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Why aren't there any high quality Asian/Chinese restaurant Chains?

Pei Wei Asian Diner and it's P.F. Chang's daddy are ok but don't deliver the goods. So why is it so difficult to offer high level affordable Asian food...Thoughts?

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  1. Are you talking Morton's-type quality or ...well, some midprice chain. Surely there's something between Olive Garden and Ruth's Chris, pricewise. Just can't think of any.

    1. Does Panda Express meet your requirements?

      1. People who eat at chain restaurants don't really demand high-level affordable food of any style.

        1. My first thought was that the food requires more care and preparation. But then I remembered that there are very good Mexican chains.

          So, I'd guess it's about the limited market. Chinese takeout is already very expensive when compared to the big boys like McDonald's, so a high quality Chinese chain would be unappealing when it comes to price - It would be so close to mid-level restaurants that you mind as well go to one of those.

          4 Replies
          1. re: ediblover

            Not being argumentative but what are the "very good Mexican chains"?

            1. re: c oliver

              Chi-Chi's (founded by guys named McDermott and McGee) before the Hepatitis outbreak?

                1. re: c oliver

                  I liked to pronounce it with a hard 'I' ala Les Nessman. Chy Chy's

                  they were all throughout the midwest at least, but not anymore, comparable to Casa Gallardo or Chevy's.

                  funny how ticky people get over a few random deaths...

          2. "high quality" and "chains" do not intersect on a Venn diagram.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Veggo

              Ding! Ding! Ding!

              We have a winner!

              1. re: Veggo

                Just for the sake of argument, Veggo, let's divide "chains" into two groups: Fast food and family style restaurants such as Chili's, Claim Jumper or Olive Garden. While I admit that the latter are not elegant eateries, they are a considerable step above the former as far as quality.

                1. re: Veggo

                  Brilliant...I was wondering why thge OP was picking on a specific ethnic group. You could change that for any nationality

                2. There are, but they are all in/within Asia.

                  For example, Lei Gardens (Cantonese, the restaurant that invented XO sauce supposedly, and the mango/sago/pommelo juice/skin/coconut milk fusion dim sum dessert)


                  Crystal Jade (non Cantonese regional Chinese



                  and ahem...Din Tai Fung of which the only US location is in Southern California


                  The amount of investment, initial costs, and operating costs of these famous chains are, I'm sure, astronomical and probably even more so to have one open anywhere in the USA. Add paying a premium for skilled labor (chef skills) and training on top of that, and once the $ hurdle is passed, the quality maintenance is an even tougher tree to keep alive.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: K K

                    You bring up a good point about Chinese high-end chain being overseas, esp. in China (Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, Hong Kong, etc.)

                    Until Chinese investors gain greater hegemony in the international capital markets or until China opens up, even more, its domestic stock market to foreign capital, those Chinese chains will largely remain domestic concerns.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      Also, the fact that many highly-trained Chinese chefs cannot get work visas to Western countries (U.S. especially) means that there are even a distinct lack of high-end, highly-priced Chinese food outside of Asia. It's my firm belief that until a culture's cuisine can be seen as "expensively gourmet" and not just "delicious and different", it'll be hard to get mid-priced chains going in that cuisine...

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Actually there are Chinese chains, but they are more of a regional thing and scattered, not nationwide.

                        While perhaps not spectacular, there's the Sam Woo chain of restaurants in Southern California (plus spinoffs) and there are supposedly still locations in Ontario province.


                        The Scarborough branch I think I went to in early 1990s and recalled it being fantastic. Didn't like the Monterey Park area one at all or the one in SGV.

                        There's also A&Js (NorCal, SoCal, Maryland, Taiwan, China) that is more well known for spicy beef noodle soup, but in Taiwan it is not known for that. I took a mixed crowd to A&J NorCal for dinner one time and the only thing my picky American coworker would eat is the fried chicken rice plate.

                        Chris Yeo's Straits Restaurant that started off in San Francisco has expanded to Atlanta (with help of partner Ludachris), and his Sino venture has an outpost in Santa Monica by a different name (pricey dim sum and PF Changy vibe). Affordable? Yes....but $14 to $16 for a plate of fried noodles is silly.

                        And perhaps an answer to the OP's question.....many parts of the USA are suffering from...a proliferation of mediocre Asian buffets.

                        1. re: K K

                          Yes - been to many of these chains in Singapore, which is quite far away from HK and China. The Crystal Jade chain *I think* might have started in Singapore rather than the other way around though. Can anyone confirm or deny?

                          1. re: limster

                            You're right, limster, Crystal Jade started in Singapore, although it was by 3 HK-born brothers: Alfred, Vincent & Jimmy Leung. They were bankrolled by their brother-in-law, Ip Yiu Tung, also a HKer - he's now Chairman & CEO of the group. The Leung brothers started off their career in Singapore at the now-defunct Happy Valley restaurant, before moving on to manage Tsui Hang Village at the Asia Hotel in Scotts Road. They opened the original Crystal Jade restaurant at Cairnhill Hotel in 1992, offering undoubtedly the most authentic Hk cuisine in Singapore at the time (posing serious competition to Lei Garden at Boulevard Hotel, and Fook Yuen at Paragon at the time).

                            The Leung brothers had parted ways with Ip Yiu Tung since (Alfred was the last to leave in 2004), but the chain's gone from strength to strength. It was my favorite HK restaurant since it first opened. Interesting to note how its high standards were always maintained - outside Singapore, I'd tried Crystal Jade outlets in Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hong Kong - local tastes & dishes were usually incorporated in its regional restaurants. HCM City's dishes are sweeter to accommodate Vietnamese-Chinese preferences, Shanghainese & Hangzhou restaurants are oilier & saltier, one of its KL outlets (at the Pavilion) specialized in lamb to suit KL's burgeoning Middle-Eastern/Muslim tourism market, its Seoul outlet serves individual mini-pumpkin soups instead of Chinese-style large wintermelon soup for sharing, etc.

                            Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant
                            391 Orchard Rd, Singapore 238872, SG

                            1. re: klyeoh

                              Thanks, and until just recently, Fook Yuen had an outpost in Millbrae, a suburb of San Francisco. Likewise, the Hong Kong Flower Lounge and East Ocean Seafood were part of HK chains. But now HKFL has been purchased by the Mayflower chain.

                          2. re: K K

                            Not sure that A&J qualifies as "high quality". In terms of demographics (not quality of food), it's probably closer to Panda Express -- ie., fast casual segment, or fast food.

                            If A&J qualified then places like Phoenix Food Boutique, Shau Mei, Tea Station, etc. would probably qualify as well. But I don't think that's the segment of food service that the OP was asking about. Could be wrong, however.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              I would agree that A&Js isn't quality, especially in the service department at the NorCal location. Probably categorize it under Panda Express for expats.

                              But the bottom line is that there are chains of Chinese restaurants, although limited to certain geographical areas.

                              Limster, Crystal Jade's website did mention the holdings company was out of Singapore or to that effect. Bottom line is there is a demand for this kind of stuff.

                      2. but isn't it more fun to find the dingy Mom and Pop joint that nobody seems to notice and share that with your friends ("oh yeah, but only get the steamed noodles not the fried" or "just the ma la dishes, forget the rest")

                        1 Reply
                        1. I just think that American Chinese food and Asian food in general (with the possible exception of Indian food, though maybe the Indian buffets count...) are so synonymous with "cheap" that it'd be hard to set up a chain at this point. I mean, there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald's, and people aren't going to go pay $15 per entree if they can get it for $8-$10 at their local <insert Asian country> restaurant. Sure, the quality varies, but the "tastes" are essentially the same.

                          P.F. Changs, Charlie Chiangs... I think those are pretty much the "highest quality" you'll get for Asian chains. And I don't know many people who would prefer Panda Express over their favorite Chinese restaurant! Don't think the other Asian cuisines are mainstream enough for there to be even regional chains yet.

                          Benihana notwithstanding...

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: yfunk3

                            I can go to PF Chang's and get a barely adequate, Disney-fied version of Chinese for $12-15, or I can drive a little farther and have a kickass backstreet Cantonese pigout for $10 at Har Lam Kee in San Gabriel. Granted, I have the advantage of living at the head of the San Gabriel Valley, a place to which mainland Chinese come on eating tours, but I think it's an inescapable fact of life that chain restaurants naturally gravitate towards flashy while the downhome joints just cook what they like. Can you see PF Chang's doing plain deepfried tofu cubes? Nor can I, but in spite of my antipathy for tofu in general those things are addictive, another example of how simple can be damn good.

                            1. re: Will Owen

                              shit dude (sorry for the expletive) you have one sweet location. when I lived in SF I thought I was lucky, but have learned since about the SGV.

                          2. Let me ask the question a bit differently.

                            Are there any high quality affordable restaurant chains of any kind?

                            Aside from steakhouses, e.g. Mortons, etc., are there any?

                            1. Roy's

                              I think Roy's qualifies as high quality, affordable Asian restaurant chain.


                              1. This query should be qualified with "in the US." There are high end, high quality Chinese resto chains in other places (I mean like up to 50$ per head, not like $150/head type high end). Singapore based Da Shi Dai and Ping Pong dim sum of London have international branches. There must be others. I ate at both places in Dubai. There must be others. As long as quality were maintained and such places didn't wipe out smaller family owned places, I think it would be great to get these kind of places in the US. I do agree with someone else who stated above that with the exception of perhaps Indian and sushi, US diners expect Chinese to be cheaper end. That said, there are still a lot of higher end non-chain East Asian, so I don't see why chains are not here. Maybe there is a gap in the market.

                                1. Why aren't there any high quality chains to begin with? The Asian/Chinese has nothing to do with it.

                                  The answer is simple. They provide the masses with what they want. That's about it.

                                  And what is "high quality" as it relates to a restaurant? Is that just another way of saying "good"?

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: tommy

                                    What about L'Atelier du Joel Robuchon? I haven't been, but many chowhounds seem to like the various branches.

                                    1. re: limster

                                      I'm somewhat certain that you are able to discern the difference btwn JR and a chain restaurant. Somewhat.

                                      1. re: tommy

                                        There are many differences between L'Atelier and McDonalds, but those differences don't pertain to the definition of chain.

                                        Chain do come in diverse forms, but L'Atelier and McDonalds (to use a concrete example) both fit the definition in that they have multiple branches in many locations serving similar food.

                                        1. re: limster

                                          Agree with limster, as long as we are using the term "chain" to include both chains and franchises.

                                    2. re: tommy

                                      I was just talking to the security guard about his dinner at Red Lobster on Sunday night. Every Sunday he takes his family out for dinner. Why Red Lobster? "We have coupons." Sometimes he goes to IHOP. I suppose they go to a chain rather than to a local mom 'n' pop because of the promotions and national advertising. The Red Lobster commercials are visually appealing.

                                      Today I passed a location of a chain called McCormick & Schmick's Seafood (there are 4 locations in New Jersey) which looks promising, but I've never been. The menus are specific to the restaurant.

                                      How about Legal Seafood? It is a "chain" of high quality. Not cheap, either.

                                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                                        I've been to M+S locations in DC and SF, good, but nothing to write home about, maybe a step or two up over Red Lobster.

                                        1. re: GraydonCarter

                                          M & S is a Portland, OR based chain. The original was very good. Haven't tried ant of the branches.

                                          Legal Seafood is Boston based and I know them better. I've hit a few or the airport branches and the quality was very high. As they've grown, they've become less popular on CH but I think they're still putting out a good quality product; not to say there aren't better places for specific seafood items in Boston..but Legal's generally puts out a good product; though not as pretty as RL..especially in HD..:) Food is miles ahead at Legal and worth the extra $.

                                          As to the original question about "high quality Chinese," I've read that to cook hi quality Chinese requires a very hot stove and wok and insurance regs play a part in stopping that. I usually cook Chinese in the wok at home at very high temps.Don't know if that's factual or just what I heard.

                                      2. I think there is a basic problem with Chinese food. In those places where there is a good market (SF Bay Area, SGV, etc) there are many independent restaurants, and a chain cannot compete. In those places with a small Chinese clientell, they are not very demanding and will accept dreck. Ergo, the chain quality is never high (except price).

                                        1. There are high quality Chinese restaurants, just not so sure about the Chains part. To be all honesty, is Pei Wei and P.F. Chang really high quality anyway?

                                          1. as far as the US goes, i agree with ipsedixit that Roy's would qualify as a high quality Asian chain.

                                            it'll be interesting to see what the Chipotle folks do with their new Asian concept...


                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                              So, uh, WHICH "Asian" cuisine will be the focus?

                                              Or will it be just soy sauce-marinated meats and veggies on rice/in wraps like Chipotle?

                                              I wish they didn't keep the concept so "secret", because the "simpler" it sounds, the worse it sounds in my head when they talk about just a generic Asian concept.

                                              And I am pleading with them in advance to not use that horrible faux-Chinese font anywhere for the new chain.

                                              1. re: yfunk3

                                                "faux-Chinese font anywhere for the new chain"

                                                Yeah, those are really bad.

                                              1. A more interesting question might be ..

                                                "Why should there be any high quality Asian or Chinese restaurant chains?"

                                                14 Replies
                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                  "Why should there be any high quality Asian or Chinese restaurant chains?"

                                                  If I recall you said you worked at Panda Express, don't they use "high quality" ingredients? I pose the question because from my experience there is no apparent quality difference in Chinese ingredients I run across. Sure maybe you could use organic ingredients and free range poultry (which is already done), but does anyone really perceive a difference in taste of the dish? I've been to higher end Chinese restaurants and when I see an order of chow mein for $12, I'm thinking how much better could it be than the $5.95 stuff at Sam Woo BBQ. Last night on Food TV they had famous chefs talking about their favorite "wrapped" food. One chef says his favorite is the squab in lettuce cups at Mr. Chow's in Miami. The host of the restaurant describing the preparation of the dish says most American's wouldn't like to eat squab (they identify it with pidgeon), so they used diced chicken instead. I'm sure they probably get big bucks for their psuedo "squab" in lettuce cups too. I'll admit I've never been to Mr. Chow's, but they must know how to put lipstick on a pig.

                                                  I guess my point is there isn't really a solid demand for "high quality" Chinese restaurants because I think it's a fragmented market. I think Chinese families go to Chinese restaurants because they perceive some value.

                                                  1. re: monku

                                                    You cannot really compare to Chinatown price. You might as well compare to price in China. Part of the value in eating out is more than just the food but also the atmosphere.

                                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                      My dad said you can't eat "atmosphere".
                                                      I know what you're saying. I'm telling you how "we" think.....10 of us can go to a Chinese restaurant and get away with around $10-$15/person including tax and tip. You go to an American restaurant and you're talking $20-$25/person including tax and tip.

                                                      1. re: monku

                                                        that and plus nobody is stuck in the kitchen with hours of meticulous prep, unable to really enjoy the rest of the group.

                                                    2. re: monku

                                                      I'm a pretty big staunch defender of Panda Express (and, yes, I did work there).

                                                      But I'm not sure that's what the OP meant in terms of "high quality". I believe the OP was referring more to the sit-down type than the fast food or fast casual segment.

                                                      As far as using quality ingredients and being a taste difference, I think there is one. I can definitely taste the difference in dishes across the board between a place like Elite or Koi and more lower end places like New Capital or MPV. Now, maybe some of that difference is due to chef skills and kitchen management, but some of it is no doubt attributable to ingredients.

                                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                                        Maybe skill and presentation is the difference. I'm still not sure ingredients are any higher quality than you or I might buy in a local Asian market. You take that stuff they make at Panda Express and put it on a nice platter and serve it in a nice place and you probably wouldn't think it was from a Panda Express.

                                                        That chef eating the minced squab at Mr. Chow's was so impressed by the dish even raving how the plum sauce was made in house....looked like the stuff from a jar, but who knows. It wasn't even colorful looking, just a pile of diced up chicken on a silver platter.

                                                        1. re: monku

                                                          You take that stuff they make at Panda Express and put it on a nice platter and serve it in a nice place and you probably wouldn't think it was from a Panda Express


                                                          Yes, as I've said before, you do that and you get (drumroll, please) ... Yang Chow.

                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                            When I worked in Hastings Ranch I frequented the Panda Inn regularly and I'm sure they turned some of those dishes into Panda Express entrees.

                                                            1. re: monku

                                                              I thought you were going to say just the opposite, as in ...

                                                              "When I worked in Hastings Ranch I frequented the Panda Express regularly and I'm sure they turned some of those dishes into Panda Inn entrees."

                                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                The Inn came before the Express didn't it?

                                                                1. re: monku

                                                                  Yes, although Peggy has always used Panda Express more as a "lab" for menu changes at the Inn, than vice versa.

                                                                  Look for the Panda Express' "Kobari Beef" to appear on the Inn menu eventually, just under a different name.

                                                                  It's sort of like it's Orange Chicken at Express, and Phoenix Chicken at Inn. Same dish, same concept, but at Express it's served on paper/styrofoam plates or boxes, and at the Inn it's porcelain or glass, with some edible garnish.

                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                    Seen the Kobari beef ads on TV, any good?
                                                                    I stopped going to PE years ago after I noticed the styro boxes getting smaller and the prices going higher.

                                                                    1. re: monku

                                                                      It's just like their Mongolian Beef, but with different veggies.

                                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                                      there was a Japanese chain (Yosonabe?) in SF for a while and while they had good noodles but nothing I couldn't do myself, I'm sorry, unless it's street food grilled stuff or ingredients that are hard to source I haven't found anything that can easily be translated to "quick" type food in that category except the ubiquitous sushi (which needs to be more available, thank you very much)

                                                      although not quick, nobody's mentioned Robata. not exactly casual, but for many years the only place to get Japanese in many places, that and Benihana. I'd choose to search for better, but not bad if jonesing for a fix with no alternative. (I know the main focus was Chinese, but it was /Asian)

                                                      1. re: hill food

                                                        I think Santouka is one of the exceptions to an otherwise almost scientific rule. Santouka's ramen is on of the best examples of this particular dish. They don't even offer take-out. You can bring your own "take-out" container - they can't stop you from slopping your otherwise pristine bowl of ramen into your own Tupperware, but they believe in eating in the here and now.

                                                        1. re: bulavinaka

                                                          They don't even offer take-out.

                                                          The cynic in me says that it's to save on the costs of styrofoam and takeout containers. But that's just me ...

                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                            ipse: there's that, but then the latent hippie in me (shudder) that I try to suppress to all outward observation says "yeah, BYO reusable 'go' container". in fact if that's the case, I'd like to just offer it across the counter and have them put the usual portion in that and just cut out the middle (what? bowl? container? medium?)

                                                            1. re: hill food

                                                              Shudder, indeed.

                                                              Although, now that I think about it some more, would that necessarily be such a bad thing? It would probably reduce waste and maybe even cut down on prices...

                                                            2. re: ipsedixit

                                                              Properly prepared noodles in steaming hot broth have an effective half-life of maybe 10-15 minutes - I know you know that. And that's why Santouka doesn't want to even contribute in any way, shape or form in deterioration of their product from the time it's ready to slurp down.

                                                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                                                This is true of so many things isn't it, bulavinaka? Dim sum comes immediately to mind ...

                                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                  I don't know about that.
                                                                  Some places reheat their dim sum and serve it the next day.

                                                                  1. re: monku

                                                                    I don't know about reheating dim sum to serve for another day, but many Dim Sum should last for at least a couple of hours as long as they are kept steamed. The deep fried Dim Sum is another story.

                                                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                      "I don't know about reheating dim sum to serve for another day"
                                                                      I do.....

                                                                      I avoid the deep fried stuff all the time.

                                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                        Yank Sing in San Francisco used to have a happy hour. The free appetizers with a drink were the leftover steamed style dumplings dropped into a deep-fryer to reheat them.

                                                              2. re: bulavinaka

                                                                Santouka in San Jose was happy to give me a styro cup and lid to take the rest of my broth home after I'd eaten there. The stock set up like jello in the refrigerator overnight.

                                                                Two other Japanese ramen chains have a presence in the SF Bay Area: Ajisen and Ringer Hut. And like Santouka, their ramen beats out the majority of the locals.

                                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                  The stock set up like jello in the refrigerator overnight.


                                                                  Definitel a good thing.

                                                                  As an aside, I've started to eat cold jellied chicken and pork stock straight. I just use a piece of melba toast to scoop it up, sprinkle a bit of salt on it, and down it all goes.

                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                      on second read that's sounds pretty good.