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Szechuan Trend?

I am 28 years old, moved to DC right after college (2004) and quickly learned the amazing range and depth of taste in Chinese Szechuan food. In part this is because my arrival coincided with the rise of the now famous Peter Chang, who was just opening his first restaurants at that time. When he left DC, we found that there were quite a number of restaurants making great Szechuan, including some of the dishes that Chang turned out. I moved to Boston several years ago, and again found that there is a good selection of excellent Szechuan here, including many of my favorites (Chongqing Chicken, Dan Dan Noodles, Cumin Lamb, Dumplings in Chili Oil, etc.).

I have noticed what seems like a rise of Szechuan restaurants in many cities I frequent, but am curious if I am experiencing this because I have myself matured as a diner in the last six years, or if this is actually a historically specific phenomenon to the last 5-10 years. In other words, am I experiencing this is a trend because of my own heightened awareness, or is good Szechuan actually becoming more prevalent? Are there any speculations why this might be the case? I assume it might be a confluence of factors: generally more sophisticated American diners, a generation of diners (mine and thereabouts) who are the second or third to experience Americanized Chinese food and want something more "authentic," more chefs immigrating to America who are looking to distinguish themselves (it seems like there is also growing sophistication in other Americanized Asian cuisines, such as Thai).

I am a historian so spend my time wondering about things like this, but hopefully others will find it interesting and might have some thoughts too! Thanks in advance.

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  1. I honestly don't know the answers to your questions, but I certainly hope there's an upsurge in Szechuan food in the US because I love the stuff.

    1. I think your own heightened awarenesss has a lot to do with it. Once you try something that good for the first time, you're hooked. There are few Cantonese/Mandarin dishes that can compare. Szechuan and Hunan (if you haven't tried that yet, you owe it to yourself to do so) foods are superb.

      11 Replies
      1. re: mucho gordo

        I'm fairly familiar with Northern Chinese and Taiwanese and have some experience with Shaanxi (from the excellent Xi'an Famous Foods in NYC) but find less Hunan around Boston, though surely it is here.

        1. re: hckybg

          You've piqued my memory. I'm trying to recall over 50 years ago when I was at Northeastern. There were 2 Hunan style that I vaguely remember. One was in the Brookline area and the other not too far from the campus. Both probably long gone.

          1. re: hckybg

            I haven't found Hunan food closer to Boston than Flushing, namely 湘水山庄 aka "Hunan House." I tried it once and found it a mixed bag, certainly nowhere near the level of 鴻福湘園 ("Hunan Taste") in Catonsville (MD) which is truly amazing--I ate there four nights in a row when I first discovered it, and several times in the subsequent week, and not *one* dish was less than excellent.

              1. re: mucho gordo

                Basically lemon chicken? Doesn't resemble anything I've had in Beijing. What people call Mandarin in the US seems to be something in a dark gloppy sauce that doesn't exist in China.

                So are you comparing real Sichuan cuisine to real Cantonese and Dongbei cuisine or some American version?

                1. re: PorkButt

                  I'm not comparing anything, PB. I was asked to define Mandarin style and I provided a link that I thought would answer that request better than I could.

              2. re: PorkButt

                Generally Mandarin refers to Beijing style - Mandarins being the highly educated bureaucrats who ran the Imperial court. It's all actually a bit misleading because throughout much of Beijing's modern history it has been a city occupied by foreigners! First the Khitan Mongols (Liao Dynasty) in 947, then the Tungusic Jin ((1122-1234) and the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty - 1234-1368.) Then the Manchu's swept in from the north (Qing Dynasty - 1644-1912) followed by Westerners in 1860!

                1. re: scoopG

                  I am not debating the facts behind what you are saying. But I do believe there is a different explanation for the odd proliferation of "Mandarin" restaurants other than that Mama and Papa Chang in Podunk, Kansas are looking to recreate the elite historic cuisine of Chinese bureaucrats. I think the current state of "Mandarin restaurants" really is a cultural and historic anachronism.

                  When the big waves of Chinese people arrived in San Francisco, they were Cantonese. We all know the story of the railroads and the gold rush. That means that from the beginning, intrepid Americans brave enough to endure the scorn of their peers for eating the "dirty" and "low class" mystery food of the 19th century Chinese community, were dining on some bastardized approximation of Cantonese food, made with local ingredients that the Chinese themselves found palatable.

                  As the stigma against Chinese food (and people) in America lessened, Chinese restaurants spread around the country. Again, for the most part these were American adaptations of Cantonese dishes.

                  As more and more Chinese came to America, not all of them were Cantonese. Some of them came from the northern regions of China, and there was a need to differentiate their restaurants and their identities from the Cantonese who had already been there for generations. Thus, the "Mandarin" designation was born.

                  So, in an American historic context of Chinese food, "Mandarin cuisine" simply means "Not Cantonese". Although, I would hypothesize that as "Mandarin restaurants" were bought and sold over the years, new owners likely didn't feel the need to change their signage, so the already fluffy term really has been diluted to the point where it doesn't mean anything specific anymore-- particularly since "Chinese" dishes became somewhat standardized across the country (with some American regional variations).

                  And now, well over 100 years later, we have massive Chinese communities like Flushing, Queens and LA's San Gabriel Valley, where Chinese food has been restored, finally, to the way it was meant to taste. Hunan, Sichuan, Beijing, Shandong, Guangdong, Shaanxi, Fujian, even Xinjiang. You name the region, and more often than not there's a restaurant owner who hails from that region and will be delighted to cook his favorite dishes for you, with Chinese vegetables grown or manufactured locally (and other products imported from the motherland).

                  If you're interested in the history of Chinese food in America, this is a great starting point.


                  Also, for kicks you should check out the restaurant menu archives from the LA public library. Ever wanted to know what Americans were eating in Chinese restaurants 1945? Here's your chance to find out. (Hint: get ready for a lot of Chop Suey)


                  Mr Taster

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    "were dining on some bastardized approximation of Cantonese food, made with local ingredients that the Chinese themselves found palatable."

                    It's not only that - the rail workers were men who have never done kitchen work their entire lives, per traditional Chinese culture. Without any Chinese women around, they had to experiment and learn from scratch. So the obstacles were two-fold - lack of kitchen experience/formal training and lack of ingredients. It would not be until immigration standards relaxed post-1965 before actual chefs (almost all Cantonese; some from Fujian) would start to move to the US.

                    And for those posters who claimed there existed some sort of Szechwan "renaissance" in the US around the time of the Nixon visit - a quick search in your LA library link is very eye-opening (thanks for that interesting link!).

                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                      it stands to reason, 50 years ago there was only "French" now there's Provencal, Basque, Alsatian, etc. same for Italian - Tuscan, Sicilian, Venetian, etc. just a matter of acceptance and education that we Americans are starting to more acutely recognize regional differences.

                      HungWeiLo, to the lack of experience and unfamiliar ingredients I would add lack of facilities. I once had the opportunity to extensively tour CA's Delta region where many railroad builders found work after the first lines were complete building the levees and sharecropping, specifically Locke and working farms with abandoned worker housing. IIRC the men were packed in tight (one place had the luxury of walls but was divided into about 4'x6' cubicles and a tiny communal kitchen shared by about 15 people.

                      you may already be aware of this, but for others, further stories here http://www.locketown.com/bitter_melon...

            1. Pretty sure we have a higher density than average of Sichuan here in Boston. That's because it's awesome!

              1 Reply
              1. re: marcreichman

                You bet! That, and Thai food can't be beat

              2. Are American diners really embracing real Sichuan cuisine? I see very few non-Chinese customers at Sichuan restaurants here in the Bay Area. The reactions that I've observed from my dining companions have been been mostly negative. Too much oil and a strong dislike of the flavor from Sichuan flower peppers are common complaints (the peppers were banned for a quite few years due to a citrus canker so your first experiences with the cuisine might have been lacking). It's odd that the pejorative claim of "greasy" Cantonese dishes wouldn't be used to describe those Sichuan dishes that come in a slick of red oil.

                Adaptations of Sichuan cusine have long spread across China so the pre-80s versions of Sichuan dishes were by Cantonese, Shanghaiese, and Taiwanese cooks. Mapo Dofu is a good example. So whatever "Szechuan" restuarants that existed before the recent immigration from Sichuan, an interior province, were run by non-Sichuan people who served their versions of dishes that were likely further adapted for America.

                98 Replies
                1. re: PorkButt

                  OMG. How could one not love the fragrant deliciousness of Sichuan peppercorns? That stuff is addictive to the max. I admit I had to get used to the oil, but we eat at our local haunt often enough to be ordering some of the dishes on the 'drier' side.

                  But yeah, if this is a trend - I am all for it!

                  1. re: PorkButt

                    In my case the food has little to do with it, it's usually other issues. I live in the Richmond/El Sobrante area and my two closest Sichuan are Happy Golden Bowl and Sichuan Fusion.

                    Happy golden Bowl has gotten my orders wrong more often than not, both eat-in and take out. It's a low level annoyance but one that convinces me to take my dining dollars elsewhere.

                    Sichuan Fusion puts up a whole slew of signs listing specials and so on but only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them, why should I eat there? If you want my business make me feel welcome, this applies to every resto.

                    I used to live in Union City, within striking distance of Sichuan Express when it was next to 99 Ranch. We went at least once a week for dinner or lunch and wish an equivalent would open in what I like to call the northeast bay. They had the good sense to translate their menu and special sheet, although I think this worked in favor of their non-english speaking waitstaff as much as the customer.

                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                      "only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them"

                      Take off your cranky shoes.

                      Many of these owners can't conceive of a Westerner wanting to eat those dishes. I have been treated with warmth and encouragement. Besides, I have too much fun trying to figure out the menus and talking to the staff.

                      1. re: Steve

                        Yeah - who are they to judge if "married couple's sliced lung" is a commercially viable dish in the burbs...lol. You're right - a lot of those dishes just have literal names that don't really intend to attract a huge Western clientele.

                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                          My favorite dish at a local place translates as "mouth, mouth, good smelling crispy." Animal, vegetable or mineral?

                          Then there is also "meat elbow."

                          1. re: Steve

                            Is that literal translation the only way to describe the dish? Bubble and Squeak, Toad in the Hole, colloquial names that don't describe the food either, but I could probably put a tasty sounding description on a menu for them.

                            The few times I've eaten there the staff hasn't taken the time to explain the specials, it was difficult enough to get them to take my order and get water refills.

                            I'm not cranky about it, just pointing out what I see might be leading to the lack of westerners in the place. Curb appeal matters.

                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                              Scrap, the subject of untranslated Chinese menu items, and how their existence is interpreted from different perspectives, is an absolutely classic topic in online discussion of Chinese food, long predating Chowhound,* also in print periodically by the 1970s or earlier (a Matt Kramer article I saved comes to mind).

                              Yours is a common complaint by non-Chinese diners who are cosmopolitan or adventurous. The thorny part is when these diners speculate about why, whereupon they often project from their own assumptions, rather than asking the people who chose to offer items untranslated. All my information in following this subject curiously for aeons supports raytamsgv's lucid explanation downthread, the true language at issue is money.

                              What some of my fellow round-eyes don't recognize, or maybe don't want to imagine because they personally reject it, is that those mysterious dishes Matt Kramer (1970s restaurant critic) was told "white people don't like" are things "white people" (shorthand for all non-Chinese) genuinely DON'T like, statistically. They prove it to restaurateurs unmistakeably but privately, by how they spend. Competent restaurateurs (the kind who stay in business) bow to their market. The situation resembles others where widespread consumer preference underlies developments individual consumers dislike (e.g. infiltration of needless sugars into breads and salad dressings) and rather than see this as consumer preference, which clashes with their own, they imagine other explanations. And knowing that someone is keeping it from you can make ANY information appear interesting.

                              The successful Bay Area Chinese restaurant I cited downthread with the eccentric customer (he still comes, I asked) is strong on dishes with offal etc., rarely familiar to gringos, and it does translate them to English, and they DON'T sell much to non-Chinese (I asked).

                              * Much like the US embrace of Sichuan cooking in past decades, early public Internet access was geographically extremely variable, and also complicated by business factors like decisions at the private-networking firms (Compuserve, Prodigy, etc.) NOT to offer it early -- all thoroughly documented, but not in pop media like Wikipedia, therefore unknown to most people. The Bay Area has at least one large independent public-access provider giving subscribers Internet-forum and email access since 1985, while some places like NYC, and subscribers to the private-networking firms, saw relatively poor access as long as a decade later. (Another subject I've long followed.)

                              1. re: eatzalot

                                Incidentaly the restaurant mentioned in my penultimate pph above (and earlier below) is called Hunan Chili. It's in the first, or cheaper, group among 50 recommended restaurants in its neighborhood that I just updated in my region's forum:


                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  Isn't it a chicken or the egg problem?

                                  1. re: Scrapironchef

                                    No I don't think so. I come from a family with very limited diets. They would walk out of a restaurant if they saw strange stuff on the menu. A lot of food fears out there. Many people get creeped out just thinking about 'parts.'

                                    Now, I am not saying I am happy about it. It would definitely benefit me to have the translation.

                                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                                      I had to chuckle because "chicken and egg" was a metaphor I cited and then edited out of the posting above. But examples like the restaurant I just mentioned argue otherwise (they offer in English, but _whatever_ the reason, get few orders). Also, while recognizing that mainstream US culture tends to ignore other countries and tongues, it's the personal choice of any adventuroous diner whether to bother to learn some of the language of interest. (I've found immigrant-Chinese acquaintances and restaurant employees more than helpful when I expressed interest in food words.)

                                      Like people who stay on hotel 13th floors only if falsely labeled 14th, some Americans eat far more "parts" than they think. This has come up in travel to other food cultures, e.g. Viennese where folk-cooking specialties made from lungs on down are traditional and common. Of course (said a restaurateur there, bringing many such dishes by request, years ago) you might not eat these things in the US. Yes we do, all the time (I answered): only they're ground up and called other names like sausages, hot dogs, bologna, potted meat products, etc. One of the pithiest lines in the Hesses' harsh but revealing critique _The Taste of America_ is that the history of creative cooking consisted largely of housewives making something interesting from pieces the gentry wouldn't touch. In the US with its relatively brief history, we lack so many interesting traditional uses for "parts" but are well endowed with processed-food firms, which step in with marketable uses for those "parts."

                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                        I still don't get why it's such a difficult concept to grasp that white suburbanites just are overwhelmingly afraid of even the mere mention of organs in their menu. I live in the Seattle high tech sector, home to a high percentage of East Asians and South Asians, so one would assume a high average level of cosmopolitan culinary preferences and leanings in the general population. There are several above-average Sichuan places there (around the eastside - Bellevue/Redmond for those familiar with the area) and still it is the Panda Express that has the line out the door (over 50 million lbs of chicken sold there every year in America), and the Sichuan places only have 3 tables out of 30 that have non-East Asians sitting in them - and they're most likely eating the sweet-n-sour chicken-type dishes. Going over the list of my past coworkers in my head (who are over 90% white - a sample of at least 100 people), they simply will not indulge by an overwhelming landslide. Even the concept of a simple BBQ pork bun for dim sum is alienating enough for them. Going back to the thing about the mention of organs on the menu - they truly believe that pieces will just magically fall into their "safe" dish and they're just plain afraid to risk going in and ordering the wrong thing. My wife's conservative banker coworkers are even worse - they crack jokes about Indiana Jones-style monkey brains when non-American food is even mentioned as a possibility for a group lunch. It's just pure free market economics - for every one of us adventurous souls here, there are 500 giving 3.5 stars to Olive Garden on Yelp. What's a restauranteur to do?

                                        It goes both ways too. I've talked to countless East Asians who will refuse to visit a taco truck, for example.

                                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                                          because it has nothing to do with their "whiteness"

                                          1. re: HungWeiLo

                                            Maybe all those people at Panda Express might be willing to try something new if they could read the menu in English?

                                            Your swipe at "white suburbanites" is a little off base, I started out life in the "white suburbs" but it didn't ruin me for new foods. When Thai neighbors moved in across the street my world changed for the better.

                                            What's a restauranteur to do? Work hard to make potential patrons feel welcomed and that they will be treated well. Stepping out of your comfort zone should be rewarding, not a hassle.

                                            1. re: HungWeiLo

                                              Interesting to reflect that "variety meats" are not rare in traditional US cooking, often derived from Europe or UK. Things like lamb kidneys, chicken livers, and sweetbreads are common in US cookbooks I have from most of the 20th century; I saw them more often in home cooking and restaurants in the 1960s-70s. It seems the same factors weaning the US off of family-passed cooking skills in the second half of 20th c. (a loss the Hesses positively rant about in the aforementioned book) also narrowed the diet. Then if a new generation rediscovers dormant traditions (as it did with cocktails), it perceives this as pioneering.

                                              HungWeiLo: "One would assume a high average level of cosmopolitan culinary preferences and leanings in the general population." But then "Even the concept of a simple BBQ pork bun for dim sum is alienating enough." That contrasts sharply to my experience of non-Chinese dining habits in e.g. metropolitan NYC or SF (in SF, items like BBQ pork bun, known to many NON-Chinese as char-siu bao, were widely taken for granted as of the 1960s or earlier). I also recall from my experiences and family in the Seattle region that high-tech there was dominated by Boeing for much of its history; I saw far fewer immigrant Asians in those days, until software ascended from the 1980s onward which (like Vancouver's large Chinese-émigré demographics) is _comparatively_ recent: within many US adult memories, and _after_ the US's 1970s Sichuan-cooking invasion I recalled in detail elsewhere in this thread.

                                              It sounds like (so to speak) my silicon-valley non-Chinese suburbanites are much more accustomed to Chinese food than HungWeiLo's; note none of the locally esteemed restaurants I linked above is Panda Express or equivalent (though you can find those, if you look). Yet the avoidance of unfamiliar specialties (a more accurate grouping than the fun-to-write "parts") remains common here, and consistently unaffected by English translation. And frustrated non-Chinese diners continue online (as they have since the 1980s) to assert anew that the solution is as easy as just adding English translations.

                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                Organ meats are hard to cook right in the microwave and they don't reheat well...

                                              2. re: HungWeiLo

                                                i totally just had some cold sliced pork ears from Bamboo Garden in Belleview for my late breakfast today. *sigh* So good.

                                                I think Spiced is my favorite place, though, so far, for Sichuan. I live in Edmonds right now and have been to Szechuan 99 once and have tried their fried whole tilapia and cold trio, but not much else. Have you been?

                                                1. re: Joishii

                                                  If you like Spiced and Bamboo Garden, then you should also like Szechwan 99 equally. Not as big of a menu, but the items that they're good at are done very well.

                                                  Things to definitely try include the bean curd fish (hand made tofu in a spicy broth with fish filets) and the tea smoked duck. They also make very rustic and homey dumplings too (there's a pan-fried pork dumpling - shengjianbao that they do especially well). I would also try their hand-cut noodles (daoshaomian). They also serve the sliced pork ears as part of their cold app trio. I like to get the pork ears, and also the diced tofu w/ peanuts, and the jellyfish.

                                            2. re: eatzalot

                                              A local chinese restaurant had a review that notes that, unless your response is "Wow, you have XYZ! I've been looking everywhere for that!" there are certain dishes you are discouraged from ordering. Some things strike our palates as so "odd" that we can't get past the unfamiliar nature. For instance, I once had pureed carrots that repulsed me. I love carrots. They're a favorite vegetable .But I couldn't get past the marshmallow whip texture of these. So the idea that certain things won't sell well strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

                                              1. re: Terrieltr

                                                is it reasonable to assume i won't like something you don;t like because both of us don't speak chinese? You might as well decided our taste in food by what sort fo shoes we are wearing, or what sports we enjoy watching on TV.

                                                the color of my eyes, or the ethnicity of my parents, has little to do with my taste buds. and defining someone solely on the basis of group identity has a name.....

                                                1. re: thew

                                                  are those Birkenstock clogs? we don't serve organic gluten-free here bud.

                                                  I get what you're saying Thew, just 'cause it looks like I was raised on burgers doesn't mean that's what I want. I just try not to get into a lather over it (although I don't assume someone will like or not something based on my perception of their heritage - I can only imagine the reaction! hey that's a good bit of fodder for a comedy sketch actually! but prob. only Chappelle or Cho could get away with that)

                                                  1. re: thew

                                                    I said they would not sell WELL, not that they wouldn't sell at all. The audience on Chowhound is self-selected, and more adventerous than the average eater. Generalizations, by their nature, rarely fit indivduals, so I don't see the point in taking them personlly.

                                            3. re: Steve

                                              I'm pretty sure it actually has chicken in the name. :-P And, I believe based on what those Chinese students (the ones who didn't eat any vegetables from the three dishes they ordered, including the tea-tree mushrooms) told us, the "mouth mouth" thing is claimed to be idiom for "you can't eat just one bite."

                                          2. re: Steve

                                            Then explain why Daimo in the same center does translate all of their menu including the specials?

                                            You make my point tho, they can't conceive of us westerners eating their food so why bother.

                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                              Yeah, I think it is a good idea to offer a translation, so I am right with you there. Bring it on. But if they don't, I am more than willing to go the distance and try to figure things out (the internet is a phenomenal resource) plus ask. For me, it's fun. I like engaging the staff at a restaurant in conversation. I look at it as an opportunity.

                                              Plus, I understand they why they don't. It would definitely turn off many people to walk into a restaurant and see all the references to rabbit, eel, ox parts (I am being polite here), and other variety items. I know people who would walk out instantly.

                                              1. re: Steve

                                                Doesn't seem to hurt Daimo. I'd rather see the odd stuff than the standard General Tso Chicken/Mongolian Beef/Mu Shu Pork list. It let's me know there's more going on than at Panda Express.

                                                I do like to talk to the staff and get suggestions, but there's always that nagging feeling that I missed out on some really good food because I couldn't read the specials and the waiter didn't think I'd like it so they didn't mention it.

                                                1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                  Well, I don't know much about Daimo, but I must say I am not sure I have ever seen specials posted on the wall of a Chinese restaurant that have been translated. Where I'm from, DC area, they are just in Chinese. There is probably a common fear about it translated. I could call it irrational, but that would give me a superiority complex.

                                          3. re: Scrapironchef

                                            "Sichuan Fusion puts up a whole slew of signs listing specials and so on but only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them, why should I eat there?"

                                            Sorry, but I have to agree with Steve on this issue. I've talked with many Chinese restaurant owners, and everyone speaks a common language: money. They want business, but they frequently won't put up signs in English for any number of reasons:

                                            1. They don't know how to translate it or are afraid of using poor English. For example, how do you translate "Three Style Seafood Noodles"?

                                            2. They don't think any English speaker would ever dare to order it (e.g "Pig Offals with vegetables"). In a similar vein, sometimes when they find out you're from another region of China, they will often actively try to dissuade you from ordering their specialty. I'm Cantonese, and Sichuan restaurant staff always try to steer me away from spicy dishes (Cantonese food is not spicy).

                                            3. It costs money to print new menus, so it's cheaper and faster to tape up a short, 4 character description on a piece of paper. Even if you read Chinese, unless you're from the same region of China, there's a good chance you won't know what the dish is about. Many dishes share similar names but are prepared in completely different styles in different regions.

                                            1. re: raytamsgv

                                              1, I'm not looking for a literal translation of the dishes name, howzabout a description of the dish and it's ingredients. Poor english doesn't scare me but it would at least give ne a starting point.

                                              2. Again proving my point, they don't think we'd order it so why bother. Somehow though, Daimo manages to translate all of their items. I'm well aware of the steering that can take place by waitstaff, I was once questioned on my ability to eat spicy food in a Japanese resto by the waiter as he was afraid to serve me anything too spicy. When has that ever been a problem in a Japanese restaurant? Until sushi bars discovered Shiracha the worst that could happen was an inadvertant wasabi accident.

                                              3. The markers don't write in english? A description wouldn't clarify regional differences?

                                              1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                I agree that if they want to expand their business, they should use better menus. Having been in my family's Chinese restaurant business, I'm offering my experience in understanding why many Chinese restaurants operate they way they do.

                                                Many of the Chinese restaurants I frequent will have hundreds of items on the menu. The menu is already big enough the way it is. You could put in Chinese descriptions so Chinese patrons from other regions can understand it. But if you put in Chinese and English descriptions, you'd have a menu as thick as a phone book, and that costs money.

                                                As for the posted, 4-character specials on the walls, it's a trade-off between readability and space. They want to have as many specials listed as possible, but they have to be visible from a distance. That's why descriptions aren't on them.

                                                In my area, I've noticed that Chinese restaurants that are trying to reach more non-Chinese patrons have menus that are translated much better, but they often do this by severely limiting the menu items to keep the menus to a manageable size.

                                                1. re: raytamsgv

                                                  maybe a solution to popularize would still be a 2 menu system, but have one be "favorites" or "crowd pleasers" and a few copies of the other "adventurers" for us Haoli, so yeah my elderly Aunt can get her deep fried chicken chunks in whatever and I can delve off into stuff my family would never try. DTP is so easy these days, there's really no cost excuse.

                                                2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                  Scenario 1 that raytamsgv mentioned above is actually pretty common from my experience. At many Chinese places I've been to in the US, the folks there don't really have much English to go by -- their vocabulary can be limited and so they may not be able to describe all aspects of a dish, let alone write it out. Some translations I've seen tend not to be accurate at best or are laughable at worse.

                                                  There were times when I was going for a meal with a bunch chowhounds where I would get the menu faxed to me or pick up a paper copy in advance and annotate the Chinese menu with English translations from my non-chinese reading hounds. Mostly, the restaurant would request a copy if they saw what we were doing.

                                                  On the flip side, I've noticed that many hounds have simply resorted to learning a different language just to navigate foreign menus be they French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Japanese etc. Worked pretty well for me.

                                                  1. re: limster

                                                    Really? You learned French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Japanese? Was that Mandarin or Cantonese? Do you read Kanji, Katakana, or Hirigana? Living in the bay area it's a bit tough to keep up with just the dialects of Chinese, but if that's the only solution I'm glad there are polyglots like you to help keep all the multitudinous of ethnic and foreign restos in business.

                                                    Seriously, I can muddle through a menu in French and Italian, Spanish doesn't throw me, and I ran a Japanese place for a few years while married to a Japanese woman. But is expecting your customers to learn your language just to order their meal realistic? Yes, I've seen the hilariously translated menu item many times, but I've also seen picture menus all over the world that made ordering as easy as pointing. I've also had Chinese waitstaff when asked to explain the ten specials listed on the whiteboard only describe 6 dishes. Okay, I can't read Chinese but I can count.

                                                    I don't see this behavior in Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Korean or Cambodian places. It may be that there are enough Chinese speakers to support this here while the other populations haven't reached that critical mass.

                                                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                      While the spoken languages in Chinese culture are numerous (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, Shanghainese, Sichaunese, Hunanese,Taiwanese etc...) in the written form, there is but one script.*

                                                      Only difference in the written Chinese is between the complicated form (used in Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore etc.) and Mainland China which uses the simplified form. Mainland China started simplifying the characters in the 1950's. Modern scholars need to know both forms because any document before 1949 will be in complicated form. Many Chinese menus in the USA will use the complicated forms in a nod to the many overseas Chinese present in the USA.

                                                      Kanji, Katakana, or Hirigana is Japanese. (Japanese has an alphabet, Chinese does not.)

                                                      *Having said that, there are a few written differences in Cantonese for example, which is much older than Mandarin.

                                                      Further complicating this picture is that even native Chinese will have to inquire at times as to exactly what the dish is, and how the restaurant is making it.

                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                        I was under the impression that Limster had learned all the other languages he mentioned including Japanese, hence the mention of the three primary types of script. Only one (Kanji) is barely analogous to an alphabet, the others are pictographic in much the same way as Chinese.

                                                        1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                          Actually, the Kanji part of Japanese are a huge selection of Chinese characters, most of which are similar to what are used in modern Chinese. The "kana" (hiragana and katakana) are two variations of phonetic characters very loosely based on Chinese characters, but they are not pictograms.

                                                      2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                        As silly as it sounds, I myself have also picked up enough of the languages you have listed above just to navigate around menus better while traveling in Europe and Latin America (and LA Koreatown!). It's really not that much work. For each language, just learn:

                                                        1.) Thank you and please.
                                                        2.) How to count 1-20.
                                                        3.) The words "water", "bathroom", "where", "how much"
                                                        4.) The words for "chicken", "beef", "pork", "fish".

                                                        It's amazing how much better one can eat throughout the world if one only knew these words in a few languages.

                                                        Here in Seattle, there are plenty of examples of untranslated specials in all Asian restos (Jpn, Viet, Korean, etc.). It's certainly far from being exclusive to Chinese restos.

                                                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                          Actually, There's a polite subset of words that I try to learn for every culture I travel in, but it's a little tough to keep up with all the different languages available in eateries around the bay area.

                                                          Did you ever come up with a cite for the panda /Kobari beef thing?

                                                          1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                            I replied under your original question.

                                                            1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                              Sorry, it got buried, great read BTW, I love how the Taco Bell guys idea is to add more bacon.

                                                        2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                          Several posters have already mentioned what I would say. Just like to add that it's not about restaurants expecting people to learn their language -- one obviously has a choice between making a restaurant translate everything, or learning enough of the relevant language to figure out the food. The latter choice is often more efficient in my experience, and has the added advantage of helping one chow outside one's native country.

                                                          1. re: limster

                                                            You're advocating learning enough of the 20-40 or so languages represented in the bay area dining scene just so I can order dinner, spoken and written? Even for places I may only visit once every few months?

                                                            This whole discussion started with the question of why some places don;t seem that busy, maybe it's because people are ate home working on Rosetta Stone and are too broke to eat out after buying the 20 different languages they needed.

                                                            How is it more effecient to require all your customers to learn your language as opposed to learning the predominant language of the market you operate in?

                                                            Can I get an order of what you're smoking?

                                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                              If the restaurant is doing a satisfactory amount of business, why should they care whether it's more efficient for them to translate their menu rather than telling you to learn to read?

                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                because more business is better

                                                                1. re: thew

                                                                  So Szechuan restaurants are more popular because all the energy you are burning talking about this in circles is making you hungry?

                                                                    1. re: thew

                                                                      Not when your restaurant is full to capacity, no. Not when you open new branches and they fill to capacity within a few months of opening, no.

                                                                      Spreading your resources too thin is a major reason many businesses run into trouble.

                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                    You write that like it's a given: translate specials on the wall = more business.

                                                                    KWagle above was questioning the "efficiency" part of the equation. That alone does not signify any gain, especially if the business thinks they might lose customers. My guess is they'd prefer that people who can't read Chinese don't fool with the specials.

                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                      my guess is that they make the very false assumption that on;y chinese people will like what's offered.

                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                        Sometimes, just putting it into Latin even is a major problem!

                                                                        Recently I ate 天麻鸡 (Tian1 Ma2 Ji1). An untranslated special at a Taiwanese joint. I get home, open up my dictionary and here is what I ate:

                                                                        Chicken with the Tuber of Elevated Gastrodia – or put another way: Chicken with Gastrodia elata.


                                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                                          Yeah, but the real question is was it any good?

                                                                  2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                    Nope, just the relevant languages for the places you want to try that do not offer menus in your first language. Since you say that "I don't see this behavior in Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Korean or Cambodian places" -- shouldn't this narrow down the number quite a bit?

                                                                    I don't run a restaurant, and never have, so my perspective of efficiency is that of a customer. I've never been able to persuade a place to offer a menu in a different language, but I've been able to pick up the necessary language to order.

                                                                    BTW, I'm not advocating a new radical idea, it's a common enough approach used by many chowhounds that I know and that has worked. If you think of a potentially better approach for navigating restaurants, try it out and share your success rate.

                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                      But that sidesteps the question - How is it more efficient to require your customers to learn a language they may only have occasion to use once in a great while as opposed to the business learning the predominant language of the market it exists in?

                                                                      I make every effort to learn polite survival phraseology when I travel abroad and I'm not an English only advocate at home. My point in this whole discussion has been that inclusion rather than exclusion is a better business practice. If you have empty seats to fill it's worth a try.

                                                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                        No sidestepping. The question of efficiency, I as raised it, was never about being efficient as a business, but being efficient as a chowhound.

                                                                    2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                      All you want is a good meal. You'll travel for it, research places, and try new things. But in the end, it's about the food.

                                                                      There are others who are after something more. They want to go into an Indian or Chinese or Thai place and be treated as a native. They want to speak and read their language, know their customs and history, understand their literature and art. They want to become one with the culture. There's nothing wrong with that but it's about lots more than the food.

                                                                      Personally, I'm with you. I just want a good meal. The rest of it is optional.

                                                                      Here's a trick I learned 20 years ago. Do you want the staff of an ethnic restaurant to accept you and serve you food that isn't dumbed down? Become a regular. When you're served spicy food, show enthusiasm. Order it again. Tip well and come back often. Every time you go back the staff will be happy to see you and you'll be treated very well.

                                                                      There's no need to speak 15 dialects or make secret signs or say special phrases. Just become a regular.

                                                                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                        Words to live by. I get along fine with or without translations. With or without chopsticks. I'm not going to let that stop me.

                                                                        1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                          I also just want a good meal. However, my experience leads me to believe that in order to get what *I* consider a good meal, I have to go further than just ordering from the English menu. Last night, for example, I had a dish of rice cakes with generic Cantonese-style mixed seafood and vegetables piled atop. The rice cakes were good, but that's easy since I love crispy and crunchy deep fried things. The topping was not bad but relatively boring Cantonese. But if I wanted Cantonese food I would've gone to New Big Wong instead, and gotten something truly awesome from their specials menu. And at the end of the meal, nobody was interested in taking the topping home with them.

                                                                          Now, I have no doubt that something as delicious as crispy rice cakes are going to be eaten by the staff. But I'm pretty sure they covered them with something other than a generic Cantonese dish, and even more confident of that when I find the Cantonese-style dish listed on the American menu. What *I* want is what the staff puts on top of *their* crispy rice cakes, because that's much more likely to be a great, or even good, meal.

                                                                          1. re: KWagle

                                                                            You weren't a regular. If you were, you'd get the good stuff.

                                                                          2. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                            Not really an option if you're only in town for the weekend.

                                                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                              True enough. But showing up four nights in a row will get you pretty far. :D

                                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                                But there are 5 other restos I want to go to also. Narrowing down the three I'm going to actually go to sometimes comes down to snap judgements on the posted menu. This brings it back to my original observation that if I can;t read your menu I may just move on to somewhere I feel more welcome. First impressions matter.

                                                                              2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                Here's another one.

                                                                                Order like you mean it. Don't mince around questioning the waiter as to the various spicing levels and flavor combinations. They'll take you for a newbie who will bitch and moan when you bite into a pepper. Instead, just order the dishes with confidence, like you've been doing it for years. If the waiter mentions that a dish is spicy, smile and say "Good. I like it that way!"

                                                                                Really, this stuff isn't that hard. I don't want a mysterious ritual or a cultural experience every time I go out to dinner. Most nights I just want a good meal.

                                                                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                  That doesn't work if the staff has come to believe that what *you*--a random person with the surname 'Martinez'--mean is something other than what you really mean. Like the time I got a bowl of huajiao on the side because the chef was afraid I didn't mean it when I said 加麻. (The manager was quite clear on this, it was the kitchen that balked.)

                                                                                  Tonight I did order the 夫妻肺片 by its real name for the first time, over the phone no less. It certainly did seem like I got less argument and more of what I wanted.

                                                                                    1. re: KWagle

                                                                                      Maybe I' m just more convincing than you. I've been doing this for over 20 years - I just ask for what I want and they give it to me. But I guess other techniques can work too.

                                                                                      In the "Godfather" Fredo told his nephew that the secret to catching big fish was to say a Hail Mary every time he put his line in the water. If that sort of thing works for you by all means keep doing it.

                                                                                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                        You ask for what you want, and they give it to you... But how do you know that you got the best version of this dish that the restaurant can produce? And, how do you discover the things you don't already know about?

                                                                                        1. re: KWagle

                                                                                          "But how do you know that you got the best version of this dish that the restaurant can produce? And, how do you discover the things you don't already know about?"

                                                                                          The same way you do in an American restaurant. You use your previous experience, the menu descriptions and the names of the dishes, and your judgment to figure out what you want. I've found recommendations by waiters to be the least reliable method of finding good dishes.

                                                                                          As I've said, it's been working for me for over 20 years. Somehow, without speaking a word of Chinese, I was the first person on Chowhound to post about Lan Sheng.


                                                                                          I do appreciate the fact that a knowledge of Chinese can help you with menus in certain situations but I think, in the long run, other things matter a lot more.

                                                                                          1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                            Previous experience has to actually *come* from somewhere.

                                                                                            Menu descriptions and names don't work very well for me in figuring out whether the kitchen can produce, and does produce, a better version of a dish. Take double cooked pork, for example. Without the previous experience *gained from something other* than "being a regular" or ordering "like you mean it." I don't know that the kitchen has two versions, one for Chinese people, and one for everyone else.

                                                                                            Long before pork belly became fashionable at European-descendants' restaurants, I learned that double cooked pork is traditionally made from the belly, by reading a book. I then went to a local restaurant (Qingdao Garden, which may be closed now) and *asked* the proprietor what kind of meat they used in the dish. He pointed out that they offer two version on the menu, identically named, printed twice, but in different sections and and with different numbers. If I ordered the one from the white side of the menu, I would get lean pork, and if I ordered from the purple side, I would get fatty pork. I'm not sure how to learn something like this *without*, among other tools, asking questions.

                                                                                            Take another example. Steve went to Sichuan Pavilion' in Rockville and ordered the pork belly with crispy bread. Someone else went there for lunch and ordered from the lunch menu, and the dish was different. It didn't have any crispy bread in it. The second person thought this was remarkable, because, well, he remarked about it. *I* would find this unremarkable, because one dish was called "house special pork belly" and the other was "sichuan pork belly." To be honest, in this case I have no idea what the English names are, but I've seen the same thing--different dishes with identical English names--fairly often.

                                                                                            There are plenty of cases where one class of diner is getting a different dish than you are when you order that dish. The application of huajiao offers another clear example. I've been told more than once by more than one proprietor that they just don't put that stuff in the dishes American-looking diners order. Even the proprietor of the Serious Eats blog (Kenji Alt?something like that) complained that Sichuan Garden didn't use huajiao in their cooking. That's never been a problem for *me* at the same restaurant where he gets NONE. I get as much as I want and more to take home.

                                                                                            Was I a regular there? Well, certainly not literally. I went to the restaurant to talk to the proprietor about various issues including the content of the dishes and the translations on their posted menu *before I ever ate there*. I'd call that "asking questions." And, technically I wasn't dealing with the waiter. In my experience, when the kitchen makes multiple versions of a dish (which is not always the case, of course) I have never gotten the food I wanted without dealing with a manager.

                                                                                            I'm sure Steve can certainly recount many more examples of different kinds of people getting different dishes. Of course you could argue that you personally never want those other versions, but I bet you wouldn't try to make that argument. :D My question is, how do *you* personally, using *only* the tools you cite above, discover that the restaurant is doing that?

                                                                                            So I don't think, in the long or short run, the other things matter *more*. All of these things matter. But in the short run, when you have one chance to sample "Hunan Taste" and really need to get it right the first time, I think the things you mention matter less than an actual ability to figure things out for yourself.

                                                                                            1. re: KWagle

                                                                                              which all comes back to my original thought - that they don;t care if non-chinese speakers get the same service or dishes as chinese speakers.

                                                                                              and there's a word for that sort of behavior

                                                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                "My question is, how do *you* personally, using *only* the tools you cite above, discover that the restaurant is doing that?"

                                                                                                I do something obvious. I order the food. All the descriptions in the world are no substitute for actually tasting the food. To stick with your example of a pork belly dish, that same dish can be offered at 5 different restaurants and described on the menu using the same words. But it can be different each time. It's all in the execution.

                                                                                                What if you took an American with no experience with Chinese dining and taught him to speak and read perfect Chinese. Would you trust him to order for you in a restaurant?

                                                                                                Experience is the key. And to get that experience, you have to take some time and try a lot of things.

                                                                                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                                  Okay, let's sit down at the same restaurant and order the same dishes. You order the food. I order the food. Because I applied tools other than the ones you cite, I get something different than you do. You taste the food. So do I. How do you know you're tasting the same thing I am?

                                                                                                  This is exactly the story of Kenji Lopez-Alt's experience at Sichuan Garden, and my experience. "The problem with most Sichuan restaurants is that they don't use Sichuan Peppercorns"...

                                                                                                  WTF? Every place I go, including the ones he mentions, uses plenty of them.

                                                                                                  IF you use the right tools to actually get them included in your dish.


                                                                                                  1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                    OK, I give up. You're the King of Sichuan.

                                                                                                    1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                      (Not a specific response to Kwagle; more as a general comment to this sub-thread.)

                                                                                                      There are lots of strategies for scoring delicious food. It's not an issue of whether strategy A is better than strategy B -- very often using both A and B is better than resorting to either one alone. As chowhounds, it makes sense to use every approach possible if one is after an even more delicious meal.

                                                                                        2. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                          Believe it or not I'm capable of getting what I want when I go out to eat. Most times without having to pay dues 10-15 times before my wishes are considered worthwhile by a business.

                                                                                          My original point in all this wasn't that I wasn't getting what I wanted, it's that there may be other things I'd order and like that by dint of cultural arrogance I'm not being told about. I'm not the type that orders something new and gets cranky if I don;t like it, I just chalk it up to chance and move on. It shouldn't take me or any other patron of a business multiple visits to be allowed to see whats on offer. Maybe it sounds a little paranoid but it's more about marketing than that.

                                                                                          1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                            My comments were directed at Mr. Wagle. I actually agree with you.

                                                                          3. re: raytamsgv

                                                                            it's economics based racism. they are doing it because of money, but what they are doing is determining what people will or will not like solely on ethnic lines.

                                                                            1. re: thew

                                                                              I don't think it's racism. It's about the targeted group of patrons. Smaller restaurants have very narrow profit margins, and they must decide if they want to appeal to a specific group, where they have expertise in the patrons' expectations, or to a larger group where they have little expertise in those patrons' expectations. Only the larger restaurants have the resources, staff, and money to appeal to both groups.

                                                                              In my area, a number of the larger and more successful Chinese restaurants have finally figured out that they need to expand to include more non-Chinese patrons. But this is not true with the medium and smaller-sized restaurants. They are fighting tooth-and-nail against all the other mom-and-pop restaurants, which is why the food is so cheap. Unfortunately, this limits their ability to reinvest in their restaurants and to appeal to non-Chinese patrons.

                                                                              1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                there are no "both" groups - there is one group - their customers. dividing the clientele by ethnic lines is exactly what i'm talking about. again - obviously i wasn't clear - they are not doing it to BE racist, they are doing it for purely economic reasons. but the why doesn;t change the what.

                                                                                i am not saying they should add anything to the menu that isn;t there - but they should open up the entire menu to their entire clientele. if no non-chinese person orders these added dishes (which i doubt would happen) they are in the exact same place they were before - they have not lost a thing. but if they do sudden;y get more orders for this food, and a reputation as a place with hard to find "authentic items" their business will grow. they cannot lose, they can only win.

                                                                              2. re: thew

                                                                                thew, if what you describe is "racism," then non-Chinese people passing up unfamiliar dishes, or dishes containing unfamiliar animal parts, when those DO get translated into English, is equally racism. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but in US now, people are vastly quicker to perceive "racism" in actions from outside their own group than from inside.

                                                                                I've also seen purely English-speaking restaurants with supplemental menus available by request or orally, or supplemental wine lists on request, etc., but never seen anyone leap to characterize any of that as "racism." At some point, observers are responsible for recognizing that not all things happen for reasons within the limits of your current imagination.

                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                  it would only be racism if those dishes were passed up because of the ethnicity of the dish.

                                                                                  if those supplemental menus were only provided to white people, eg, then it would be an analagous situation

                                                                                  again - i want to be very clear in my use of the word. i'm using it in a very technical sense - determining what someone is like, what their tastes are, etc, solely by group affiliation.

                                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                                    Every piece of marketing that has ever existed targets by race, gender, and socio-economic class. There are no exceptions.

                                                                                    And re: your comment about "they have not lost a thing" - when Panda Express introduced a new spicy beef item on their menu, they called it "Panda Beef" after their trademark namesake. They actually lost a non-trivial amount of business because people thought they served actual panda meat and thus affected the customers' perception of the franchise. Soon after, marketing changed the name to "Kobari Beef." A multi-billion mega-chain like Panda Express can afford to make these marketing snafus and recover from them. Not so with the mom-and-pops.

                                                                                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                                                      Do you have a cite on the panda/kobari thing? I'd like to read more.

                                                                                      I don't think you can actually go by Panda Express customer behavior, after all, they think Panda Express food is Chinese.

                                                                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                        Here is the BusinessWeek article I remember reading:

                                                                                        Turns out I misremembered the details - the "panda meat" never made it to the stores, but the focus group reaction made them reject the naming.

                                                                                    2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                      Despite plenty of evidence (to repeat, I've been seeing it for 30 years), you people with your "racist" language insistently assume that the larger menu stays untranslated because of a choice to exclude non-ethnically-Chinese diners. Rather than an economic choice to serve those diners who've proven much more frequently interested. By this logic, any marketing that in practice attracts other than an average population mix is "racism." Actually, some of my ethnically Chinese friends are equally excluded, because they don't happen to read Chinese or because they grew up with US tastes in food. (I'm sure the convinced can rationalize that away, too.)

                                                                                      Anyway, you've gotten the reality here, from witnesses and from the restaurant perspective, and you can find plenty more evidence if you do real research. The choice whether to understand it or cling instead to a cherished but petty interpretation is entirely yours.

                                                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                        <Actually, some of my ethnically Chinese friends are equally excluded, because they don't happen to read Chinese or because they grew up with US tastes in food.>

                                                                                        This seems pretty legit to me. It's not discrimination against non-Chinese people. It's discrimination against people who can't read Chinese, which isn't racism. I would love it if every restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown translated into English those mysterious handwritten specials taped to the wall. But that has less to do with me being Caucasian, and more to do with me being lazy.

                                                                                        1. re: small h

                                                                                          while true, the distinction is pretty fine.

                                                                                          1. re: thew

                                                                                            I had to put on my reading glasses, but I can see it. I understand your position as well, but I'm wary of slinging a racism charge without due cause. The more we label things racist (or any -ist) that really aren't, the more we dilute the meaning of the word.

                                                                                            1. re: small h

                                                                                              as i stated above - i do not think it is done out of a sense of superiority, but economics. i'm using a very technical definition,a s i said - judging a persons likes and dislikes based on group (or lack of group) affiliation.

                                                                                              i used to have fights with my mom often about what i called the soft bigotry of cultural pride.....

                                                                                              1. re: thew

                                                                                                I think your definition is correct, your terminology less so. If the word economist weren't already taken, that might be a good one to use. Profit-ist?

                                                                                                1. re: small h

                                                                                                  i've been thinking about what i've meant in this sub thread, and where my language has fallen short.

                                                                                                  i am not saying that the people in the restaurants are racist - i'm saying the policy of assumption produces results that are indistinguishable from racist. it isn't necessarily in the intent to end up seeing so in the practice

                                                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                                                    Can't argue with that. You may as well continue to use the phrase "soft bigotry," as it seems to fit. In fact, "the soft bigotry of low expectations" would be fine: we don't expect people who don't look like us to enjoy "our" food.

                                                                                                    1. re: thew

                                                                                                      "Racism" and "racist" usually carries very negative connotations. Once you use those terms, any discussion can quickly spiral out of control.

                                                                                    3. re: thew

                                                                                      Why is that racism or profiling? I wouldn't automatically assume that someone couldn't read Chinese just because they were not ethnic Chinese.

                                                                                      1. re: limster

                                                                                        I can't count how many times I got a fork rather than chopsticks, do you think that would happen if I was ethnic Chinese? We all make judgments based on our past experiences and observations. The smart money bets the white guy doesn't speak Chinese.

                                                                                        1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                          Actually, I did personally witness a incident where even a Chinese guy was given a fork. I was at a Sichuan restaurant with seven others. Six were not remotely Chinese. One was Chinese but barely spoke any Chinese. I probably looked as ABC as he did. I asked (in Mandarin) the waitress to bring ice water and forks. Sure enough, she brought seven cups and forks to give to everyone besides me.

                                                                                          When we ordered, the waitress didn't question my order. When the others ordered, she asked them if they were sure they wanted those dishes because they were spicy.

                                                                                          1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                            Unfortunately, I've witnessed more than once in Chinese restaurants where customers would loudly berate the waiters for not warning them ahead of time if a dish was spicy or if it contained meat (because they thought the translated English name "hinted" at a vegetarian dish).

                                                                                            This is precisely why they're not exactly eager to translate "questionable" dishes for English speakers, so they don't have to deal with the customers who raise a rowdy ruckus. (I've worked in a Chinese restaurant in my youth - it happens a lot more than you think).

                                                                                            The comment about "smart money" is right on. Why bring chopsticks when at least 5 times out of 10, you're have to double-back for forks? Let's say if your line of work involves communicating with a bunch of 90-year-olds, no one would question if someone instinctively calls them on a phone instead of texting them.

                                                                                        2. re: limster

                                                                                          the assumption being discussed here is the assumption that an outsider would not like certain food items based on their perceived ethnicity.

                                                                                2. From Beetlejuice (1988): "I can't believe we're eating Cantonese. Is there no Szechuan up here?"

                                                                                  If it's a trend, it's one that's old enough to vote.

                                                                                  6 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: small h

                                                                                    small h,that's my feeling too - that in the late 70's and into the 80's it got so trendy it sort of over-saturated and ebbed and what we're seeing now is more of a welcome revival than a "new" thing. bring it on!

                                                                                    (btw love that movie, nobody delivers a haughty food line like Catherne O'Hara "I want to eat miniature pancakes in an all-white environment!" 6 Feet Under).

                                                                                    1. re: hill food

                                                                                      I am very interested in the way foods - ingredients, cooking styles, regions of origin - go in and out of fashion. As Porkbutt notes, above, it's likely that the Szechuan food we used to eat back in the day was not prepared by cooks from Sichuan province. Thus, perhaps the Sichuan food we find now in North America is different than it was in the '80s. So I can only surmise that twenty years hence, we'll be eating yet a third kind of Sichuan. I am, however, sure of one thing: someone will bitch that whatever it is, it's not authentic. That seems like the only perennial.

                                                                                      1. re: small h

                                                                                        I don't think the cuisine has changed any EXCEPT for the pesky fact that the Chinese diaspora as a whole has the tendency to just use what is available around them instead of introducing/importing what they need to make things exactly as they or their ancestors did on the mainland. This is why I am loathe to use the word "authentic" in any gastronomic sense, because I think this is a trait that's common in all immigrant groups. For example: it was mentioned earlier that ketchup might not be an "authentic" ingredient to use for any Chinese dish...but I've seen it in numerous dishes made by either my parents or professional chefs in restaurants. Try to bring up the "lack of authenticity" in using ketchup, and one will probably get a lecture on how there is 1.) no such thing as authenticity because any cooking is influenced by what is available in a specific region, 2.) how if new ingredients are never introduced to a cuisine, then how will new dishes be created, and/or whatever reasons one can think of (note: these are not necessarily my opinions).

                                                                                        Also, immigration (legal) opened up during the Reagan years, so it was more likely that more professional chefs came to the U.S. during that time than now, when immigration is pretty tight and the illegal kind that preys on poorer, less-educated, less-trained workers from specific areas dominates. I think it's well-documented that there aren't many highly-trained, high-end Chinese chefs outside of China because...well...they can make more money and stay with their family and friends at home without having to go through paperwork and legal hoops.

                                                                                        1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                          On that note, it's also worth noting that Peter Chang initially came here as the official chef of the Chinese Embassy in DC!

                                                                                          1. re: hckybg

                                                                                            Have you heard of his new restaurant (still under construction) in Atlanta? He's not trying to hide the fact that he's behind the opening, but I'm sort of wondering how long he'll stay at this one.

                                                                                            Sorry, off-topic. Yet again. ::hangs head in shame::

                                                                                          2. re: yfunk3

                                                                                            It wasn't just the chefs that migrated, people that eat the food and understood it came over too. A certain "critical mass" has to exist to support a new cuisine until the locals catch on. This drives suppliers to offer raw materials, restos to offer isolated dishes or combo cuisines and a general familiarity rises in a community.

                                                                                    2. In my personal experience, it's been prevalent in the usual Chinese corners (i.e. Chinatowns and heavily Chinese-populated areas like California and NY/NJ area) ever since my parents and I moved to the U.S. in the late 80s.

                                                                                      As a history nerd as well, I'm guessing that since most Chinese immigrants traditionally (to this day, really) come from the Southern China/Canton (and now Fujian) area, Szechuan has always been fairly well-known and accessible in the "more authentic" places (read "more authentic" however you like, I couldn't find a better term off the top of my head). Add to that the opening up of Sino-American relations in the early 70s and the rise of Chinese food (whichever kind you find/prefer, Americanized or not) and Chinese food DELIVERY at the same time, and that's probably when it became mainstream...or at least it was heard of peripherally to those who were gastronomically/culturally interested in that type of thing.

                                                                                      The allowance of real Szechuan peppercorns recently also helped what I see as a relatively-recent Ma La mini-trend (of which I'm not that huge a fan since most places tend to overdo the peppercorns instead of going for balance and nuance). Maybe that's what you're talking about? Or maybe just because the internet-as-word-of-mouth-mainstream-everyday medium didn't blwo up until the late 90s, really, so now it's so easy for trends of any kind to spread like wildfire and to share such personal experiences with others of the same opinion/experiences.

                                                                                      20 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                        Thanks, this is really helpful. I had forgotten that Szechuan peppercorns were banned in the U.S. until relatively recently. I am definitely talking about the Ma La variations of Szechuan. Of course, Szechuan per se has been a part of American Chinese food for a long time. My mom would sometimes make us "Szechuan shrimp" with some rather odd, American ingredients (I want to say ketchup is one, though I need to double check that) but the point was that it was spicy, which was supposedly what made things Szechuan, so to speak.

                                                                                        Another factor that occurred to me is the movement of Chinatowns to American suburbs--this is the case in Washington, DC (where much of "Chinatown" is now along Rockville Pike or in Northern Virginia) and in the San Gabriel Valley. This coincided with the rise of the internet culture you describe, and thus Americans were encountering less mainstreamed versions of ethnic cuisine at their doorstep and talking about them in new ways. In Rockville, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants is literally smack in the middle of Chicken Out Rotisserie, On the Border, and Michael's Arts and Crafts. This is certainly not something you would have seen in most suburbs 15 or so years ago. I imagine early encounters with "authenticity" spurred calls for similar places, and those new places brought more fans into the fold.

                                                                                        The internet is a really big part of this. The Peter Chang story is the best example I have seen of the impact of message boards and other anonymous forums in introducing new tastes. Calvin Trillin wrote a great New Yorker article about Chang and his following in March in the New Yorker, but if you aren't a subscriber you might read Todd Kliman's equally great article in the Oxford American. Because the story he tells was actually my own introduction to Szechuan, I found it very poignant:

                                                                                        1. re: hckybg

                                                                                          "This is certainly not something you would have seen in most suburbs 15 or so years ago. I imagine early encounters with "authenticity" spurred calls for similar places, and those new places brought more fans into the fold."

                                                                                          Well, just a personal opinion and heavily biased due to my personal pessimism and dislike of the DC Metro area (heh heh), but the entire DC area is more like heavily-financed, subsidized suburban sprawl than any type of true city grown out of natural circumstances such as the other cities around the world which harbor real Chinatowns (where Chinese people do still live, work and shop). As a general rule, immigrants tend to settle where the housing is cheapest, hence the recent move towards the suburbs of major metropolitan areas as more and more of the cheaper urban neighborhoods become gentrified. This has been happening in the NYC area for some time. The Lower East Side Chinatown is still the hub, but now there's a satellite in Flushing, then it moved to the northern NJ suburbs (along with other ethnic groups) where it's harder to forge that one big enclave that's so common in cities due to more area and possibly commercial zoning laws. Same thing in California surrounding San Francisco and Los Angeles, I suppose. It's just that DC wasn't among the top three most popular American destinations for Chinese immigrants (and still really isn't), so the unique thing about the area is that there really isn't any real Chinese-enclave presence inside the actual District except for the Chinese embassy! I imagine it's been old hat to the suburbs of LA, San Francisco, NYC/Northern NJ and Hawaii since at least the late 70/early 80s (well, probably earlier in Hawaii...). I really wouldn't look to the DC area as an example/catalyst of any trend, but rather a continuation.

                                                                                          All just a cursory gloss over what are many, many factors to growth and spread of any immigrant community/influence, of course. I'm not even taking into account the ubiquity of adapted Chinese food and the history of the Chinese diaspora throughout other parts of the world.

                                                                                          1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                            yfunk3: you make some good points (I call DC an intellectual construct and not a 'real' city) and I don't make these comments directly at you, but rather some who may not know how complex the issue is, but this delves into sociology, and racial redlining among other things, the SF Chinatown really only developed because the Chinese that were allowed to live in SF weren't allowed to live anywhere else (or marry!) for many years and hence the dense concentration of stores and services. yes, now the SF Bay Area can be considered to have several concentrated areas, but that also reflects what neighborhoods were deemed stable and attractive and the supporting businesses came along after... I've lived on the edges of SF's Chinatown, I liked it, but it is cramped (and that improvised wiring looks a little precarious) plus a parent would have to compete HARD to your kid into a good school like L-W in the SFUSD.

                                                                                            during the flight to the suburbs in the 60's it wasn't just "White Flight" especially in DC after the riots, anybody who could afford to get out, GOT out. Caucasians, African Americans, Asian Americans, you name it, which coincided more or less with the Beltway and the early planning for Metro. plus the general erosion of school quality in most large cities.

                                                                                            a friend did his dissertation on civil rights, religion and housing law in SF and devoted a large part to this. fascinating stuff (f'rinstance Forest Hills in SF wasn't going to let baseball hero Wille Mays buy there!)

                                                                                            which doesn't explain the resurgence of Szechuan, but rather the spread of good Asian food found in the suburbs.

                                                                                            1. re: hill food

                                                                                              Just a couple points of clarification:
                                                                                              I am not saying that DC was the leading edge, but I do think the movement of its Chinatown is paradigmatic of cities that have sizable Asian immigrant populations (this includes Boston) but perhaps not on the scale of cities like LA, SF, NYC. In DC and Boston there are some very historically specific "push" factors, I would think, particularly the redevelopment of the Chinatown areas, so that while they still are called Chinatown, they are not ethnic enclaves any longer and housing costs rose tremendously. This is especially true in DC, where Chinatown became the new home of the major sports arena in the city and much private speculation and development followed. There are few, if any, Chinese restaurants worth mentioning in the DC urban Chinatown (this isn't the case in Boston, however).

                                                                                              There are also "pull" factors, including those mentioned and others. Social mobility, increasing wealth, desire for the amenities that suburbs provide. For many immigrant groups and other minorities, as you say, suburban opportunities came later than for whites; the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were perhaps the legislative markers, but social acceptance of diverse neighbors came much more gradually.

                                                                                              Immigration reform in the mid-1960s was also tremendously important. Between 1924 and 1965, there was very limited Asian immigration into America. Post-1965, there was not the same restriction on movement (as there was when Chinatowns initially formed during the first waves of Asian immigration in the late 19th century). Many people moved into existing enclaves but many others did not, and did not have to. But I wonder if changes in cuisine relate to where people are coming from regionally and their reception upon arriving--instead of only "Chop Suey," there is a viable market for great cuisine. I just don't know much about regional breakdowns and how they have changed.

                                                                                              1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                You are getting close!

                                                                                                I think this old post might further illuminate:


                                                                                                1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                  Thanks for linking to that--it's a really helpful, thoughtful post!

                                                                                              2. re: hill food

                                                                                                "which doesn't explain the resurgence of Szechuan, but rather the spread of good Asian food found in the suburbs."

                                                                                                Yes, definitely. It's not so much that Szechuan specifically is suddenly hot (ugh, no pun intended! :o), but rather that with so many factors such as more exurban/suburban sprawl and faster/more open communication forms, the call for the more "authentic" (again, read however you like) forms of any type of cuisine from anywhere are expanding. There is a market for anything in any diversely-populated area nowadays if it's done well, imo.

                                                                                                1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                  hcky: yes I stopped referring to DC's Chinatown as such about 6 years ago, I now call it "Franchisetown" esp after Da Hua market closed.

                                                                                                  it's interesting how in many cities without many Asians one finds the "Chinese" places (really Chop Suey shops) actually run by VN and other SE Asians and with time they start including some of the dishes they know and love (but sometimes you have to ask and risk potentially preceived cultural insensitivity). But then after they do start appearing I'm left wondering what were you doing all these years? I guess they assume (or know) what's expected and is going to sell in a given area. sad as the cooks usually give their culture's food the extra mile.

                                                                                                  Thank GOD a sustaining amount of customers are in fact knowledgeable enough to patronize places that don't serve food court glop. 20 years ago in my home town there was one ONE! VN place and now there is a current debate over best Pho and Banh Mi (a refreshing slap fight). I need to go back to the first Szechuan place there (opened in the 70's) and see how it's changed. that would be a benchmark of sorts.

                                                                                                  I like ipsedixits post. it is an evolution after all and what was 'this' in 1985 isn't necessarily going to be 'that' in 2011. let's just hope better!

                                                                                                  cai gou: something else for my bucket list.

                                                                                                  1. re: hill food

                                                                                                    I like your comment about restaurants often hiding their real talent--one commonality I notice in many (but not all) of the "best" Szechuan and other Asian restaurants I enjoy is the "secret menu" phenomenon. Like my initial question about the cuisine in general, I don't know if the second menu is new or has always been there. But I do like knowing that there is some other menu of real delicacies, not just sweet and sour chicken and Kung Pao!

                                                                                                    Tom Sietsema, the excellent food critic at the Washington Post, always likes pointing out places where the staff get to exercise their real talents at some point during the week. Like Tutto Bene, an Italian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, owned by a Peruvian and known for its weekend-only saltenas.

                                                                                                    1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                      oh yeah or the much coveted "staff meals" usu. Salvadoreno you can only get at certain places and only if you're an extreme regular (I hear). what really astounded me was when a coworker turned me on to the Pad Thai (? DC has a decent Thai following no need to bury it) found at the busy Chinese place at M and 21st and New Hampshire. and it was better than the regular stuff (which wasn't bad, the PT was just better)

                                                                                            2. re: hckybg

                                                                                              Even though Sichuan peppercorns were once banned in the USA, they were always available in Chinatown markets - at least in NYC. The spread of the Chinese diaspora to the surburbs coincided with their rise in wealth and status. By 1970 (according to US Census figures) Chinese-Americans surpassed White Americans in family income and completed years of education. Median family income of Chinese-Americans is $1,000 higher than the US average and 28% are college graduates, compared to 12% for all Americans.

                                                                                              Urban Chinatowns today are much poorer. 60% of the Chinese there are foreign born with a high school education or less, fully half speak only Cantonese, Mandarin or Fujianese; wages are well below regional averages and 20% live in poverty.

                                                                                              1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                "Another factor that occurred to me is the movement of Chinatowns to American suburbs--this is the case in Washington, DC (where much of "Chinatown" is now along Rockville Pike or in Northern Virginia) and in the San Gabriel Valley. This coincided with the rise of the internet culture you describe..."

                                                                                                Actually, the massive Chinese influx to the San Gabriel Valley was well underway by the early 80's, which is much earlier than the widespread availability of the Internet. At some point, it reached a large enough ethnic Chinese population that allowed specialized restaurants to thrive without necessarily appealing to non-Chinese patrons. In those days, news about good restaurants primarily spread by word of mouth of via the Chinese language newspapers.

                                                                                                Other than that, I agree with you: the Internet and the rise of the foodie culture in the US has brought about a greater awareness of the different types of Chinese regional cuisine available. Even so, most people would probably have a hard time identifying them because so many of them borrow from other regional cuisines.

                                                                                              2. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                well, having lived in sichuan for 4 years and having dined at all types of restaurants, from truck stops and market stalls to palaces devoted to chuan cai, i can speak from authority that in sichuan hua jiao is applied copiously to numb the tongue and lips, not to "balance" the other flavors. sichuan food is all about sensory assault, not subtlety and balance. it prides itself on strong flavors, tastes and physical sensations. the peppers, la jaio, are hot and plentiful and offset by the hua jiao (the flower of the prickly ash) to combine searing high scoville unit heat with the numbing of the hua jaio.

                                                                                                1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                  Immigrants from all over China are coming to the USA - witness the explosion in recent years in Flushing of Manchurian (Dongbei), Shandong and Henan cuisines.

                                                                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                    Yes, but the fact of the matter is that a majority of the illegal immigrants come from the traditionally famine-stricken, agrarian provinces (mainly southern and southwestern). There is basically nothing in parts of Fujian province now except for empty houses and the grandparents and children of the immigrants sending their money back home.

                                                                                                    1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                      Agrarian provinces? 80% of all Chinese live in rural areas - which really denotes the area away from the coastal cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai, (Beijing), Tianjin, Dalian and Qingdao etc.

                                                                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                        Which was why I preceded it with "famine-stricken". I honestly don't even know why we're having this argument.

                                                                                                        1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                          Famine-stricken? What are you talking about?

                                                                                                          1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                                            Does this mean that Hop SIng was Sichuanese? Boy, those Cartwrights sure knew how to handle the spicy food.

                                                                                                2. I don't live in the States, but in Vancouver BC where we have had good Cantonese food for a long time. I have noticed this trend too. We now have more Sichuan along with a number of other regional Chinese restaurants here than ever. I have just assumed that it is a result of new immigration from Mainland China. We now have more Mainlanders here -- including Sichuanese and other Chinese who are used to the stronger flavours and robust preparations....but equally as important - cooks who actually know what this food is supposed to taste like.

                                                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                                                  1. re: fmed

                                                                                                    It's always been there. Now, with more awareness and sophistication people are noticing more, and restaurants are making it more well-known.

                                                                                                    What was labeled previously as "Chinese Restaurant" will now be called "Sichuan Palace" or "Sichuan Gourmet" or "Mandarin Deli".

                                                                                                    Three or four decades ago, words like Sichuan (or Szechwan) and Mandarin were reserved for historians and Scrabble champions. Today? It's almost "hip" to say that you want to go out for some Sichuan-style water-boiled fish.

                                                                                                    It's just a maturing of a cuisine. It's been there all along ... sort of like that butterfly that emerges from the cocoon.

                                                                                                    1. re: fmed

                                                                                                      It's definitely due to more immigration from the Mainland. I remember living in Vancouver 20 years ago - it was actually pretty rare to hear Mandarin as opposed to Cantonese being spoken in Chinatown or Richmond. Now it is more 50/50. In Seattle and Portland, Mandarin-speakers now outnumber Cantonese-speakers substantially - which was definitely not the case 15-20 years ago.

                                                                                                    2. It is my understanding that interest in Sichuan cuisine is increasing and that it is part of a real long-term trend (not simply heightened awareness) that started in China. I remember seeing an English-language Chinese program on WNVT (channel 56) - quite a while ago now- that talked about this very subject: SIchuan restaurants in Hong Kong were becoming hip for young customers and that the cuisine was on the rise in big Eastern Chinese cities. This does make some sense as the world's largest-ever human migration from West to East is taking place in China.

                                                                                                      Definitely the sheer number of Sichuan restaurants in the DC area is greater than it used to be, and the number of Sichuan items on an otherwise Cantonese menu is also on the rise.

                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                                                        This sounds right to me. In my experience, Chinese people from all over China hold Sichuan cuisine in high regard. I'd be inclined to attribute any Sichuan trend that may exist to changes in the Chinese and Chinese-American communities. While there are certainly some intrepid white Americans who enjoy Sichuan cuisine, about 95% of the people I see in genuine Sichuan restaurants in the LA/SGV area are Chinese. It's a little bit different in the Boston/Cambridge area, where there's a more culturally curious dining base, but I think the majority of the core customers of the good Sichuan restaurants there are of Chinese descent as well.

                                                                                                      2. I found this thread (and an earlier one that was linked here) very interesting, and here FWIW is some perspective that I did not spot in the comments so far.

                                                                                                        Sichuan (or Szechuan or Szechwan, usual US spellings at the time) cooking took coastal metropolitan US regions by storm in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Berkeley (San Francisco region) at the time, it seemed as if most new Chinese restaurants were Sichuanese or at least promoted its cuisine (much as Thai restaurants swept over the same region in the early 1980s). Along with this, an interest in Sichuan cooking exploded among US home cooks. When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, Mass., Szechuan cooking was what we mostly ate when we went out to the several local Chinese restaurants (I'm sobered to admit that you were not yet born then, if you're 28, hckvba). One of my (gringo) apartment-mates was taken with it, and for a newcomer, produced some striking dishes --

                                                                                                        -- Thanks to excellent cookbooks published in the US by Chinese authors in the same era. Albeit with personal or family-restaurant recipes (like most cookbooks), not the cooking-school-canon tone of a Fuchsia Dunlop today (however useful her writing certainly is). Dunlop's relevant book is before me as I write this, next to one of the most useful and heavily-used Chinese cookbooks I own, "Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook," subtitled "Szechwan Home Cooking," by Chiang Jung-feng, Ellen Schrecker, and John Schrecker (Harper & Row, 1976, reissued 1987 -- often indexed under Schrecker because she did most of the actual writing). Chiang was a skilled Chinese cook who came to the US with a couple of returning young US scholars, the Schreckers, who transcribed her oral recipes in detail -- along with her recollections of her old province, side stories interviewing a colleague who knew the Ma Po of Ma Po Tofu [or mabo dou fu], etc. An unusual book, influential and much loved in the US, it's easily available used and, I understand, is or will soon be re-released in electronic form too.

                                                                                                        So fashionable was Sichuan cooking that the popular 1970s cartoon panel "The Now Society" cited it (someone saying on the phone "Want to eat out? We're feeling intensely Szechwanish" -- I have that cartoon in book form). Paul Fussell's popular US social-criticism satire "Class" in the early 1980s maintained that Chinese food was momentarily unfashionable among the "upper-middle classes" except for Sichuanese. (I just fetched Fussell's book too to verify -- none of what I'm reporting here is from online -- very little of the historical perspective relevant to this or related subjects is online at all -- you need to get it from people who lived through it AND were interested in these things at the time).

                                                                                                        That's why, although it may not have happened everywhere in the US, Sichuanese cooking was a Big Thing 35 years ago and if it has somehow become recently more prominent, that's either an expansion or a rediscovery of something I well remember experiencing.

                                                                                                        75 Replies
                                                                                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                          First waves occurred only after 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, abolishing quotas in place since 1924. A limit of 170,000 new immigrants per year was set with no more than 20,000 from any one country. Family re-unification immigrants though were unlimited. Taiwan was granted the 20,000 immigrant number and Hongkong only 600.

                                                                                                          In 1979, when U.S.-Sino relations were normalized, China was also allowed 20,000 emigrants per year. The Chinese population in the U.S. rose from 240,000 in 1960 to 2.9 million by 2000.

                                                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                            Spot on. You are so right about this info not being on line. Which of course means it never happened. ;-)

                                                                                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                              Thanks for this nice reflection. I find food history interesting because much of what we experience is pretty recent (even if 30-40 years old) so there are plenty of people who watched it happen, as you relate. Do you have any memories of the kinds of dishes that were typical during your 1960s and 1970s explorations in Szechuan cuisine? Or what recipes from "Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook" were best known? Do you get the sense that the cuisine has changed much in America? I associate the style of Szechuan I frequently see today with heavy use of dried peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, oil, cumin, dry frying as well as stir frying, and very strong flavors. These are not hallmarks of American Chinese cooking and I have frequently found when I order "Szechuan" dishes at more Americanized restaurants they are far different from what you get at a specialized Szechuan place with a more chowhoundy clientele--so they might have ma po tofu, but it is tofu and slices of pork in a mild brown sauce. I am curious if early cookbooks boasted the more robust recipes I have become familiar with.

                                                                                                              Incidentally, you may know that Ellen Schrecker is also a noted historian of McCarthyism. I did a double take when I saw her listed in your post. I will pick up a copy of the cookbook, obviously an early project by a very talented person!

                                                                                                              1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                Again I can't speak for the whole US :-), nor places I didn't experience like DC or the NYC suburbs, but: First, here in the SF region, with its extremely high population of immigrants from all over Asia (among other things they were many of the engineers and technicians and managers who built Silicon Valley in its original booms of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, a subject I know something about -- not long ago I received a local award for a nutshell history) has long had a demanding native-Asian clientele and native Asian chefs serving them. (Keep in mind that, while not Sichuanese, San Francisco long had the largest Chinese-expat community in the Americas, after the Railroad days of the 1870s, largely from south China -- compared for example to Vancouver, whose current large Chinese population dates mostly from the HK-emigration incentives during the 1980s, which I followed at the time; as recently as the early 1980s I saw little Chinese food in Vancouver, compared to today.)

                                                                                                                Dishes I've enjoyed in Sichuan restaurants here for decades are just as you describe "the style of Szechuan I frequently see today" even if that doesn't characterize American Chinese cooking at large (itself a complex subject). The citrusy Sichuan "Peppercorn" (huajiao) especially. Just as in the 1976 "Mrs. Chiang" book, which dwells on this ingredient. And on the Sichuan dish that the Chiang book spells mapo doufu; here, Ellen Schrecker, in 1976, paraphrases Eugene Wu of the Harvard-Yenching Library on getting the dish as a youth in Chengtu from the famous pock-marked lady herself:

                                                                                                                "You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or la, that it actually caused sweat to break out. Dr. Wu says that Mrs. Chiang's version of the dish rivals that of the famous old lady. It is just as rich, fragrant, and hot. / If we had to choose the quintessential Szechwanese dish, this spicy preparation of bean curd and chopped meat would probably be it. Its multiplicity of tastes and textures first stuns, then stimulates, the senses. ..." (The writers continue about huajiao in Sichuan cooking traditions.)

                                                                                                                That's the sort of cooking (which, once tasted, is widely appealing) that US home cooks were discovering in the 1970s, and it's the kind of cooking I've associated with US Sichuanese restaurants I've visited ever since. At the moment, within 10 min. walking distance of me in the southern Bay Area are eleven competing Chinese restaurants, among many other restaurants; at least two have native Sichuanese chefs who turn out wickedly good "Ma Po Tofu;" one of those two has an eccentric Chinese customer who comes, often alone, only for that dish, and leaves both satisfied and with such a huge tip on the table as to actively encourage the chef's good work. Even nearer at this moment, in a freezer, is the last of a batch of Mrs. Chiang's "Red-cooked beef" recipe, not "red-cooked" as used by some authors, including also Chiang, for a milder wet braise with star anise, but rather a simple classic spicy Sichuan stew including garlic, ginger, scallions, red pepper, and huajiao, often served with noodles or as a noodle soup. Excess enthusiasm led me to use so much Sich. "Peppercorn" that this batch numbs the mouth like a dental anesthetic and must be used cautiously. Incidentally, as in NYC, that ingredient could be found here in Chinese shops even in the years of its plant-pest quarantine.

                                                                                                                Coda: I've visited China on occasion though not Sichuan. A cousin (white, like me, from SF parents but born and lives in HK), who became a Chinese-studies scholar, met her husband (from Russia) in graduate school in Sichuan province -- the world is getting smaller than it used to be, their children had a remarkable choice of nationalities -- and when I dined with him in Hong Kong a few years ago he, having been spoiled by the food in his student days, grumbled about the good but bland food of Canton, and took me to a Sichuanese restaurant "so we will have some real flavor for a change!"

                                                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                  Thanks so much for your reply, this is great and I will order the Schrecker book post haste.

                                                                                                                  A friend from Szechuan validated me twice in a row when I first met him: first, by telling me that the restaurant I liked so much was one of his favorites too; second, by revealing that the err, "aftereffects" of eating so many dried peppers were one of the shared burdens of this fascinating cuisine!

                                                                                                                  1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                    My name for it is the Chungking Express!

                                                                                                                    Great thread.

                                                                                                                    1. re: chickendhansak

                                                                                                                      (Incidentally, chickendhansak, the validated restaurant was Zoe's, one that I know you like too).

                                                                                                              2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                I would be very surprised if so-called Szechuan (or Hunan) cooking from 35 years ago was even as authentic as Mrs. Chiang's cookbook (which IMO did very well for the time) and challenge anyone to document that claim with actual menus or contemporaneous reviews.

                                                                                                                1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                  Why wouldn't it have been? Ed Schoenfeld, the NYC Chinese food impresario claims the 1970's was a true Golden Age in Chinese cuisine in NYC. There are two main reasons for this.

                                                                                                                  The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished immigration quotas in place since 1924. A limit of 170,000 new immigrants per year was set from Southeast Asian countries with no more than 20,000 from any one country. (Family re-unification immigrants were unlimited.) Taiwan was granted the 20,000 immigrant number and Hongkong 600. In 1979, when U.S.-Sino relations were normalized, China was also allowed 20,000 emigrants per year.

                                                                                                                  The vast improvement in the way Chinese food, both served and eaten in the United States began after Nixon’s seven day visit to China in 1972. Americans became fascinated with the names of dishes served up the twelve-course banquets held in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Across the country, new Chinese restaurants opened up and top chefs were brought in from Taiwan and Hongkong as diners were able to turn away from Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yung to exotic new dishes made with fermented black beans, wood ear or sea cucumbers.

                                                                                                                  It’s all here:

                                                                                                                  “Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest Community” by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic. (New York: The New Press, 2005)

                                                                                                                  “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America” by
                                                                                                                  Andrew Coe. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.)

                                                                                                                  “New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture 1776-1882” By John Wei Tchen Kuo. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.)

                                                                                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                    A "vast improvement" from "bad Americanized" to "mediocre Americanized" isn't much of an improvement at all.

                                                                                                                    "Why wouldn't it have been?" even marginally recognizable as "authentic"? I claim it wouldn't have been because in general, real Sichuan and Hunan cooking/restaurants *didn't exist* in the US until a decade or so ago.

                                                                                                                    I suppose it's possible that immigrants from Sichuan or Hunan provinces served food to their countrymen in secret restaurants white people would never have heard of. (As recently as a few years ago I found a storefront restaurant in Flushing with no English menus at all.) But I think it's more likely they just cooked it in the back for staff meals--if their staff, being as you say from "Taiwan and Hong Kong" even wanted to eat Sichuan food.

                                                                                                                    Why wouldn't it exist? Because Americans in the 70s were, and largely continue to be, unadventurous eaters. And FWICT, the clientele at many of the new restaurants we've been discussing are in fact Asians, though certainly not limited to Sichuanese.

                                                                                                                    I haven't seen the original sources you mention, but what you offer above doesn't support a claim that *Sichuan* food was making any inroads here, especially if those top chefs were from the southern coastal regions. Fuchsia Dunlop has a good article on the invention (in 1973!) of General's chicken by a Taiwanese-trained immigrant chef, for example, which she claims is "virtually unknown in Hunan province." FWICT, Joyce Chen was doing a similar thing in Boston--sprinkling some crushed red-colored peppers on the usual fried meat in the usual brown or sweet glop and calling it "Szechuan" (or, as Steve points out, "Hunan" if the ingredients were cut in a different shape.)

                                                                                                                    Again, it would be easy to support the claim that traditional or authentic Sichuan food existed in the US in the 70s or 80s by finding a review that mentions classic dishes like 夫妻肺片 or 水煮魚 or complains about the 回鍋肉 being too fatty.

                                                                                                                    Furthermore, calling Ed Schoenfeld a "NYC Chinese food impresario" doesn't earn his claims any credibility with me. Many notable and popular critics including (but not limited to) Robert Nadeau (Boston) and Tood Kliman (DC) have demonstrated substantial ignorance about the subject. I'll have more to say about that another time.

                                                                                                                    1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                      And your argument is based on your opinions only or do you have any data points to cite?

                                                                                                                      The Chinese have taken their cuisine with them all over the world. There were three Chinese restaurants operating in San Francisco by the end 1849.

                                                                                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                        Hey, in the 17th century, there were complaints to the Spanish crown about Chinese laundries in Mexico (the Chinese would have arrived on the naval caravans between the Philippines and Acapulco). Wonder what Chinese-Mexican food was like in the 17th century? Mexico City was the great metropolis of the northern half of the Americas for centuries before the US had a comparably size metropolis, so it's not surprising that enterprising Chinese merchants made their way there early....

                                                                                                                        1. re: Karl S

                                                                                                                          I am constantly amazed at how intrepid the Chinese are, and how successful they have been in migrating around the world but still maintaining distinct links to their culture and history. I've not just seen Chinatowns in the US, but smaller enclaves all over Europe. I had fantastic hand pulled noodles in Phnom Penh. And some not so fantastic chow mein in Panama and Costa Rica. In the tiny village of Bocas Del Toro, Panama virtually every grocery store (and a few hotels) are owned by Chinese families. They've even got a little makeshift temple propped up along the seaside. Amazing.

                                                                                                                          Mr Taster

                                                                                                                        2. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                          You should tread cautiously there, KWagle. This is Chowhound, not Yelp, and not America-at-large.

                                                                                                                          Among Chowhounds, the experiences you've listed do not make you unique.

                                                                                                                          Mr Taster

                                                                                                                          1. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                            Plus, I've read enough of ScoopG's detailed descriptions of many specific Chinese cuisines, including those listed above, to know that he is more than well aware of those cuisines and more.

                                                                                                                            1. re: limster

                                                                                                                              I'm actually quite surprised that scoopG has been quoting this generic text about "the Chinese" when I'm pretty certain he knows the situation is a lot more nuanced than that.

                                                                                                                              But claims that a NYC restaurant critic (Schoenfeld) or a writer on popular culture themselves claim that the 70s was a "golden age" or that the *word* "Sichuan" was in common usage don't shed much light on the OP's question. Could an adventurous diner in the 70s or 80s, in the US, order such simple staples of Sichuan cuisine as 夫妻肺片 or 水煮鱼, never mind the bewildering variety of dishes that Steve listed below?

                                                                                                                              Furthermore, my copy isn't handy but I believe that even armed with Mrs. Chiang's cookbook, which contains many authentic recipes, an adventurous cook wouldn't be able to cook *those* dishes or many others we take for granted now. Today, not only are these dishes present on the menu of *every* Sichuan place I've investigated, they're commonly found on the menu at restaurants run by people of many other ethnicities--at least if you can read the Chinese.

                                                                                                                              I can't speak for NYC, LA, or SF in the 70s or 80s. But neither can anyone else, unless they can provide actual, contemporaneous evidence, in the form of menus listing the dishes we take for granted today, or reviews discussing the dishes whose content isn't clear from their names. Neither scoopG's nor eatzalot's postings provide even the smallest morsel of evidence about the content of restaurant menus or the availability of food.

                                                                                                                              The Grand Sichuan's web site claims that Wu Liang Ye opened in 1993. TGS links to several contemporaneous reviews, the oldest from 1997, about the time TGS itself opened. Interestingly, one of the reviewers (Fabricant) reports that WLY "was started by a Chinese company from Sichuan to promote its pungent liquor of the same name." Sichuan Garden also opened the first of its two restaurants in 1997, presumably at its current location in Brookline.

                                                                                                                              Lao Sichuan opened its first location around 2002 and its second in 2005. Lao Sze Chuan's website is offline; the Wayback Machine can't find anything prior to 2003. Zoe's seems to have opened at about the same time. I'm not sure when "Chilli Garden" opened but I think it was around the same time; I was eating there as long ago as 2006.

                                                                                                                              In the past three years or so, Lao Sichuan has opened a third location and will soon have a fourth (!) location. New, presumably Sichuanese, owners have taken over "New Shanghai," "Thailand Cafe," and "Top Garden" in Boston, and "Hong Kong Palace" in DC, completely replacing their menus, but sadly not their English names, and *all* of those kitchens doing excellent work. "Sichuan Pavilion" has opened in Rockville, "Wa Jeal" and "Lan Sheng" in NYC. There's another Lao Sze Chuan in CT. And those are just the ones I know about.

                                                                                                                              Since 2000 or so, when I first moved to Boston, the number of Sichuanese restaurants has gone from 3 to about a dozen. I'm guessing that in NYC the number has at least doubled. In the DC area, despite the shortcomings of poverty and sprawl, we have two that I know of, with deep and diverse menus (much more so than the Boston restaurants or most of the NYC places I've investigated) and excellent kitchens. We've also gained several other places such as "Hunan Taste" and Grace Garden that are doing truly outstanding work in related traditions.

                                                                                                                              Even Minneapolis now has a Sichuan restaurant, whose menu will be completely familiar to anyone who's eaten at any of the places I mentioned.

                                                                                                                              So, I think the original poster was entirely correct in identifying a trend.

                                                                                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                KWagle, I'm sorry to read your statements that unlike some of us here, you did not experience (or learn much about) the 1970s Sichuan invasion or its numerous reflections in popular culture, some of which I've enumerated in this thread; nor did you experience "real Sichuan and Hunan cooking/restaurants" in the US until a decade ago; nor have you bothered to research (NOT generally online, of course) and find the many journalistic reviews of those restaurants, which did appear in print (I have some clippings back to about 1973, saved only randomly among many other restaurant reviews); and that you evidently haven't lived in US places, as I have, where the current vibrant Sichuan cooking scene was visible though smaller in past decades (I posted specifically about that, low in the thread, today)

                                                                                                                                But that certainly does not mean those things did not happen, nor that those of us who vividly remember and are writing specifically about them are somehow mistaken, even though the information that we have be inconsistent with your current personal perceptions. As another poster alluded, this is not just about offhand or armchair opinions (I believe the actual wording was, this isn't Yelp).

                                                                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                  I'm not saying those things didn't happen. I *am* saying that memory is fallible, and when, for example, you say "When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, Mass., Szechuan cooking was what we mostly ate when we went out to the several local Chinese restaurants" I want to know what dishes you were actually eating.

                                                                                                                                  What I don't want to hear, and yet hear repeatedly, are vague claims about vague things such as "the 1970s Sichuan invasion or its numerous reflections in popular culture”. Those things don't provide evidence about what dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques were actually available at the time. It's unclear to me why this is so hard for you to understand.

                                                                                                                                  scoopG actually summarized my position quite well. "What are your sources of information other than anecdotal information, opinions and mere speculation?" That's exactly what *I* am asking.

                                                                                                                                  If you *have* restaurant reviews or menus from the period under discussion, why not post them or quote from them?

                                                                                                                                  1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                    Let me see if I understand, KWagle. If you've read my writing here, you've seen testimony from me of continuous experiences of Sichuan food _since_ the 1970s and yet, not knowing me or anything about my background, attention to detail, or accuracy record, you presume to second-guess this testimony, on theoretical grounds since you were not present. Has it occurred to you how that comes across to someone who is, in fact, accurately summarizing a subject? From far wider experience and information than brief food-forum postings permit?

                                                                                                                                    Many people actually welcome firsthand information about subjects they were unfamiliar with. I repeatedly named a signature 1970s Sichuan dish I and MANY other people enjoyed (Kung Pao), and cited at least three pinpoint examples (in The Now Society, Fussell, and health letters) of the much wider and far-flung subject of reflections in the general popular culture of a US eating trend from the 1970s. The claims of vagueness above make me wonder if you did read my postings before commenting on them. But again, you can unearth for yourself as much information as you want to further substantiate what I've summarized, if willing to get down from standing on one leg and do the work.


                                                                                                                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                      Hannah Miller's 2006 academic paper "Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine" makes an interesting point.

                                                                                                                                      Page 28:
                                                                                                                                      "By the 1950's, eating Chinese was no longer exotic. The experience was standardized and predictable, as evidenced by a survey of Chinese restaurant menus dating from 1920 to 1980, in which the only perceptible change is the price." This seems to justify KWagle's perspective. However, there is a footnote to this statement:

                                                                                                                                      Footnote 17:
                                                                                                                                      The advent of cooking styles besides Cantonese, beginning in the 1970s, expanded the scope of the Chinese restaurant, but the traditional favorites remained easy to find.

                                                                                                                                      It's a long but engaging read. Highly recommended.


                                                                                                                                      Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                      1. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                        Thanks for the link (and for your other thoughtful comments here).

                                                                                                                                        And as I'm sure you realize, I've never suggested one can't find sets of Chinese menus (or even regions) where nothing but price changed significantly from 1920s through 1980s. That's not my argument at all. The problem arises, rather, when people extrapolate such a specific set of examples to characterize the whole US, as if clueless about trends that were so familiar to some of us food enthusiasts in the 1970s that we never imagined anyone later could miss them. (In peer-reviewing scholarly papers, we might send unwarranted generalizations like that back to the authors for "extensive revision.")

                                                                                                                                        I've experienced the geographical variability while traveling around the US the past few decades. For example, poking around the NYC area in 1980 with friends who knew Chinese restaurant neighborhoods I was surprised to notice several places of the chop-suey, "Chinese and American Food" genre (a format already archaic, even embarassing, in my West Coast experience). But on another large US food-discussion Web site, a manager born around 1970, who has written on Chinese restaurants from a New York perspective, fondly recalls some of the specialties of those places, even quirks like those little packets of "duck sauce" (colored sugar-water) that I've only personally encountered in Chinese restaurants around the Northeastern US; many people on the W. Coast probably never heard of them, and I haven't noticed them in random US Chinese-restaurant experiences elsewhere either.

                                                                                                                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                          As someone who grew up in central New Jersey eating what was essentially the trickled-down Chinese food of New York, I am intimately familiar with "duck sauce". I've also been curious as to the mysterious roots of this very regional condiment. No Chinese meal of my youth would have been complete without the requisite yin and yang bowls of "duck sauce" and blazingly hot mustard, accompanied by those deep fried noodles (I always preferred the flat, bubbly deep fried wonton skin strips over than the "La Choy" style crunchy, stale squiggles.) This was the universal "amuse bouche" at Chinese restaurants, in the same way bread and butter might be at an Itialian American joint. Noodle, dip, crunch. Then when your eggrolls arrived, the duck sauce and hot mustard was there to happily accent your second course.

                                                                                                                                          But to clarify, there's more depth of flavor than just "colored sugar-water"). "Duck sauce" is really a kind of apricot jam (but not quite.) The stuff in the little packets is often quite different than the stuff they would serve in those little wooden bowls at the restaurant... a much more highly dilute version.

                                                                                                                                          I have been able to find "duck sauce" available in Chinese and Korean(!) markets in Los Angeles, for those times when I absolutely need the right condiment for a delicious, homemade, "New York style" eggroll (I was forced to learn to make them myself when I failed to find a good/authentic version in Los Angeles.)

                                                                                                                                          But the real question is, what in the world do Koreans in Los Angeles do with duck sauce? That to me is the greatest mystery of all.

                                                                                                                                          Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                          1. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                            In Canada (and California, IIRC) it was plum sauce, a plum jammish concoction with some vinegar added. I never heard of duck sauce until coming here.

                                                                                                                                            1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                              In past researches and discussions with people familiar with it, I gathered that this "duck sauce" we refer to was originally or properly fruit-based. However, most of the packets I've examined in the US Northeast listed only sugar and coloring. (Such condiment debasements are hardly limited to duck sauce!) Wikipedia, if I remember, had entries or links explaining those origins. I hesitate to cite Wikipedia, because on other food and drink history, where I have primary-source or good reference books, Wikipedia can be badly misleading; authors didn't bother to check even the most obvious, standard, easily available reference book on the subject. It's a wonderful propagator of misconceptions.

                                                                                                                                              I'm learning, from this CH thread especially, that North America does not have one history of Chinese-restaurant cooking at all, but rather many local histories, each with separate influences, preferences, traditions, even terminology, and only loosely linked together. What goes for one doesn't automatically apply to others.

                                                                                                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                As Jennifer 8. Lee points out, McDonald's has managed to create a standardized menu and decor from their Illinois HQ. But in general, the Chinese in the USA have been able to do the same with most of the 40,000 Chinese restaurants here but with no centralized HQ! Maybe time to dig this two year old chestnut out. Look for the slide early on with two packets: one soy sauce and one duck sauce!


                                                                                                                                                1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                  There is of course no corporate office defining Chinese menus but don't underestimate the influence of food suppliers, including Kari-Out, which Jennifer 8. Lee discusses (I haven't read her book yet but saw another talk she gave). They appear to have largely saturated the sauce market for American Chinese take out, thus providing the paradigmatic sauce tastes. Their duck sauce appears to be the predominant version now. I assume there are other suppliers too, since so many versions of the same dish (like Sweet and Sour Chicken) look and taste identical across cities (there are always exceptions, of course).

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                    Good book. Kari-Out sells take out packets of soy and duck sauce and packages and containers. They are not selling manufactured sauces to Chinese restaurants. Sweet and Sour Sauce, as used in American-Chinese place is so easy to make.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                      Sorry, I should have been more clear--my point was that a large proportion of families ordering carry out are eating the very same sauces. When you order takeout, you often get Kari-Out with your won tons, egg roll, etc. I would guess that most people experience typical American Chinese as take-out, a theory largely based on the ubiquity of the take-out oriented Chinese restaurant, which every town seems to have.

                                                                                                                                                    2. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                      Scoop and hcky, you write casually of "standardized menu and decor" and "paradigmatic sauce tastes." My point in previous posting was precisely that what you take for granted in one US region is alien to another. Thus many customers around NYC admit a fondness for "duck sauce" packets, unfamiliar to much of the US. Just as the FAQ information for CH's SF Bay Area board has to explain to newcomers that XLB means Xia Long Bao because the term is fairly common.

                                                                                                                                                      I'm even gaining the impression from these recent comments that the Chinese restaurants in your areas, or at least Scoop's, run more uniform in menu than they do in my area. (Just recently I read of a nearby Shanghainese place with specialties, now under new ownership; a customer griped "everyone there is speaking in Mandarin now." In the same neighborhood is my favorite local MPTF source with Sichuanese chef and many of those "variety meats" specialties less common in the US (they ARE translated to English and they DON'T sell to non-Chinese diners, but they do sell to Chinese, who go there specifically for them). In my experience it has been NYC-area residents who are most likely to carelessly take for granted that their particular Chinese-restaurant landscape characterizes the whole US. I think they'd be much less inclined to do that if they spent much time visiting Chinese restaurants in my area or Seattle or Los Angeles, to say nothing of Vancouver.

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                        Of course there are differences! One can still see Chop Suey and old fashioned Chow Mein (with celery!) in many places. Lee's point is that for the most part, the vast majority of Chinese-American restaurants (say, 39,500?) in the USA have somehow managed to create, in general, this sameness of experience without a national HQ or CEO. Think of the truck driver who likes to order the lunch special of Egg Drop Soup, Sweet and Sour Pork with Fried Rice and Egg Roll on the side. Lee also has an excellent section where she gets into the dynamics if how these Chinese restaurants are sold (and purchased) in the USA with most customers not aware of any change in ownership. "Where's May?"
                                                                                                                                                        "She went back to China. I am her cousin and will be filling in."

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                          "... for the most part, the vast majority of Chinese-American restaurants (say, 39,500?) in the USA have somehow managed to create, in general, this sameness of experience without a national HQ or CEO."

                                                                                                                                                          Diners have managed that trick too. :-)

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                            Right, exactly. What I/we are saying is not that there aren't regional differences and many different kinds of restaurants even within a city (this is very true in Boston, for example), but that there is still a uniformity across many kinds of restaurants due to some "top-down" factors, such as large distributors. I am not talking about the kinds of restaurants you mention, eatzalot, but the more standard lunch special and take-out kind of joints that are many Americans' major interaction with Chinese food. You may be right that even Kari-Out has a limited reach, but I have definitely come across them in the three regions I have lived in: New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. In a Jan. 1995 New York Times article, the author notes that Kari-Out was on the verge of selling their billionth (BILLIONTH!) sauce packet. The article isn't online except if you have access to a database like Proquest, but the correction is: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/29/nyr.... That was fifteen years ago.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                              That is a really interesting point. Thanks for sharing the video link- I really enjoyed it. I've already placed a hold at the library for Lee's book.

                                                                                                                                                              Although I was certainly aware of it, I had never quite thought about the national "standardization" of Chinese food in that way (as open sourced "linux" style, rather than the top-down Ray Kroc/McDonald's style of standardization). It is quite extraordinary. One further example of this standardization was a source of endless hilarity for me and my friends when we were teenagers. At virtually every independently owned mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant we went to in the early 90s, the chopsticks were printed with *almost* the same poorly translated English:

                                                                                                                                                              "Welcome to Chinese Restaurant.
                                                                                                                                                              please try your Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks
                                                                                                                                                              the traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history.
                                                                                                                                                              and cultulal."

                                                                                                                                                              Sometimes "cultulul" was spelled correctly. Sometimes the punctuation was different. Sometimes the words "Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks" were not made into proper nouns. But it was essentially the *same* message, with tiny variations. A linguistic representation of that exact same "linux" style model of standardization: same-same but different.

                                                                                                                                                              In more recent times I've seen this message on chopstick packets, but the message seems to have been (mostly) fixed.

                                                                                                                                                              I always wondered about how this all came to be. Although I still don't know exactly, Lee's lecture helps me to understand the bigger picture just a little better.

                                                                                                                                                              Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                                That "39,500" comment and the "almost all" and "there may be exceptions, of course" expressions here illustrate what I mean about unconscious generalizations. I need to check Jennifer "8" Lee's book, but when I spoke to her on a Southern California talk-show interview she came across as rather youthful and, in my impression, glib. If she indeed checked 40,000 restaurants before writing, then she did more than 10 a day even if she spent 10 years.

                                                                                                                                                                My region of the San Francisco Bay Area with (in very round numbers) one-twentieth of the US population certainly has more than the US's average immigrant or ethnic Chinese population percentage and more than the average Chinese restaurant density. (A popular data base lists about 3000 currently.) Some, especially in suburbs with limited Chinese populations, will certainly have the egg-roll and fluorescent sweet-sour pork emphasis. Note also that in this region those tend NOT to be the most affluent suburbs, because the ethnic Chinese population tends to have above-average education and income. But whether this point gets across or not, we have far more diversity in Chinese restaurant cultures here than some of you presuppose as universal across the US. Unless 2500 of our 3000 are very similar, and NO other part of the US (even the Western US) has any Chinese restaurants outside of the uniform model, the number 39500, even as rhetoric, is unrealistic.

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                  Unconscious generalizations? How about conscious ones! No one said Jennifer 8. Lee visited or checked 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the USA. She actually cites in her footnotes the figure 43,000; based on 2007 numbers from "Chinese Restaurant News," a bi-lingual trade magazine. Today, "Chinese Restaurant News" puts the figure at 46,000 with annual sales of US$ 20 billion. My point on the whimsical number 39,500 is that the super majority of Chinese restaurants in the USA serve American-Chinese glop.

                                                                                                                                                                  What are you basing your generalizations and opinions about the Bay area and the Chinese population on? I suggest you take a look at "Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation" by Min Zhou. (Temple University Press; Philadelphia, 2009.)

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                                    Scoop, um, try reading the wide-ranging Chinese-restaurant discussions on the SF Chowhound forum for a few months. Some are going on now. (I think it's the largest non-chain restaurant genre in my region, unlike my experience living and traveling in the Northeast. Which in turn is strong in genres that we could use more of here. N.B., I don't assert anything much about Chinese "population," just Chinese restaurants.)

                                                                                                                                                                    Further, eating Chinese restaurant food all around my region for 30 years (over 2000 meals at 1-2 a week; usually it's more often -- some of the restaurants are very good!) surely imparts a little perspective on the region's Chinese restaurants. Independent of which, by asserting ANYthing as universal (or a "super-majority"), you create a much greater burden of proof than to show it isn't universal (I thought that was obvious). In my experience, it has been less universal (or geographically consistent) than you extrapolate from your experience..

                                                                                                                                                                    I agree there's a mainstream US Chinese-restaurant model as some of you describe. Surely a majority of US Chinese restaurants practice a menu sameness accommodating their perceived market. (Precisely as they choose to translate dishes or not, according to the perceived market. However many times anyone here keeps reading their own assumptions into that practice, instead of seeing it from the perspective that created it, the Chinese restaurateur's.) I notice this sameness much more in some regions than others, and you already know from this thread that some customs (dish names, "duck sauce") are far from uniform across the US.

                                                                                                                                                                    Anyway, happy holidays to all, and may you find good dining in the future!

                                                                                                                                                            2. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                              Strangely, on a trip to Manhattan's Chinatown, we noticed that more than one Fuzhou place had the exact list of dishes in takeout menu, down to the match between item number and dish. Colour, and restaurant names/logo were different.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: limster

                                                                                                                                                                I've noticed something similar over the past many years. For instance, Manhattan's Empire Szechuan Gourmet chain of restaurants has a dish on their menu described as "a splendiferous array of vegetables" - not a phrase I consider especially common. Yet I see it on a number of menus for restaurants not associated with that chain. And not just in Manhattan, according to this:


                                                                                                                                                                1. re: small h

                                                                                                                                                                  Probably one of the synonyms given as translation for the term in Chinese in a Chinese-English dictionary. That's how some of the more picturesque menu translations that so many people love to deride and post endless lists of originate.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: small h

                                                                                                                                                                    Amongst some Chinese, there is a cultural tradition of trying to emulate success. For example, many years ago in the San Gabriel Valley (LA area), there was a successful Cantonese restaurant. I think it was called "ABC". Later came other restaurants named"NBC" and "CBS". I may have mixed the order. There was no CNN, and NBC eventually outlasted the others in popularity. That has also been the case with yogurt stores, foot massage establishments, and bridal shops in the San Gabriel Valley. Sometimes, they are located right next to each other.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                                                                                                      That makes sense, but it would be more applicable to this case if a non-ESG restaurant called itself New Empire Szechuan Gourmet or Emperor's Szechuan Gourmet. But to copy the description of one dish? Seems very odd.

                                                                                                                                                                      Buttertart's explanation may be the correct one, although I'm pretty surprised that the word "splendiferous" found its way into a Chinese-English dictionary.

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: small h

                                                                                                                                                                        There's a Shanghai dish whose name is rendered as "pork pump" at least in the LA area. It should have probably been named "pork rump", but because it was popular in one restaurant here, a number of restaurants now have "pork pump".

                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                                                                                                          At this time I would like to raise the possibility that all those restaurants use the same printing company for their menus. Which is probably what happened with the splendiferosity.

                                                                                                                                                            3. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                              I remember the "fruit based" duck sauce that was served in dishes or containers whenever we ordered roast duck. My parents didn't like it, but the kids certainly did. But it was definitely different from the duck sauce in the packages.

                                                                                                                                                          2. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                            At Grace Garden in Odenton, MD the chef from Hong Kong made us a homemade 'duck sauce' he served with our Pi Pa Duck. It was somewhat similar to the concoction you get in Chinese-American places, except a lot of care went into this, including some very finely minced Chinese cucumber.

                                                                                                                                                        2. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                          Yes, great link. Have scanned it quickly and now will have to read it in more depth.

                                                                                                                                                  2. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                                    Generic texts? Writer on popular culture? Who?

                                                                                                                                                    What are your sources of information other than anecdotal information, opinions and mere speculation? Ed Schoenfeld is not a critic but has opened and/or consulted on the opening of several Chinese restaurants in NYC over the past 30 years and has traveled widely in China and Taiwan.

                                                                                                                                                    Will have to check with Harley Spiller I guess:

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                      Sorry. Having lost that text three times due to Chowhound's sketchy Web software, I left out the name of the writer on popular culture to whom I refer, namely Paul Fussell.

                                                                                                                                                      I only heard about the Spiller collection a few months ago. You can certainly imagine how much I'd like to dig through it.

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                                        My good friend Anya talks about NYC in the 1970s and early 1980’s as having four Sichuan Restaurants. You may not see any of the Sichuan dishes that you are calling for but that does not mean they were not available!

                                                                                                                                                        For a NYC overview, here is Gael Greene’s April 2, 1979 NY Magazine article:


                                                                                                                                                        Now, on to the Gang of Four:

                                                                                                                                                        1.) Hwa Yuan at 40 East Broadway
                                                                                                                                                        There is a NY Magazine review dated February 26, 1973. It would be easier to google that than to try to paste the link here. I would not say the reviewer, who enjoyed the food displays any deep knowledge of the cuisine or gives us a full peak at the menu.


                                                                                                                                                        Gael Greene's April 27, 1979 NY Magazine review:

                                                                                                                                                        “Spirited followers of the Szechuan faith long ago discovered Hwa Yuan, with its masterfully steamed carp in a pungent hot sauce ($6.25*), refreshing pork-and-radish soup ($2.25), tripe with scallions and ginger ($4.50), zestily spiced eggplant ($3.95), and hot, sliced ginger shrimp ($6.95). The cold delicacies are more primitive here than the best uptown – meats and birds together, less carefully cut – but the sauces can be wonderful, especially the nutty dynamite gloss on the “wonderful taste chicken” ($3.95*).

                                                                                                                                                        But for now let’s simply celebrate the best steaming casserole tasted on this crusade: Hwa Yuan’s pork meatballs in an earthenware pot ($7.95, enough for eight) – fluffy meatballs, black mushrooms, bamboo, and cellophane noodles in a powerful broth.

                                                                                                                                                        2.) Ting Fu on Pell Street.


                                                                                                                                                        3.) Szechuan Pavilion on E. 44th Street

                                                                                                                                                        Review here by Raymond Sokolov of NY Magazine on October 27, 1980. (Maybe Bing this one?) Ten chefs imported from Sichuan here and Sokolov notes that the food is not dumbed-down, American-Chinese style.

                                                                                                                                                        Mimi Sheraton reviewed SP for the NY Times on March 13, 1981 but seems woefully uninformed.

                                                                                                                                                        4.) Szechuan Taste at 23 Chatham Square.
                                                                                                                                                        Could not find anything online except this:


                                                                                                                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                          Thank you for posting these links. Very eye-opening.

                                                                                                                                                          Looks like there was a Sichuan discovery. Certainly in NYC. I am unclear if this discovery was truly regional or took anywhere else 'by storm.'

                                                                                                                                                          On the East Coast, I don't think this got to Philly, Baltimore, or DC. On the West Coast it is unclear if this reached past SF and LA. Could it be that the 'explosion' is overstated, and not as deep as it is today?

                                                                                                                                                          So I think this trend or fashion reached a certain point and then faded... if not physically, then certainly from any larger social consciousness. Maybe like how every five years the cover story of Newsweek proclaims "Jazz is Back."

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                            I think what happened in other locales across the USA was the introduction of various Sichuan dishes or Hunan for example. I recall seeing lettering in restaurant windows in the midwest proclaiming the Chinese restaurant served:
                                                                                                                                                            "Mandarin - Szechuan - Hunan" etc.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                              I grew up in the MIdwest and certainly saw those signs. And I still see them in the restaurants I drive past. However, what I saw were *words* posted in windows. When I went inside those restaurants searching for actual *food* from those regions, I never found *that*. I had to turn to Mrs. Chiang if I wanted to eat instead of read. Introduction of signs in windows was not correlated with introduction of dishes into menus.

                                                                                                                                                              To say this another way: I saw some restaurants named "Hong Kong Palace, or "New Shanghai," or "Thailand Cafe." All I found inside *those* places was Sichuan food. (Damn good in all three cases, BTW.)

                                                                                                                                                              Good thing I was actually *looking* for Sichuan food, and also a good thing that someone could read the Chinese signs and publicize the changes in ownership.

                                                                                                                                                              Or, to quote whoever it was,

                                                                                                                                                          2. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                            Thanks! that is exactly the kind of information I wanted to see. Now to go home and read it!

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                                              Thanks for all your thoughts, all of which I find very helpful. Like most historical questions, I don't think there is any "right" answer to this one and evaluation is ultimately based on one's perception and interpretation of quantitative and qualitative information. Whether something is a "trend" or an "explosion" or something else is a matter of degree and it would be hard to say one is correct or incorrect. It may be that the trend of the 1970s, especially in NY, was a first wave and we are now in a second. Maybe those restaurants influenced another generation of chefs who started their own restaurants in subsequent years or helped create a broader reception among diners. Maybe its been a building movement or has always been there, but more or less invisible--as someone said above, even a restaurant serving bastardized Szechuan may have been serving other dishes to those who knew to ask, or to their own staff.

                                                                                                                                                              I do think oral history and textual documentation are equally valid in a discussion like this. Food is something you experience and remember, and even though memory is fleeting that doesn't mean that someone's testimony is not valid, at least to my mind. I have enjoyed hearing reminiscences and value them as much as menus or reviews, all of which have helped develop a story about something that we all can agree we enjoy eating. Culinary history would become very impoverished quickly if we couldn't depend equally on the whole battery of sources at our disposal.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                                Yes, hckybg. This is a great thread. As the screenwriting guru Robert McKee proclaims: "Facts are always neutral. It is the interpretation of them that is not!"

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                                  Thanks hckybg. You could have added something about the phenomenon of eyewitnesses to history who are contradicted by someone who did not experience what they did, but still argues against it because it conflicts with some later notion. It's a phenomenon I've seen a lot on the Internet in the last 25 years and I believe it helps to sustain misconceptions.

                                                                                                                                                                  Pursuing a query of my own about cookbooks, I posted a spin-off thread that includes some further information related to this one:


                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                    Indeed... in my suburban New Jersey childhood of the 1970s and 80s, I was about as far detached from anything authentically Chinese as anyone could be. I remember the occasional "Szechwan"-labeled restaurants and random "Szechwan" items on menus, but they were hardly representative of anything one could actually find and consume in Sichuan province.

                                                                                                                                                                    In fact, to my unenlightened mind "Szechwan" was a meaningless term with no real substance. It could have read "Szechwan" or "Guangdong" or "Chang Chung"` or any made up term sounding even vaguely Chinesey, as none of the words had any meaning to the 1970's Caucasian suburbanite family going out for dinner. (Other terms did in fact have meanings to us, such as "chow mein" and "mu shu", even if ordering those items resulted in inauthentic plop, unrecognizable by Chinese people.)

                                                                                                                                                                    However, I would never declare that my lack of experience with anything authentically Sichuan would belie another person's experiences to the contrary. In fact, it actually makes quite a lot of sense to me that those bland, inauthentic "Szechwan" dishes on my central New Jersey Chinese takeaway menu were the result of a resurgent popularly of the stuff in New York City. It makes sense to me that the name trickled down from the trendmakers in the city, even if the food itself did not.

                                                                                                                                                                    Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                                      Mr Taster, the idea of bland inauthentic dishes labeled "Szechwan" strikes me as downright cruel! Not only are the recipes from Sichuan in my experience rather straightforward to cook -- it has been called a forthright cuisine, and cai gou upthread described the very direct flavors -- but the US population includes some strong traditional tastes for spicy food (geographically inconsistent, like everything else), especially from the Southeast to New Mexico and in the coastal port regions where the populations tend to be more international.

                                                                                                                                                                      I guess I was spoiled because (as mentioned in the linked book query) some Chinese cooks, of whatever origin, were pushing forthright flavors that I later recognized as typically Sichuanese in my home town of Berkeley (which for its modest size is crammed with international restaurants and diners who appreciate them) to the point that we students circa 1974 would go out in groups and compete to see who could handle the hottest dishes. Then seeing an amateur friend prepare superb authentic vivid Kung Pao got me really hooked. I still recall that particular dinner. "Nothing remains so firmly in the mind as a dish [enjoyed]" ( Philéas Gilbert, quoted on an accidental 1759 invention of "chaud-froid" dishes, _Larousse Gastronomique_ Crown 1961 ed.)

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                        I hate to disagree but we lived in Berkeley in the mid-70's and I remember nothing that was authentic Sichuan food there at the time. Some decent Chinese food (the Yangtze River, Taiwan Restaurant) but I didn't experience the real thing until we went to Taipei. (We were at Cal in east Asian studies, primarily Chinese history and language, and I read as widely as possible in the materials then available in English on Chinese food.)

                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                                                          Buttertart, I don't think you're disagreeing so much as reporting your own dining experiences which differed. (If we were at all the same restaurants, especially if we were at the same tables, then we would have closely common experiences on which to draw separate conclusions.)

                                                                                                                                                                          Sketch of long subject: In Berkeley continuously from middle 1950s to late 1970s I grew up in a food-fanatic household (parents talked about truffles and matzoon, roasted their own coffee, made own yoghurt and bread and beer -- making beer was then illegal). Through the middle 60s, Berkeley "Chinese" food (often take-out) to our family meant (other than one little non-
                                                                                                                                                                          Sichuan regional Chinese place which was my favorite restaurant until it closed in 1969) things like chow mein and chop suey from a place advertising "Chinese and American Food," a phrase I later saw much more in the Northeast including NYC, where some gringo traditions like colored sugar-water "duck sauce," which never caught on in the Bay Area, remain. (Around 1975, in a famous report, columnist Herb Caen mentioned one high-class San Francisco Chinese restaurateur who, asked for chop suey by a table, replied very professionally and apologetically that his restaurant served only Chinese food!)

                                                                                                                                                                          In the late 60s we started visiting a restaurant I recall as King Tsin on College Avenue in Berkeley or Oakland (long gone I think; a much later restaurant of the same name now exists across town). In online discussions, other locals too recall King Tsin vividly from the same time. There was where I, and others, started tasting a lot of ginger and garlic and hot peppers and I sat up and took notice. Then I got instruction about the Chinese cuisines from a fellow adolescent neighbor whose émigré-Chinese family ran another newer restaurant in town, and I picked up some idea of what Sichuan food was. Places offering Sichuan specialties often had Taiwanese connections in those days, and I assume they didn't have Sichuanese chefs, but they accommodated public appetite for spicy dishes. (Including the two restaurants you named: I probably ate at each of those 40-60 times in the 70s, that's a realistic estimate). It was my memory of some of those dishes, reconfirmed in slightly later experiences learning about making things like Kung Pao, and later-still experiences seeing recipes direct from Sichuan, and dishes from real Sichuanese cooks, that underlies my mention of early Sichuan dining experience in Berkeley. It was widely scattered among other dishes, and maybe not scholarly Fuchsia-Dunlop authentic, but sometimes it was exactly what I can make today with recipes from Sichuan. Again, "Nothing remains so firmly in the mind as a dish [enjoyed]" ( Philéas Gilbert)!

                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                            I hadn't thought of King Tsin in a million years. Yes there were Sichuan dishes available but I don't remember comng across real mapo doufu for example (not the sweet brown sauce kind) or really anything else much (and we were on the lookout since I in particular never met a hot dish I didn't enjoy). Odd how our memories are so different.
                                                                                                                                                                            The Yangtze River had a nice Northern brunch which I wish were more readily available here in NYC. Their menu skewed more Northern as I recall.

                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                                                              (Corrected:) 2001 CH link below discusses a King Tsin but it's the place across town (Solano Avenue), which I also knew well -- not the one I referred to above. So either the name was different (King Something, maybe King Tu but another restaurant, near UCB, opened by 1975 with a King name and I may be thinking of that) or the names duplicated. The place on College Ave., whatever name, opened up eyes in 1968 about Chinese cooking's range, and forthright use of spices. It's remarkable how quickly things like Pekinese "pot stickers" became mainstream in Berkeley, when the first place I ever saw them even offered there was King [Tsin?], calling them Kuo Teh in 1968. Which -- damn, I swear I can still taste them! -- also were some of the best I ever had. Uninhibited use of ginger, almost "hot" with it, and they were very juicy, I think the pork inside was of high quality and didn't spare the fat. Cutting into them was as perilous to nearby clean linens as cutting into an intact freshly grilled sausage. And in the more delicate dishes, King [Tsin?] used extremely fresh and good-quality vegetables.

                                                                                                                                                                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/17271 [other place


                                                                                                                                                                              Same region experienced a parallel situation in 1980, incidentally, when genuine uninhibited Thai food, cooked by immigrants from there, appeared at a quickly popular restaurant (Siam Cuisine). Though available in the Bay Area since the '60s, Siam Cuisine, so to say, lit Thai food on fire. It also published a cookbook speaking luridly of floating layers of wickedly-hot green oil ... Others opened in 1980 (including Bangkok Spoon in Mountain View, where I cited some other restaurants recently) and by 1983 there were Thai-run Thai restaurants in every Berkeley neighborhood and many nearby towns.

                                                                                                                                                                              As an expert, you might be able to answer a question pending since 1982. A newish restaurant then near Berkeley called Chin Szchwan, or a like spelling, like Szechwan but with only the second vowel letter, surfaced in a SF-Chronicle list of top Bay Area restaurants and I enjoyed some excellent food there. Question is, was its name just a minor typo error or do you know of a similar word that might have been intentional, and fit the context?

                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                                - We lived on Berkeley Way near Shattuck so the two places I mentioned were our main haunts (also the Huo Guo House, remember it?).
                                                                                                                                                                                - "Potsticker" was coined by the late, great Y.R. Chao, distinguished professor of Chinese in the OL department - was emeritus by the time we got there, my husband met him once. The term caught on much more in the Bay Area than in any other part of the US, probably because of his presence/influence. They're still mainly called fried dumplings in NYC. "Stir-fry" is also his, incidentally.
                                                                                                                                                                                - I have great memories of Siam Cuisine, still some of the best Thai food I've eaten (their chili fried rice is unequalled to date).
                                                                                                                                                                                - Szchwan for Sichuan (Pinyin) is correct in the Yale system of romanization, one of the main ones (Wade-Giles and Pinyin, the one standard since 1982 by decree of the ISO are the other two most common in the English-speaking world). Not a mistake and it is the same word.
                                                                                                                                                                                - In addition to the standard systems there are looser, more ad hoc transliterations (common to this day in Taiwan) and Szechwan comes from that.
                                                                                                                                                                                - Sidebar on Y.R. Chao - he invented a romanization system in which the tones were integrated into the spelling - it isn't in common use but would be a great boon to people starting to learn Chinese.
                                                                                                                                                                                - Sidebar on Pinyin - some of the letters chosen for certain sound vaules (q for example) seem odd to English speakers - the system was invented in cooperation with Russian advisors who based it in part on Russian spellings.

                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                                                                  The name "pot sticker" is a literal translation of the Mandarin name for fried dumplings. After reading this thread, I must add my own $0.02 in that the Szechwan cuisine found in the US were made mostly via immigrants from Taiwan (or Hong Kong) who brought their cuisine with them when they left the Mainland in 1949 (or afterwards). It wasn't until the 1980s that the first immigrants started to arrive from the PRC. I didn't really notice the prevalence of really authentic and spicy Sichuanese food and restaurants in DC until the 2000s (not that I was really paying attention). The ma la stuff braised in chili oil was unknown in the NYC Chinatown of the 1970s.

                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: dpan

                                                                                                                                                                                    I know it's the literal translation - guo=pot tie=stick/stuck - but it was Y.R. Chao who popularized the word.

                                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                                                                    buttertart, it took me long enough to organize the following that it doesn't (alas) appear right after your posting that it responds to, but I have specific replies and info about two of your old Berkeley favorites recalled above. This side topic is extremely local, and I wanted to solicit more Berkeley recollections, so I put it on the Bay Area forum:


                                                                                                                                                                                    Incidentally on a separate historical point, I don't know if dpan has adult recollections of the 1970s, but it's clear to me that some people posting arguments here using dates and immigration quotas did not personally experience the era they refer to, at least not in the same US locations I did. If they did, they would know that those tidy textbook details, even if accurate statistically, are irrelevant to the realities of many people who did come to the US from all over China, including _by way of_ Taiwan or HK or other regions with which the US had much closer relations than it did with PRC at the time. I personally met many PRC-born people in the US, some of them recently arrived, before 1980.

                                                                                                                                                                              2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                                I find these Sichuan-Taiwan connections odd, to say the least. As someone who is married to a lovely Taiwanese woman, and have eaten my share of food across Taiwan, I can tell you that Taiwanese cuisine tends to be pretty spice averse. Dishes from other parts of China (and elsewhere in the world) tend to be adapted to Taiwanese tastes (which is to say they often have an underlying layer of sweetness). Viscous, glutenous tidbits are very popular, as is star anise which creeps up in countless dishes. Think of the classic sichuan dish mapo tofu, which loses it's spice and becomes kind of sweet when the Taiwanese get a hold of it.

                                                                                                                                                                                Now, by no means am I saying that you couldn't find spicy Sichuan food in Taiwan (you probably can somewhere in Taipei, though I have never sought it out). But it does seem curious to me that a culture with very little spicy food traditions would somehow find a way to transfer these completely alien tastes (from a region of China thousands of miles away) to a completely foreign country (also, thousands of miles away).

                                                                                                                                                                                Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Mr Taster

                                                                                                                                                                                  Refugees from all over the Mainland arrived in Taiwan in 1949 and most brought their culinary traditions with them. Yes, Taiwanese food is bland by comparison, but the mainlanders kept their food traditions alive. Some of them emigrated to the United States starting in the late 60s after the restrictions were lifted. That's probably now the first non-Cantonese restaurants got started here. I recall the food at these early Szechwanese restaurants to be a bit spicy, but never recalled seeing the extensive use of ma la or chili oils that you see today. I think that it's the new arrivals directly from the Mainland that got the current craze for really spicy Sichuanese food started.

                                                                                                                                                  3. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                    "Across the country, new Chinese restaurants opened up and top chefs were brought in from Taiwan and Hongkong"

                                                                                                                                                    You know how one can tell a good Szechwan place from a bad one? Make sure you don't go to one where you can here Cantonese or Taiwanese back in the kitchen. Due to the lack of large mainland immigration waves until the last 10 years or so (American Chinatowns spoke exclusively Cantonese/Toishanese until the last 10-15 years or so) and the lack of a diaspora consumer demand critical mass for the food of their homeland, I will refute based on population statistics alone that it is impossible to have good and authentic Szechwan food in the 70s. The closest thing available at that time would have been some bland, overbreaded kung pao chicken.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                                                                                                                      Over 1,000,000 mainland Chinese fled with Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan in 1949. I will start looking to see what figures there are on how many were from Sichuan, how many Hunanese chefs were in the bunch etc. What population statistics are you citing?

                                                                                                                                                      Flushing, NY is a good example. Its start as an ethnic enclave began in 1949, when the UN started meeting in NY. Construction work had begun on the Manhattan cite and the UN met in Lake Success, NY. Unable to afford the more expensive housing on the north shore of Long Island, the Chinese (Taiwan at the time) delegation settled on Flushing as the place to live. When the UN building in Manhattan opened in 1951, the Chinese remained behind. The Chinese (and then Korean) population exploded in the 1970's there.

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                        Non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese have only begun to migrate to the US in the not-too-distant past, whereas Cantonese people have long dominated the language, food, and culture of Chinese-American communities in the US. Prior to 1965 - over 60% of all Chinese in the United States came from a single county in Guangdong province, and Cantonese dialects were the undisputed lingua franca of the Chinese communities everywhere in N. America. That's what I meant by population statistics - there simply isn't the critical mass required to sustain any sort of authentic and good Szechwan (just like there is a dearth of acceptable Cantonese dining in Taipei or Beijing - despite its supposed popularity there). While you are correct in stating that Mainlanders fled to Taiwan post-1949, they (and their descendants) make up less than 15% of Taiwan's population. Their immigration numbers to the US are far overshadowed by the Cantonese-speakers, hence the overwhelming influence of Cantonese food and culture until recently. There were a few places in major metro areas around the 70s that opened (as you and some others have already mentioned), but quickly succumbed to conforming mediocrity fairly quickly - if they weren't bad to begin with as a good number of them were likely to be Cantonese-owned and simply added a few "spicy" dishes - although this is an indication of a transitional period as the immigration numbers of Mainlanders started to ramp up.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                                                                                                                          What is your definition of the "not too distant past?

                                                                                                                                                          Chinese-American population in the USA rose from 240,000 in 1960 to 2.9 million in 2000. The mainland Chinese who descended on Taiwan in 1949 - as represented by the KMT - dominated Taiwan and ruled the island with a ruthless iron fist for 40 years. (Ever head of or read about 二二八 - er er ba?)

                                                                                                                                                          Again, as mentioned already, Flushing is a great example of the post WWII, post 1965 Immigration Act influx of the new Chinese immigrants from Taiwan and mainland China.

                                                                                                                                                          I am reminded of the story told on Deng Xiaoping's first visit to America. When informed at a meeting by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Washington) that, with normalization of the USA and China relations now law, China would have to allow legal emmigration of her citizens to the USA, Deng replied: "How many would you like?"

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                            Deng Xiaoping had quite the gift of gab.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                                                                                              And a world class Bridge player to boot! Here's another story. In April of 1972, Nixon presented the Chinese with a gift of two musk oxen. Years later, at a banquet in Beijing, an American official asked Deng Xiaoping how the musk oxen were doing. Deng replied, "They were delicious!"

                                                                                                                                              2. I remember the first Sichuan wave in suburban NY the mid-70s. Really, it was a Hunan-wave with Sichuan inflections. By the late 70s, "Cantonese" was a term of derision. So these waves come and go, and have for a long time.

                                                                                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                1. re: Karl S

                                                                                                                                                  Was this a wave of actual food, or of nomenclature? Which Hunan dishes did you eat and what were they like?

                                                                                                                                                2. szechuan food appeared in NYC in the mid 70's, and was widespread by the 80's.

                                                                                                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                                                                                                    I am unfamiliar with NYC food trends. Would you say there are as many (or higher percentage of) Sichuan restaurants in NYC in the 80s as there are now? More? How about Sichuan items on other Chinese menus, or does that not exist in NYC?

                                                                                                                                                    Us folks out in the hinterlands are always behind the times!

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: thew

                                                                                                                                                      But by the early 90s the number and quality had markedly declined. We lost both the Flushing and Chinatown branches of Hwa Yuan during those years. The crappy places remained which served lame and bland generic dishes.

                                                                                                                                                      It wasn't until the early 2000s that things turned around with the arrival of Spicy & Tasty and the Grand Sichuan International mini chain. It's gotten better each year since then.

                                                                                                                                                    2. I thought it interesting that according to a Serious Eats blog entry yesterday Boston unexpectedly has become the best city for Szechuan food. And, not just Boston but the suburbs as well.


                                                                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Gio

                                                                                                                                                        There is a lot of great Szechuan here, I have been to several of the places they mention. I don't know where it would rank against other cities but it is very comparable, especially for a relatively medium-sized city. Interestingly, Boston also has a great amount of other Chinese cuisines well-represented too, especially Taiwanese.

                                                                                                                                                      2. Getting back to the OP, I seem to have learned a few things from this thread:

                                                                                                                                                        Apparently there was a Sichauan food boom as early as the 60s, according to eatzalot and scoop g. I am not sure how widespread or satisying the product was, aside from a couple of anecdotes. Importing chefs from Taiwan or Hongkong do not instantly translate (!) into solid Sichuanese cuisine. But I am certainly open to the idea.

                                                                                                                                                        I know from my own experience that in the Washington DC area there is a numeric and qualitative trend in Sichuan food since 2001.

                                                                                                                                                        So the question for me is: Are there more SIchuan restaurants in NYC now than even 5 or 10 years ago? Did the places form the 60s go away and come back? How far did this trend penetrate? Did it ever get away from the coasts? What is the situation now away from the coasts? Are there more Sichuan places now than 5 or 10 years ago?

                                                                                                                                                        10 Replies
                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                          Steve, I gather that you personally don't recall the US Sichuan invasion of the 1970s, but to the point of how widespread and satisfying it was, I've already given pointers to a few of many little manifestations of its infiltration into mainstream US culture. You can find much more about that if willing to labor as historians do, to unearth what people were saying _at the time_ (even if for some reason you don't credit the necessarily hasty testimony here on CH from those of us who remember it all quite vividly). Then you'll see that the broader trend I touched on in a few representative remarks isn't itself in any sense anecdotal. Some people here also, again I guess for lack of the relevant past experience, seem glued to the explanation of semi-Sichuan cooking practiced by, say, Cantonese or Taiwanese cooks and while that certainly happened and continues in the US (just as today, near me, the majority of"Thai" restaurants are owned or operated by Vietnamese-immigrant families and the majority of "Mediterranean" by Turks), it does NOT accurately represent the _Sichuanese_ chefs and writers who in the 1970s popularized Sichuanese dishes of the same style and authenticity I find today from respected Sichuanese chefs.

                                                                                                                                                          Another telltale I omitted earlier was the US mainstreaming of "kung-pao" dishes which, more than any other Sichuan specialty I can recall, introduced los gringos to Sichuan cooking in the 70s. So familiar had that dish become by the 1980s that I recall someone in public health as well as at least one of those popular "health letters," by Consumer Reports or the like, warning consumers about the fat content of kung-pao dishes (meat with peanuts deep-fried in oil, no less!) which then shared with fettucine Alfredo the puritanical put-down "heart attack on a plate!"

                                                                                                                                                          I've seen in this thread some speculations by people who didn't themselves experience the times and circumstances I've reported here, yet are happy to contradict or second-guess eyewitnesses (or demand to be satisfied while standing on one foot) in defense of some current notion they've acquired about the past. (It's not as bad as when newly minted wine geeks contradict testimony about what US wine media were actually like 30 years ago, from people who not only were reading the publications but still have them handy; but this is what solidifies and popularizes misconceptions.)

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                            Thank you for your reasoned response. I am still wondering if these places went away and came back, or simply never went away, and nobody took notice until internet sites like Chowhound took off. I started living in the DC area in 1976, and I do not recollect a hint of Sichuan food.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                              Steve, I'll reiterate from earlier that what I observed in the 1970s was located in large coastal population centers and (like the advent of the public Internet) was utterly inconsistent across the US. What people experienced in DC need not be in any way consistent with what they saw in, say, Berkeley. But once attuned to the Sichuan fashion in the 1970s, you'd easily spot the national references to it in such offhand examples I cited as "The Now Society," Fussell's book, and public-health information.

                                                                                                                                                              (In Montana in the early 90s we were surprised to see a special at the local café, "Oriental Chicken Salad" including an exotic "oriental" dressing. The language was stilted even then, and the story will gratify the Inauthenticists here -- AFAIK, "Chinese" chicken salad is an American invention, like spaghetti-and-meatballs or the modern pizza -- but MY point is, it was the cliché business-lunch dish of the entire 1970s here in silicon valley, and yet a few states away it was novel in 1992.)

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                I think one of the questions that Steve is implicitly asking, and one that doesn't necessarily contradict your larger point, is whether the mainstreaming of Kung Pao to the point that it became part of public health announcements is a consequence of a truer version of Szechuan becoming Americanized or a sign that it was Americanized into Kung Pao-type variants from the start. Was fried chicken with hot peppers a la Chongqing Chicken gradually turned into Kung Pao in the 1970s, or did Kung Pao arrive as one of the first "Szechuan" dishes in Chinese restaurants in America?

                                                                                                                                                                P.S. My understanding is that Chinese Chicken Salad was probably invented in LA, as early as the 1960s or even the 1930s, according to Saveur:

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                                  Kung pao (and various other spellings, e.g. gong bao) has a perfectly respectable history in China, including being renamed during the Cultural Revolution (see Dunlop, Land of Plenty). It's a stir-fry with peanuts and dried chilis, which is how I had it in the 70s; since then I have seen some nasty riffs along the battered/deepfried chunks with gloppy sauce line.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                                    hckybg, this thread surfaced multiple separate developments that people variously observed or speculated about. One of those developments is what I and some others have tried to report from first-hand, the emergence and popularization, rather abruptly and intact, of authentic Sichuan cooking in US restaurants and cookbooks in the 1970s. Formerly unheard-of dishes like Kung Pao were suddenly not only available in good Chinese restaurants and done WELL (the US has always had plenty of bad restaurants, Chinese included, a distraction largely irrelevant here) but also fashionable, cooked at home, and discussed on TV. The "public-health" spillover I cited followed kung-pao chicken's abrupt popularity. The numbing and dumbing of this dish into forms salable in shopping-mall food courts was a much SLOWER process that completed the assimilation of something initially novel, spicy, and delicious.

                                                                                                                                                                    Some people in this thread are quick to characterize good authentic Sichuan cooking as a 1970s boom that "faded" (perhaps true in regions where they lived), or even (historically inaccurate but perhaps extrapolated from local experience) an entirely recent arrival to the US. Or they dwell on "Americanization" aspects not especially pertinent when Sichuan arrived in force in the 70s (the Americanization factors are more relevant to Sichuan cooking's _later_ US history, and to earlier famous US Chinese recipe adaptations like those dishes with pineapple chunks and fluorescent red dye).

                                                                                                                                                                    But where I live, NONE of that was significantly true. Good Sichuanese cooking by experienced Sichuanese cooks _never_ went away, supported possibly (my turn to speculate) by the growing Chinese immigration which has, far from diminishing, broadened and deepened the Chinese restaurant population hereabouts since the 1970s. By the 1990s, far from Sichuanese cooking "fading," silicon valley had also become well-equipped with Muslim-Chinese, Macanese, Singaporean, and other regional restaurants that the local émigré population actively supports and ocasionally debates with exacting connoisseurship on the San Francisco Chowhound board.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                      Thanks for explaining that, it was helpful. I once experienced a humorous mixup (or Freudian slip?) at a favorite Szechuan restaurant, where I ordered Chongqing Chicken (ordering in English but pointing to its Chinese description on the menu) and instead got a very classically American version of Kung Pao chicken, with its array of red and green peppers, peanuts, and glossy light brown sauce. It dawned on me then that the two dishes are cousins, which I hadn't realized. But I still sent it back for the one I really wanted :).

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: hckybg

                                                                                                                                                                        I would send it back, too. They cheated you on the pineapple!

                                                                                                                                                              2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                                                                I was around then and now and I don't think stuff like kung pao chicken (pre-bastardization, which was well underway by the early 80s), ma po dofu, and the various yu xiang dishes taste that wildly different now from what I ate then (at the *good* restaurants). We can buy better spicy bean paste now, for example, but really it was not that different. There was plenty of chili heat and sichuan peppercorn numbing, and oil. Then the food got way dumbed down and showed up in food courts, and a lot of its fans simply moved on to new obsessions. I'm delighted to see it back again though (in new restaurants, not surviving ones).

                                                                                                                                                              3. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                                Steve, I'd say it was more in the 1970's, when the full impact of the 1965 US Immigration Act started to come into play. As just mentioned upthread - over 1,000,000 mainland Chinese bolted for Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek.

                                                                                                                                                              4. In New York City the number of Szechuan restaurants has exploded in recent years. They originally started popping up in the late 70s and early 80s. By the early 90s the good ones were few and far between. Ten years later the number of great ones started to rise.

                                                                                                                                                                There's never been a better time for Szechuan dining in NYC than right now.

                                                                                                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                                                                                                  Thanks Bob, this seems to confirm my impression. What I didn't know before is that there was a boom that faded to some extent. I'm not sure if this satisfies the OP's curiosity.

                                                                                                                                                                  I looked at the link above from the LA Public Library. I got a kick out of the menu for Sze Chwan in LA from the 70s. Clearly there were some authentic dishes, but a far cry from the menu at Little Pepper.

                                                                                                                                                                2. Ok, one last question, and please forgive me for being a little 'thick' on this subject. When I go to Little Pepper or look at the menu at Spicy and Tasty or China Village (Bay area) or (in Rockville, MD) Joe's Noodle House or Sichuan Pavillion, I see similar menus. Dozens of small plates from shredded radish to wonton in red hot sauce to a multitude of bean curd (dried, smoked, fried, silken, pressed, shredded, rolled) to fried baby smelt to tongue, intestine, and anything that falls within the range of buns, noodles, dumplings, or bean jelly with five spice or ma la or pickled. Each menu of the above is extensive.

                                                                                                                                                                  Would I have found, in this Golden Age of Chinese food back in the 70s or 80s, a similar menu? When I look at the menu of Sze Chwan in LA from the 70s, I see a largely Cantonese menu punctuated with a dabbling in Sichuan cuisine. This type of restaurant could have been the source of pop culture references mentioned in this thread.

                                                                                                                                                                  Is what we are seeing now a repeat or are we now really in The Golden Age (thus far), and the other stuff was fooling around, no matter how good any one dish might have been?

                                                                                                                                                                  3 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                                    Back in the 1980s, even at the best places like Hwa Yuan in Flushing, the menus were more limited. We're living in the Golden Aze of Szechuan.


                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                                                                                                      Wait--maybe you actually still have a menu from Hwa Yuan? Unlikely, but stranger things have happened. I'd love to see it.

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                                                                                        I think a better source than restaurant menus of the time would be to cull through the Chinese newspaper archives to see what they were writing about the NYC food scene then. Hongkong's Sing Tao started in NYC in 1965, followed by the World Journal (1976.) Later came Ming Pao (1997) and The China Press (1999). There also may have been some other Chinese newspapers, now defunct.

                                                                                                                                                                  2. I can't recall seeing any Sichuan restaurants in Toronto in the early 70's. However I wonder how many Torontonians remember 'Paul's Deep Sea Shantung' on Dundas Street, it was near, but on the opposite side from, the new art gallery. Hardly a name for a Sichuan restaurant. I remember having my first Sichuan dishes there in the 70's or very early 80's. I wonder if it was solely Sichuan. It certainly was good - especially the chicken with orange peel heaped sky-high with chili peppers. Could it have been the first in TO?

                                                                                                                                                                    1. Just came into this thread. Sorry, I don't have time to read it all.
                                                                                                                                                                      I know for sure there was a "Northern Chinese" restaurant in Manhattan (not in Chinatown). It was upscale, and served spicy food. This was in the fall of 1964, and I ordered "fish-flavored pork" which I now know is a classic Szechuan dish. It was too hot for my tender palate at that time.
                                                                                                                                                                      The restaurant (I believe) was called Mandarin House. It had been advertised one of the late-night WOR radio shows (Jean Shepherd or Long John Nebel).