compassionate in the tales they tell children. Consider the Brothers Grimm, or Mr. Andersen.

                      It was a strange and threatening adventure for me greatly compounded by my step-grandmother. But the pleasure of the food in the dim sum restaurant, coupled with a trip to a souvenir shop where I could choose any piece of carved ivory under a certain price, saw me through.

                      As a child of six, I was unable to reflect on whether the barrels of strange ingredients surrounding me were anyone's treasure. As a child of six, I could only sit in fear and trembling, hoping that we would soon reach the haven of the dim sum restaurant. Now at age seventy four, I am fully capable of reflecting on the rich experiences of my childhood, and fully recognize and allow that my childhood experiences and your childhood experiences may or may not share our respective childhood cultural biases. I am happy for you that your childhood was warm and secure enough to allow you to think well beyond your years. Congratulations, and thank you for your comments.

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        Thank you for taking the time to reflect more on your post and give more insight into your experiences. Wow! I am often surprised at how adults discipline (would that be threaten) children. As an educator, I can only shake my head at disbelief as I am only allowed to discipline w/in the confines of my school. I think that I would have been just as scared as you if my grandmother said such things to me. Glad to know that you are ok now, ;)

                        1. re: justagthing

                          Well, it's not as if it was such a lifetime trauma that it in any way disuaded me from a love of China, Chinese, and really good Chinese food. As I grew older, it didn't take long to realize that all the rest of the family thought my step-grandmother was at least as weird as I viewed her. My god, the woman BOILED Porterhouse steak! But still, for all of her weirdness, she was the only one in the family who annually saw to it that I had at least one trip to China each summer. And in 1930s and 40s San Francisco, a trip up and around Grant Avenue was truly a trip to China. Despite the dried and pickled reptiles in the herbalist's shop, I did love those adventures. And never ever came upon an open manhole cover! '-)

                2. re: Caroline1

                  I've been to SD many many times. I lived in LA for 20 years. Even now whenever I visit LA I make a point to drive down to SD as it is one of my favorite cities. But for all I can see there are only 2 or 3 good Chinese restaurants in all of SD. You can tell as that is the oft repeated question on the SD board. All those fresh veggies and seafood found their ways to Chinese restaurants in LA and beyond.

                  You said you have eaten Chinese food all over Calif. But during what time period? In LA Chinese food didn't not come of age until the 1980's when Monterey Park and Taiwanese and HK immigrants began to flock to the city. Prior to that it was mostly a Chinatown phenomenum. The same with the SF area. Really good Chinese restaurants did not break out of the Chinatown confines (both old and new Chinatown) until fairly recently (I am thinking also the 1980's).

                  Where I live (Sacramento) Chinese sauces never come in red. And certainly none of the dishes I order contain broccolli. Chinese broccolli, yes. Broccolli, only from rice plates served in HK style cafe's.

                  1. re: PeterL

                    Ah, Peter, you've asked the magic question! "What time period?" Well, admittedly it was a very very long time ago. Several have said that there was no good Chinese food back then, but that is absolutely untrue. I'll be the first to admit that there is probably good Chinese food somewhere in the Dallas/Plano area today. My problem is that I've not found it. And that is always the trick to finding good anything. You have to figure out where to get it. I seem to be batting zero.

              2. There's a lot of bad, but if you search enough, you could find a gem. Here in NoVA, there are lots of ethnic places in the suburbs of DC, more so than downtown, and at reasonable prices. There are a couple of places that serve Szechuan food in addition to the tamer stuff, and they tend to be more adventurous, with dishes you never see at most Chinese places. I'm eating really spicy Dan Dan noodles as I type :) having stopped at one on the way home.

                1 Reply
                1. re: MsDiPesto

                  Read Calvin Trillan's Food Zen. He writes at lenght at what the change in the immigration act of '63 did for Chinese cusine. God, you want bad Chinese? Think the 50's! Johnb is spot on about the affect of AYCE Chinese.

                2. "For me, the acid test for any Chinese restaurant is whether they make good egg foo yung." I'm sorry, but you have got to be kidding.

                  Come out to L.A. and eat around the San Gabriel Valley for a month. You have not had real Chinese food in America until you eat here.

                  1. Mexicans cook the best Chinese food! (example: Los Angeles)

                    1 Reply
                    1. Chinese food is much better here AND in China than ever before.

                      In North America we are into the 3rd or 4th wave of Chinese immigration. Where I'm from, (Vancouver BC), we have always had great Cantonese/HK Chinese. But the real action here (and in other great Chinese food centers such as San Gabriel) is in Regional Chinese - Northern, Shanghai, Hunan, Sichuan, Taiwan etc. Immigration from these regions created a critical mass of eaters looking for authenticity. This is the main reason you are finding "Chinese" food different now - you are actually experiencing different cuisines.

                      PS Once in a while I get nostalgic for Cantonese inspired North American Chinese food...luckily this scene is also stronger than ever...and has also evolved and moved on.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: fmed

                        LOL! If I lived in Vancouver, we wouldn't be having this conversation! And I wish to god I was so fuzzy minded that I couldn't recognize regional Chinese from a taco stand! '-) San Francisco used to have the largest Chinese population outside of China. Vancouver passed it by years ago! There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you live deep in the heart of the world's greatest Chinese banquet! I, on the other hand, only live deep in the heart of Texas. <sigh>

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          >> There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you live deep in the heart of the world's greatest Chinese banquet!

                          LOL. Well, you are not the first person to say something like that. If you ever decide to come visit Vancouver, contact me over at the Western Canada board and I'll make sure you make up for lost time.

                          1. re: fmed

                            Caroline, if you ever come to Toronto, let me second fmed's offer; I'll concede Toronto's Asian food is second to Vancouver's, but after eating in every major city in the US and Canada, Toronto is definitely number two.

                          2. re: Caroline1

                            Here in Houston we have a wide variety of Chinese restaurants. Some are pretty lame, but you can usually tell by the location. If you go to the old chinatown, near downtown, you can get some really good chinese at places that don't even know what General Tsao Chicken is. Of course you aren't really sure what you are eating, unless you speak and read chinese, but it is good stuff. We have so many different places to choose from. It's like a treasure hunt.

                        2. Great OP from Caroline1 and also a great post from johnb.

                          1. In Dallas, have you tried Yao Fuzi (actually in Plano) or Chef Hsu? Or even Maxim's or Kirin Court? Or Little Sichuan or Sichuanese? Or the old standby of First Chinese?

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: luniz

                              Hi, luniz... I have tried Yao Fuzi, but was very disappointed. Took a friend for lunch because there were so many rave comments about the soup dumplings on the Texas board. We went during a very busy lunch hour, and more than half of my soup dumplings were punctured before they reached me. Not what I was hoping for at all. And the main courses -- I had scallops -- were nothing to write home about.

                              Haven't tried the other places you mention. I have heard that Kirin Court has fantastic dim sum, but I've also heard they're located on the second floor. My knees revolt at stairs! I will try some of the other places. And thanks very much for the recommendations.

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                My last xlb at Yao Fuzi was pretty good but the best in DFW may be at Shanghai Restaurant @ Preston & 635. Likewise Kirin Court does some things pretty well for dim sum, especially the congee & deep fried squid (iirc) , whereas other things are better at Maxims. You may want to contact Kuiadore for some more details. I think there may have been an elevator to Kirin Court but I'm not sure it works.

                                You may be right that the food has gotten worse...but maybe it's more that we're more picky and not every place is doing every dish well. I don't really know since I'm kinda new to (good) Chinese food.

                                ps you totally got to try the slow braised pork if you ever return to Yao Fuzi

                            2. I currently live in San Diego, and there are some very good places if you look where ABC's and new immigrants actually live and eat. That other poster is right about the SGV being really great, though. Spending time just driving around and getting a feel for neighborhoods and what places are busy before trying one helps a lot.

                              1. EUREKA...! Maybe airing my problems publicly is magic? Today a friend and I went to lunch at Joy Luck BBQ Chinese Restaurant here in Plano, and aaaaammaaazzzzing!

                                For a starter, we shared BBQ Roast Duck ($6.95!) and not only was it delicious with crispy skin, but had to get a doggy bag and there is enough left for at least three more meals. An appetizer!

                                For an entree I had Sizzling Black Pepper Short Ribs of Beef. Tender. Well sauced. Exotic vegetables. It restored my faith that there IS good Chinese food still in this old world.

                                My guest had Broccoli Beef. I tried to interest her in the other beef dish with Chinese broccoli, but she would have none of it. Her non-Chinese broccoli was crisp and bright green and I suspect she missed the soggy broccoli of other Chinese restaurants? Other than that, she said it was good.

                                At my insistence, we did pass on the $80.00 a bowl Supreme Shark Fin Soup with chicken, and the $70.00 a bowl shark fin with crab meat (so when did crab get cheaper than chicken?), and the $45.00 a bowl abalone with sea cucumber soup. Figured if we want soup, I'll stir some corn starch into a can of chicken stock and make egg drop soup at t hose prices...

                                Anyway, it seems if a place has super exotics on their menu, there's a pretty good chance the food will be terrific. And that's the way it worked out today. YAY!!!!

                                Thank you all for your encouragement to just keep trying.

                                1. Caroline1, my expereiences are somewhat similar to yours. I grew up in the 50s and 60s in Fresno, California. There was a large Chinese population and good Chinese restaurants--not that many, but several that were good. I've since eaten a lot of Chinese food in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The many, many good meals I've had confrim to me that what I ate as a kid was good. Obviously, however, not as good as a week at the Cinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences on Hainan Island: six course lunches and eight course dinners, never a dish repeated the whole week, each dish a masterpiece.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    Oh, Sam! If I had a videocamera I'd post a picture of me after reading about your Hainan Island dining esperiences. The picture would prove... It isn't easy being green! I'm sooooooo jealous!

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      I'll bet they don't do that for everybody. Just for you, Sam.

                                    2. Maybe I'm wrong, but I always thought that egg foo young was an americanization type invention (like chop suey). If that's true, how would it be a useful barometer for chinese food?

                                      12 Replies
                                      1. re: jgg13

                                        Yes, American Chinese food that has been around since the 1930s. Like many egg dishes, looks and sounds easy but it's not. When I go to a Chinese restaurant, it is most often with a group of friends, we all order something different, then share banquet style. You get a much better selection than the standard "One from Column A, Two from Column B" type meals. And I am *never* the one who orders egg foo yong, believe me. But as a result, I have probably had egg foo yong in... I would guess at least 35 different restaurants in my adult life, not all in the U.S. Of those, about three had "good" egg foo yong. Only one had truly great egg foo yong. That was the Asia Garden restaurant in El Paso, that brought their chefs from Hong Kong. I do make "good" egg foo yong at home. But I can't quite seem to make the leap to the great category.

                                        The other thing that puts it in the "acid test" category is that it is a standardized dish. Vegetables of the chef's choice, and meat(s) of the diner's choice, though ham was the original meat in the 1930's. Because the ingredients are fairly similar (within reason), the magic in great egg foo yong comes from the chef's ability to combine, cook, plate, and have the dish delivered so it arrives at its peak of perfection. You don't want it to peak as he plates it. It has to peak at delivery. While it is in no way similar to a souffle, it does share the challenge of getting it to the diner's mouth at just the right moment.

                                        I can't think of any other Chinese dish where that kind of timing and magic touch are so critical. Most Chinese restaurants serve a dull, flat vegetable pancake suspended in tough eggs. That is total failure. And other Chinese and Chinese American dishes have a much wider margin of error, so in my book, that leaves egg foo yong as the acid test of Chinese cooking in America.

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          Not exactly. Egg Foo Young may be the "acid test" of Chinese AMERICAN cooking in America (I'll have to take your word for it), but it certainly isn't any test at all of Chinese cooking in America. I doubt the best real Chinese restaurants/chefs have even heard of it. In fact, in reading through this thread, i think what you have been looking for all along is good Chinese American food, not Chinese food.

                                          1. re: johnb

                                            Exactly johnb! Egg Foo Young is an Americanized Chinese dish.


                                            caroline1, you seem to dismiss many posts on this thread under your "I don't accept generalizations" philosophy than go on to make many yourself! Or I am I missing something here?

                                            1. re: scoopG

                                              Thank you scoopG, I wanted to comment, but have been having a hard time fingering how exactly to do it and yours is just right on the nose. It is fine if it is of her opinion, but she seems to dismiss many comments, such as yours. As a Chinese American, which I believe you are as well, I disagree with her also. My family use to own a Chinese take-out that just closed last year after 50 years and we were of the Americanized version that she seems to like. But, the food was well liked, but of course we never ate what we served to our customers, well, ok, we ate some of what we served, but usually doctored it up more for our taste buds.

                                              1. re: scoopG

                                                scoopG and johnb, when and where have I said that I live in China? So if you want to play hair splitting technical games, then ALL Chinese food cooked and served in America is "American Chinese." Yes, That's hair splitting.

                                                But even if I were Chinese, and came to this country as a child with my parents, there would be no guarantee that my perception of "Chinese food" and your perception of "Chinese food" would be the same.

                                                All I can do is try to relate MY perceptions in a post here on the Chowhound boards, and *IF* my perceptions and your perceptions coincide, then we share a similar viewpoint. But whether or not I was born Chinese, or only grew up eating in Chinatown, San Francisco, in restauratns where my grandmother and I were the only non-Chinese in the place, offers no guarantee that my perceptions (sense of taste, smell, what I saw) will be exactly the same as any other human being's on the planet. One of the things my brother and I enjoy doing now that we are both in our seventies, is to recall incidents from childhood to compare how widely our memories vary. That's human nature.

                                                Now, to try once again to communicate a thought, and hopefully more clearly this time, MY OWN PERSONAL METHOD for judging whether or not a Chinese and/or Chinese American restaurant will have generally good food is to try their egg foo yong, IF they have it on the menu. For the reasons I have already explained. But I am neither asking nor expecting that my methods are the only methods. I am simply stating that it works as a pretty reliable yardstick FOR ME!

                                                scoopG, you seem to have entirely missed my point about generalizations. Generalizations are simply that. An overall picture of the overall status of things at a given time. My problem with the generalizatoions you presented was that you came across as insisting that the generalizations were true across the board with no exceptions. And again, I state that is not true. I have not said that ALL Chinese and/or Chinese-American restaurants were good prior to the time that you state a major improvement for the better swept the country. What I am saying is that there were, IN MY OPINION, *some* Chinese restaurants in California, during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, etc. that did serve good Chinese and/or Chinese American food. And I have clearly stated and recognized in another of my posts in this thread that egg foo yong *IS* a "Chinese American dish that originated in the 1930s. Should you happen to read that post, I hope my reasons for using egg foo yung as my personal "acid test" will be clear. Frankly, egg foo yung is far from being my favorite Chinese American dish. But for reasons stated in that other post, I find it to be a useful yardstick.

                                                I didn't think I was "dismissing" anything. Sorry if you thought I came across that way.

                                            2. re: Caroline1

                                              I think a more realistic acid test of Chinese cooking might be, among other things, the perfectly steamed whole fish, the perfectly poached chicken, the perfectly fried taro, the perfectly braised pork shank -- brought to the table w/the perfect amount of succulence, tastiness, and spicing/seasoning --

                                              1. re: Sarah

                                                Sarah, I agree. There are probably dozens, even hundreds, of other dishes that one can use as an "acid test." For me, and my possibly weird logic, the thing that makes the dishes you mention so difficult for me to use as a guage is that the very nature of them -- steamed whole fish, poached chicken, fried taro, braised pork shank -- allows for much more personal creativity on the part of the cook/chef than something as basic as egg foo yong. But it's something that works for me. Maybe it works so well for me because I basicly am not a great fan of egg foo yong, so if a chef can cook it with a WOW factor, s/he's gotta be doing something right! Of the dishes you mention, I can't recall ever having any of those that was bad, just different. Alas, not my experience with egg foo yong.

                                                But food -- any kind of food -- is always a subjective thing.

                                                1. re: Sarah

                                                  Good list of acid tests. Mine are Stir fried Beef with Scallions, and Wonton Soup.

                                                  The scallions in the stir fry should be bright green, have a bit if crunch - not soggy. The beef should be tender through a proper velveting technique. And the whole thing should be infused with wok hei.

                                                  The wonton soup broth should taste clean, bright and somewhat gelatinous, and the skins should be thin and tender. The pork and shrimp should be chopped and not ground.

                                                  If the restaurant could do those two things right, then the rest of the dishes should be a breeze.

                                                  1. re: fmed

                                                    I am still searching for a bowl of the won ton soup you've described!

                                                2. re: Caroline1

                                                  I've been looking for a proper old-style egg fu young here in Marin for several years now. The dish, when you even find it on a menu, has morphed into a single large pancake with a pile of stir-fried meat-veggie-gravy piled on top. Not what I had in mind.

                                                  Also, lunch buffets seem to have vanished hereabouts. What you have is a separate lunch menu with much lower prices than dinner.

                                                  1. re: Sharuf

                                                    I wonder what Yet Wah's version is like -- Simon or the crew certainly can describe it for you. Fondly remember their stuffed chicken wings (2 days notice), now that was a thing of beauty and soooo delicious.

                                                    1. re: Sharuf

                                                      I also love good egg foo yung, I prefer smaller egg foo yung very light, with crunchy fresh vegetables inside the egg, with shrimp, served with light sauce and scallions. I understand her saying it being perfectly served, just as with anyone that does eggs right.

                                                      I think all of us would have different 'acid tests" anyway. My list is going to always be the basic and less difficult like a chowmein, how basic is that? I get bummed if that is done poorly I love Chinese noodles!

                                                3. I remember Cantonese Chinese (what is "subgum" anyway?) in the 70s and Hunan + Sichaun appearing in the 80s (I suppose as relations thawed post Nixon). However I'll say that in much of the US today there are mostly lousy Chinese restaurants -- the exception being small munbers of excellent regional restaurants larger cities. The typical restaurants interestingly all share the exact same photos of available dishes but, in my experience in many places, they're all nearly indistinguishable and generaly bad.

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: steinpilz

                                                    Wait, wait, pictures on the menu...then that tells me menu for non-Chinese! Always get my mom to read what's on the Chinese only menu, usually up on a sign or on the wall. Sometimes I ask if I don't have someone w/me that can read, b/c alas, even though I went to Chinese school, I cannot read very much of it at all. :(

                                                    1. re: justagthing

                                                      I've been to more than several chinese restaurants in the NY. NJ. and MA regions, that have an absolutely identical spread of pictures above the counter (...where orders are placed and received), these plastic pictures have no more to do with the food in the restaurants that does the Great Wall, but there they are -- appealing and meaningless. I've actually begun to associate them with scrap-in-the-street cuisine..

                                                      The food from these micro-corporate-chinese-restaurant-clones varies, from skillful-everyday to way-beyond-the-pale absolutely terrible.

                                                    2. re: steinpilz

                                                      I actually looked up 'subgum' the other day, as I was remembering items from the chinese restaurants of my youth. As with most things in the world, wikipedia has the answer:

                                                      1. re: steinpilz

                                                        boy, subgum takes me back to high school days when i worked at a cantonese-american place in the suburbs, one of those places with a pagoda/dragon/jade/buddha kind of name. it was always crowded, had a very non-chinese clientele, and even got a smattering of celebrity visits (i remember dustin hoffman, judy garland, and patricia blair). the bar offered the full assortment of polynesian drinks (like bor lor bowls, fog cutters, etc), and the menu included subgum, chow mein, and chop suey with the crunchy la choy type noodles, dark colored fried rice, hong shu gai, egg foo yong, shrimp with lobster sauce, lobster chinese style, etc. we’d put a small bowl of duck sauce, a dish of hot mustard, pot of tea, and a basket of french bread with butter on each table when the diners first sat down. a fair amount of the food actually tasted good, but it wasn’t what i remember as cantonese. cantonese/toisanese home cooking was what the staff would get. there was a guy who did prep work downstairs who was our dedicated chef, and he would make unbelievably good home style cantonese meals. almost all the ingredients came from markets in chinatown and was bussed out from chinatown with many of the staff each day. i also remember some great dishes when my parents would take us to banquets (although i didn’t appreciate them at the time), and when we’d go to chinatown with my parents’ friends and family who were either in the business or knew how to get stuff not on the regular menu.

                                                        i don’t think chinese restaurants have gotten worse over time, but i think there are a lot more of them, both good and bad. also chinese american cuisine has evolved to include americanized dishes from many regions of china. but the good stuff is still there, even where there isn’t a chinatown. I remember a terrific banquet in phoenix for my grandmother’s 90th birthday at a beautiful place that had a pretty safe regular menu. certainly, the old saw about a heavily asian clientele leading you to good food applies, but even at those places it helps to get the staff to understand that you want food that isn’t americanized. as an aside, i seem to remember 'subgum' as an anglicized word of a toisanese phrase that literally translates as 10 ingredients.

                                                        by the way, where i worked they did egg foo yong as a deep fried scramble. the cook would mix eggs, veggies, and char siu then ladle three scoops into a wok containing hot oil to make 3 patties. he'd ladle some of the oil over the top to cook the top then stack them upside down on a serving dish. the waiter would ladle gravy from the steam table over the top and serve.

                                                      2. poor Caroline. I felt bad reading all of these posts attacking you, probably the distinction between good Chinese and good Chinese-American was not always so distinct, just as good Italian-American used to resemble Italian food more in the days before Olive Garden. I'm guessing you had delicious food in a style that people aren't even recognizing here. as others have mentioned, i'm sure that Chinese food in China has evolved with all of the changes of the past half century. I understand wanting good Chinese food, I dont' have access to really good Chinese or Chinese-American. Even in NY one has to do some searching. However there are some very good places I can recommned if you plan on going. In Manhattan, but especially in Flushing Queens!

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: fara

                                                          Thank you, fara. This is much appreciated.

                                                        2. All I can say is that I don't recall the Sweet and Sour Pork of my childhood being that frightening, unearthly day-glo color of red that it is nowadays. I grew up in NYC loving Chinese food. Now I find it too greasy and prefer Vietnamese or Thai for my Asian food fix. What was that line that Lisa said in "My Cousin Vinny" when she and Vinny arrived in Alabama? Something along the lines of, "I bet the Chinese food here is lousy."

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: MysticYoYo

                                                            I'm always looking for broader patterns (well, when I'm not busy looking for miniscule reasons) in the overall scheme of things, and I think both Szichuan and Thai cuisines came riding in on the coattails of the "how hot can you stand your peppers" movement that was spearheaded by Bobby Flay, and his blue corn tortillas and flay-your-tastebuds-with-chiles movement.

                                                            In my youth, I used to like things comparably hot (for the times), then had a really grim experience in Turkey, with peppers that weren't just "hot," they were nerve toxins. They changed my tolerance for self-torture forever.

                                                            So traditionally mild Cantonese (Guangzhou/Guandong) cooking fell out of favor with the "hottie movement" in the U.S. Which doesn't mean it isn't still "the" prestige style of cooking in all of China, and the rest of the world. But there are very few traditional Cantonese dishes that are hot. A few, but not many. I just have/had great difficulty in dealing with the logic that if a Guangzhou chef created his dishes within the borders of the continential U.S., his dishes weren't "Chinese cooking."

                                                            Anyway, I'm curious to see what will happen to "Chinese cooking", both in China, and around the world, after the Olympic Games. Talk about inter-cultural diffusion! Can Chinese tabouli tacos be very far away?

                                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                                              Many years ago, there was a restaurant in Liberty, NY (the Catskills) called "Duke's" (AFAIR) that served American, Chinese, and Italian food from a single menu. You could order a dinner of won-ton soup, veal parmigiana, and chocolate pudding - the ultimate in 50's style fusion!

                                                              1. re: Striver

                                                                I've only seen that combination in a 2005 All You Can Eat "Chinese" Buffet! '-)

                                                          2. What an interesting thread to read, lots of food history, dialog & debate going on. Being from the Bay Area, and have eaten at restaurants both sides of the Peninsula and then North and South, I have seen the red sauce on sweet and sour and a few other things, but I can't recall if ever the pale tan (that doesn't sound at all appealing!).

                                                            I think we have many good Chinese restaurants. But buffets, I'm don't know about, I'm not saying that you can't find them, I just have never been told about any good ones.
                                                            Nor have I tried any. But Berkeley has a few good hole in the walls. I've eaten at a couple good ones in Chinatown Oakland and SF/ and Palo Alto.

                                                            A longtime favorite was Blessings in Pleasanton, now gone (sigh).

                                                            Although its only good when I get to go once a year, my new favorite has a little bit from every region, Shanghai, Szechwan, Cantonese is in Las Vegas at the Wynn!
                                                            I'm not so sure I have a favorite region, I crave many of the dishes at any time or another, whether its a deliacate egg blossom soup, or a firey Hunan prawn dish!

                                                            When I moved about 30 minutes inland, there are only a couple good Chinese restaurants to choose from.(Thankfully there is one really good one)
                                                            But I also cook quite Chinese dishes which makes it really nice to have any of them whenever. I do love my shrimp egg foo yung, so I hear ya Caroline! I do feel your pain!
                                                            Oh quickly want to add, we have one of the BEST Thai restaurants I've ever eaten at.