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Feb 26, 2008 01:57 PM

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.