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Mar 25, 2012 05:58 AM

Thought experiment - What is chow worthy classic "Chinese American" food?

I don't mean the places in Chinatown with special menus on the wall. I mean the stuff I grew up with in the 70s til today from places with names like Panda Garden, Wok n Roll, Lotus blossom etc...
I live now in a major metro area. Places do exist with borderline white tablecloth service that claim to have this food. But the food isn't that much better then the take out joints. When I start thinking of what the menu would look like, I wonder if the cuisine is not amenable to things like heritage chickens or grass fed beef, or locally sourced produce. I assume these places do exist somewhere. But when looking online I sometimes find restaurants that start going this way but end up adding "cheffy" touches and flourishes, like soy ginger beurre blanc halibut or the Momofuku inspired steamed bun (mantou bread) craze with exotic fillings . Or the need to add sushi or Thai inspired dishes to the menu. So, can this place exist? Does the desire to use well sourced artisinal products cause a drift into a new type of menu to justify price points? Is this a cuisine that cannot be chow'ed up since it came from an artificial birthplace?

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  1. We just had a meal the other night at Trader Vic's (don't ask why) and truly enjoyed their cha shu (char siu). Not overly sweet or sticky, with a nice wood-smokiness to it. Hadn't walked into a Trader Vic's since the early 80s and was surprised to see a huge wood-fired oven of sorts, and that's where the the cha shu was prepared. I don't think there was anything truly special about the preparation other than a little restrain on the sweet/sticky and the use of a wood-fired oven. Does this qualify?

    1 Reply
    1. re: bulavinaka

      I haven't been back there since the original restaurant closed...perhaps out of defiance and sadness.
      I love the char siu. It just seems like nobody can do it the same as Trader Vic's.

      Your post reminds me it's time to get back and give the "Indonesian Lamb Roast" another chance. I think they've called it something different now but it's a dish that ranks up there with my top 10 all time favorites.

    2. I would have thought that any good rendition of General Tso's Chicken (and spelling variants thereof) would qualify, as GTC is an archetypical Chinese-American invention.

      16 Replies
      1. re: huiray

        General Tso's Chicken made with Jidori Chicken, perhaps?

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Would it be significantly different to qualify as something else besides "Chinese-American" cuisine?

          How about with French Bresse chicken?

            1. re: ipsedixit

              What I mean is that GTC is pretty much GTC, whatever the chicken may be, because of how the dish is cooked; or that the quality of the chicken is probably marginal. It's still GTC, and so long as the dish is properly cooked it qualifies as a "Chow-worthy" dish so long as one is cognizant it *is* a Chinese-American dish and so long as it is excellently done.

              1. re: huiray


                And I'm not so sure why "Chinese-American" food -- as is -- can't be chow worthy.

                The OP seems to suggest chow worthy Chinese-American food needs premium ingredients (i.e., "When I start thinking of what the menu would look like, I wonder if the cuisine is not amenable to things like heritage chickens or grass fed beef, or locally sourced produce.").

                I'm not so sure that's a valid premise.

                I, for one, think that Panda Express is -- on a certain level -- quite chow worthy.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Quite so.

                  C-A cuisine in its infancy probably *was* a horrible concoction, but as it has matured and acquired its own status it may not need to be done with premium ingredients to earn CH points. In its (gathering) maturity it may simply need to be "well-done" to be Chow-worthy.

                  Then - there is that whole thing about "CHOW MEIN" -heh. Double "heh", for that matter. It still is "Chow-worthy", even if one's notion of what "chow mein" may be may be subject to interpretation;, because the idea exercises one in a Chow-worthy sense. :-)

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I think premium ingredient places seem hard to find, though that would not be the end all be all for me. I just was wondering if we have essentially reached the heights of what this "cuisine" can be. It has always been my default comfort food. However as I reach my later years and need to be more careful how I spend my calories I just wish I could find a place to satisfy my cravings with minimal regret (I suppose this is a larger then what I eat issue).

                    1. re: coolaugustmoon

                      I agree with everything you're saying.

                      I read, several years ago on Chowhound from a poster, that the old, homestyle, Chinese American comfort food is 'outdated and unsophisticated'...
                      For those of us who remember the egg foo young with pork, chicken or shrimp encased in that dark brown's now an old, fond memory.
                      A few years ago we asked a restaurant, that serves "Cantonese" cuisine if they could, please, make us this dish (it was nowhere on the menu) and they looked at us like we were dinosaurs...they tried and what we ended up with was a fried omelet looking dish,,,mostly bean sprouts in a sauce that resembled watered down cornstarch.
                      There was, years ago (decades actually), a restaurant we'd go to twice a week for the best dim sum I've ever tasted and they also served what I long for...the egg foo young with the darkest richest sauce and all the others...
                      Pork fried rice, almond chicken etc. They'd been in business since the first generation came to this country. Eventually, after 50 years in business, the older generation died, leaving it to their children. The children had no desire to keep it going and so they closed it....the recipes died along with the restaurant.
                      We have, ever since, been looking for that type of great food with no success.

                      1. re: latindancer

                        I assume this happens fairly often. The best restaurant of this sort during my childhood was called Tze's. I went to elementary school with Joel Tze (Tse? its been awhile). I have since moved on, however if facebook is any indication Joel did not take over the business and it is long closed.

                        1. re: latindancer

                          Wow, quite some memories. Still, the food you loved wasn't "Chinese food", of course, and restaurants have moved on to get closer to what actual Chinese food should be like. :-) It is also interesting you found the dim sum served at that place "the best dim sum I've ever tasted". Could you say what it was about it that you found so memorable and to your liking? I assume you have tasted dim sum in other places and perhaps also in Chinese restaurants in SF or NYC or the SGV (the latter especially since you appear, from your posting history, to be in the LA area).

                          1. re: huiray

                            Yes, they are quite some memories....
                            Yes, I've eaten in SF and NYC and the SGV...

                            Was the dim sum the best I've ever tasted? Yes. Technically 'the best'? Maybe/maybe not. The dim sum I remember was delicate and steamed beautifully and above all? The family I was sharing these delicacies was worthy of my very very fond memories of eating this wonderful food with. The Chinese take away containers loaded with pork fried rice and egg foo young, eaten with chopsticks @ 2in the morning after a long night of dancing....these are what memories are made of.
                            Is the bbq I ate in the desert with some of the most interesting, worldly friends/colleagues a few years ago, the 'best' there is? No but it was memorable and delicious and definitely something I'll never forget....just like that dim sum I miss.
                            'Chow worthy' food is, what I consider, food that tastes wonderful to me and is worthy of a desire to come back to it again.
                            You appear to be an expert on what the 'right Chinese food' is. I'm not. I only know I don't enjoy the restaurants that have 'moved on to get closer to what actual Chinese food should be like" much as what I remember.

                            1. re: latindancer

                              Thanks for the explanations and the great stories. Hope you can find the restaurant to recreate the food and your memories for you one day.

                              1. re: latindancer

                                Thank you latindancer. It's nice to find someone else here who feels that a great meal can be about more than just the food. Most of my memorable meals involve a memorable day or evening where good food was a part. of the memory.

                                But I do favor the C-A restaurants that cook with higher quality vegetables and meats and the ones near us have not gone over to any neo-oriental or fusion.

                                1. re: collardman

                                  Of course great meals are often intimately entwined with the memory of it. Such is one aspect of meals that one cherishes for ever, let alone CH-worthy meals as the present thread asks for. One notes, however, that dwelling on past memories and wishing for the recreation of events in the past are not entirely fruitful and that nostalgic reminiscences are subject to the law of diminishing returns - perhaps with regards to this thread, too. Suppose one looked back on such meals with a wistful backglance but recognized that one can never "return home" or return to that impossibly perfect past moment that one longs for in one's memory?

                                    1. re: huiray

                                      In reality, my memory of the taste of the foods that caused me to start this thread escapes me. Is was an innocent idyllic time in my life. The classic Chinese American food was one of my family's frequent dinners. While I know that when I order it now as an adult it will not be the same experience, I would like to find someone doing this food at a high level. I wonder if some of the original non Cantonese places did not have to face the $4 lunch special places as competition causing a "race to the bottom" price and quality wise.

              2. Another one: egg rolls/spring rolls with peanut butter... and surrounding posts...

                8 Replies
                1. re: huiray

                  I've been living in San Francisco for more than half my life, and find myself perpetually craving an east coast thing called "pressed duck" which was boneless duck, steamed I think then coated in corn starch and fried. I've had some versions here but the were mostly some starchy paste with a little bit of duck attached. I'd commit a misdemeanor for the real thing today.

                  1. re: little big al

                    Yes....little big al.....I too have many recollections of that duck dish.Had it many times when still living in New York.I believe it was called "Wor Shu Op"? (sp?)and came w/ a fantastic peanutty dipping sauce on the side.Can't seem to find it here in the Seattle area,which of course makes me crave it even more!!

                    1. re: little big al

                      Irene Kuo's "The Key to Chinese Cooking" gives a recipe for this dish.

                      1. re: Michael Rodriguez

                        Thank you so much MR for that info.I have just placed a hold on that book at my local library.

                      2. re: little big al

                        Wor Shu Opp is actually very easy to make.. The whole duck is slow roasted in the oven. In a commercial Chinese kitchen, the have a dedicated roasting box where they hang the meat and poultry over a pan of water, but you could easily do the same in your home oven on the rack over a pan, or with a rack in a roasting pan. There are probably recipes for slow braised duck as well that could be used as well.

                        Once the duck is fully cooked and cooled simply remove the carcass. Depending on your planned presentation, you can remove the whole carcass, or split the duck in half and remove the meat.. Dust in cornstarch, egg, and cornstarch again.....then deep fry.. The restaurants in Northern New Jersey/New York City used to take the Egg Foo Young Gravy, add sliced mushrooms, soy sauce and oyster sauce to create a brown mushroom gravy...a darker version of the the gravy used for the classic Boneless Chicken with Mushrooms dish.

                        1. re: little big al

                          Back in the day: Almond Pressed Duck was on the Kam's menu in SF and also at a restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown - both are now closed. Please do post if you find it on a menu in the Bay Area. I will drive miles for it.

                          1. re: Cynsa

                            Kam's was a swell place, wasn't it!

                            1. re: Cynsa

                              It's on the menu at Yet Wah in San Rafael -- let me know how it is!

                        2. I would like to revisit the nomination of General Tso's chicken by huiray. I had the pleasure in Milwaukee to have this made to order. Fresh chilis, crispy chicken, and lightly but equally sauced. It hadn't been sitting in a steam tray on the buffet for the last 20 minutes, nor flash fried while semi-frozen and using a generic red sauce with a shot of the cheapest hot sauce.

                          Made to order normally trumps mass produced. The cognescenti will always order a bar's signature drink made to order, rather than take it from the five gallon bucket under the bar. This is especially true in the caribbean. They want to demonstrate their expertise and hopefully get a better tip. And what comes from the well can be a lot better than what goes into the 5 gallon bucket.

                          My thought is, if your entree comes in 15 minutes or less, you are being served from the buffet in the kitchen. Quality chow mein, egg rolls, or anything else can be had, but a real hound should not be dissuaded by false scents. Quality over quantity can be had, but some effort must be made.

                          And the buffet in the kitchen can be found in any type of restaurant.

                          17 Replies
                          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                            I never recalled any Chinese restaurant in the 60s, 70s and early 80s ever having General Tso's on the menu.....

                            1. re: fourunder

                              You are correct about the 60s and up until about 78. Szechuan style foods and spices didn't arrive in the USA until the late 70s with changes in immigration policy. Until then we basically had 'Cantonese' style Chinese-American food.
                              Soon afer 78 we had Szechuan (spicy) followed by Hunan (Black bean).

                              1. re: bagelman01

                                I was fortunate to grow up in an oddly cosmopolitan college town in Western Mass. Not all that far from NYC or Boston, plus a (for the late 70's) large Asian population centered around the 5 colleges nearby. I remember having General tsos by 78 or 79 at the latest. I could be remembering wrong, but we moved twice in a 4 year period so I can usually line up events pretty close to the actual year.

                                1. re: coolaugustmoon

                                  your memory confirms the timetable in my post.
                                  There is a history of this in Arthur Schwartz' "New York City Food" 2005. I am not home where my copy is.

                                    1. re: huiray

                                      wiki article has varying claims between 72 and 77, with first emntion in NY Tomes in 77.

                                      Most CHers would not have encountered this around the country before the late 70s
                                      With most 'new' things NY is 'cutting edge' <VBG>

                                      1. re: bagelman01

                                        You, and others here, may be amused by this subthread: and the posts descending from it.

                                        As has been said elsewhere too, GTC is one of those dishes that have become ICONIC and has been exported back to places [like China][and related regions] from which the dish might have been thought to have come from. :-)

                                2. re: bagelman01

                                  The first Szechuan restaurant in Rhode Island was China Inn in Pawtucket, which opened in 1976 and is still around. Having read my Calvin Trillin, I was very excited about this and dragged my family there as soon as it opened. The whole idea of spicy chinese food was completely novel in our area. We had grown up with "Boston-style" chinese food, AKA polynesian -- pupu platter, subgum chow mein, shrimp in lobster sauce, etc.

                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                    David Keh opened Szechuan Taste on Chatham Square in NYC in 1969 and later that year established Sichuan on 95th and Broadway.

                                    The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was an overhaul of immigration practices that had been in place since 1924 and the result was a shift to a quota system for countries in East Asia. Family re-unification immigration was unlimited. The real sea change occurred in 1972 after Nixon's visit to China when Americans were enthralled by lists of dishes presented at Chinese banquets. Soon after chefs from Taiwan and Hongkong arrived to kick up a storm.

                                    According to Fuchsia Dunlop General Tso's Chicken was invented in NYC in 1971 by Peng Chang-Kuei a Hunanese chef who fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists in 1949 and later moved to NYC.

                                    More background here:

                                3. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                  sorry, but you may want to rethink that 15 min nonsense. one good cook on a 2 burner wok station can crank out a ridiculous quantity of food in 15 mins... all made to order. the chinese-american restaurant i worked in was huge and did a ton of take-out biz. everything was made to order w the exception of chow mein, and there was no "buffet in the kitchen."

                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                    I agree. The only reason why chow mein is made in bulk and held, is most prefer to melded concoction to soften the harder crispy noodles that accompany it. Outside of that, only rice, fried rice and soups are held in the bain marie. Just about any take-out Chinese business in New Jersey and New York has an open view kitchen to verify this.

                                    1. re: soupkitten

                                      I agree completely. The key to this speed is spending house to prep the raw ingredients beforehand. The staff will spend hours cleaning the veggies, slicing them, slicing the meat, etc.

                                      Once you get an order for a stir-fried dish, you fire up the wok, throw the ingredients in, and it'll be done in less than five minutes. The wok burners often are rated at 100,000 BTUs or higher. The hottest home ranges usually max out at around 10,000 BTU. Many burners at non-Chinese restaurants are in the 30,000 BTU range.

                                      Braised dishes, soups, and other dishes take longer.

                                      1. re: raytamsgv

                                        For the home, Blue Star ranges can produce up to 22,000 BTU's now. Even older model Viking or Garland ranges are at around 12,000 BTU or higher.

                                      2. re: soupkitten

                                        15 minutes?

                                        You'd be fired in my restaurant ... for lack of speed and dexterity with the wok.

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          exactly right. it wasn't uncommon for the main wok cook/chef to do 100 orders/hour... really complex preps might take 2 mins, but he had 2 woks going. he didn't tear off individual tickets from his printer, just let it print out in a stream and snake into a pool of paper on the other side of the pass--so it was possible for the mgrs to just pick up the paper and scroll to 1 hr ago or 30 mins and see instantly how busy the whole establishment was, and just how good that dude was. i remember him making, like 2 mistakes, total, ever.

                                      3. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                        "My thought is, if your entree ones in 15 minutes or less, you are being served from the buffet in the kitchen"

                               obviously have never worked/owned/managed a very high volume restaurant...
                                        The kitchen can be a very busy place with a ton of workers doing their job....made to order without a 'buffet' in sight.

                                        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                          As soupkitten and fourunder have noted - there is no such a thing as a buffet inside the Chinese kitchen. Yes, certain items are made ahead of time and placed in a steam table such as hot and sour soup, egg drop soup, red gloppy sweet and sour sauce, egg foo young gravy etc.

                                        2. To me, "chow worthy" means whether I like eating it. The kind of mundane Chinese/American food you are talking about it total comfort food in my world. I love thick meaty eggs rolls, pork fried rice or shrimp egg foo young. It is the food of my childhood (nearly every Sunday night). Nothing fancy, but the flavors and textures resonate for me inside a pleasant emotional past.

                                          By the same token, meat loaf and pot roast, the beloved comfort food of so many of you leaves me cold because it wasn't served much in the house I grew up in. Go figure.