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Apr 16, 2013 08:29 AM

Michael Bauer on Chinese Food

So today Bauer puts on his "I'm going to opine about Chinese food even though I'm too busy reviewing every fine-dining place in the Bay Area to know anything about it" hat:

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  1. The article is a mish mosh of criticisms of Bay Area, and American, Chinese food. Lots of generalizations with a surface treatment of a topic covered at length elsewhere.

    But he's right in his criticism that "there’s no one treating Chinese food the way Charles Phan did Vietnamese." Even our own community has been limited in the discussion of innovation in Chinese cuisine: . Even Charles Phan's Wo Hing, which presented more or less traditional dishes, missed an opportunity to innovate and failed in about a year.

    12 Replies
    1. re: hyperbowler

      I think what Bauer's talking about is not innovation as much as serving uncompromising diverse Chinese cuisine like in China, similar to Bayless's complaint about Mexican food in SF. Sometimes you can find that in the suburbs, though first-rate chefs come and go.

      I'm not sure Slanted Door did anything very innovative. In large measure it serves Phan's mom's Chinese-Vietnamese dishes. What's different about it is mostly the use of ingredients from the alternative distribution system and a first-rate wine list and cocktail program.

      Phan's Out the Door on Sutter serves Chinese dishes in a similar context, as did / will Heaven's Dog. There's also Chu in Oakland.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        He's actually not very specific, or at least focussed, about what he is talking about. Is it the diversity of traditional Chinese food (vs. the 99% generic and Americanized quote of Chang), is it the refinement and adherence to traditions(e.g., his discussion of Chang), is it the innovation (e.g., Danny Bowien)?

        Oh, I didn't realize Slanted Door didn't have any innovative dishes--- too much advice of it being overrated has kept me from sampling their food! I've liked what I've eaten for breakfast on Out the Door though.

        1. re: hyperbowler

          Slanted Door actually does have some innovative, fusion dishes, for example: five-spiced duck confit, treviso, frisée, orange-shallot vinaigrette, pomegranate hoisin. I'd actually order them over the more traditional ones.

        2. re: Robert Lauriston

          If there were a restaurant near me serving "traditional" Chinese food (or better, dim sum) using organic and sustainable ingredients I'd be there several times a week. What set (especially the original) Slanted door apart was how it managed to pay homage to tradition while simultaneously being absolutely current and a perfect fit for its neighborhood.

          1. re: bdl

            Do you live near Mill Valley -- there's Harmony serving the dim sum (and more) you want.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            I disagree with your characterization of the food at Slanted Door. I doubt very much his mom cooked food like that. It's clearly a modern interpretation of Chinese-Vietnamese food through a Western lens.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              "Most recipes come directly from or are inspired by Phan's mother."


              The food seemed much the same last time I ate there, though maybe not executed as well. The food at Out the Door on Sutter a few weeks ago had the old sparkle.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                There's a big difference between "directly from" and "inspired by"! I think Out the Door offers a higher percentage of "directly from" dishes than Slanted Door, although two of the four sandwiches (Poached Ahi tuna salad sandwich with dill, celery, fennel and red onion; Grilled eggplant sandwich with avocado, fresh cilantro, cucumber and pickled carrots) are more "inspired by" than "directly from"

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  We started with the question of what Bauer might have intended by saying "there’s no one treating Chinese food the way Charles Phan did Vietnamese."

                  If he thinks the food is innovative, I think he's clueless. It's minor twists on dishes from his mom, Vietnamese street food, and so on.


                  The Out the Door I'm talking about is the one on Sutter, which is a full-service restaurant with I think more Chinese dishes than Slanted Door.


                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Well, we're going back to the idea that what was "innovative" was that it's in a Westernized setting with a cocktails and an good wine list.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              is there another OTD on Sutter?

              Out the Door
              2232 Bush St
              San Francisco, CA 94115
              (415) 923-9575

              1. re: Cynsa

                Bush, right. My memory was a block off.

                There's another in the Ferry Building that has very little in common with the one on Bush, which is similar to the now-closed one that was in the mall at 5th and Market.

          3. Interesting that he didn't mention the new MY China and Hakkasan, which are certainly doing "Chinese" in an upscale, modern environment, similar to Slanted Door.

            13 Replies
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              He didn't like them all that much: MY China 2.5 stars for food and overall, Hakasan 1.5 stars for food and overall two.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                My point was not whether they're good or not, but whether they're the type of restaurants MB is claiming we don't have. There's a difference between saying "we don't have any X restaurants" and saying "we don't have any good X restaurants."

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Seems like Bauer was not focusing on decor for once, especially given that he held up Mission Chinese Food along with Yank Sing as exceptions to whatever it is he's complaining about.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    But he's also clearly not including any of the many regional Chinese restaurants around the Bay Area, either. On the one hand, he seems to want "high-end" and traditional (like the former Mandarin or Yank Sing) and on the other he seems to want innovative, i.e. Mission Chinese Food. Oh and he also didn't mention Jai Yun.

                    The confusion is caused, of course, by the fact that as you originally noted, he knows less than nothing (because a lot of what he thinks he knows is wrong) about Chinese food and therefore can't clearly articulate on the subject.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Bauer's not such a big fan of Jai Yun any more. He probably thinks they need valet parking.


                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        LOL. But the question appeared to be whether these restaurants exist, not whether they are good.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I don't think Bauer considered MY China or Hakasan to be the Chinese equivalent of Slanted Door. He gives SD three stars for food and overall and thinks Phan "continues to break new ground."


                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Hakkasan and MY China are, however, more like The Mandarin, which is what he was using as an exemplar. The fact is, quality of the food aside, he wasn't at all clear about what kind of restaurant he was looking for, and by leaving out some obvious examples of restaurants that are not like 99 percent of "Chinese" restaurants (two upscale, "modern" Chinese restaurants, one highly refined traditional Chinese in a non-upscale environment) while including Mission Chinese (neither traditional nor upscale), he made it even less clear.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              Bauer's lede is "... really good Chinese food in the United States faces extinction," which suggests that the quality of the food is exactly his intended subject.

                              I imagine the Chinese food at that $288 banquet was as good as it gets around here:


                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                But he doesn't define "really good Chinese food" (nor would he recognize it if it bit him in the butt). Mission Chinese Food is not "really good Chinese food" -- since it's not Chinese -- but he includes it in the discussion. Jai Yun is really good Chinese food, but he doesn't mention it. Also, to say it "faces extinction" implies that at some time there was more "really good Chinese food" than there is now. Really? When was that? It appears that by "really good Chinese food" he means The Mandarin. Period.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  The inspiration for the piece was the $288 fundraiser banquet at Yank Sing he went to the other day, it includes a photo of the cold dishes, and he says it's his favorite Chinese restaurant in SF.

                                  From a writer's perspective, my guess is he picked his theme and dashed off 600 words in half an hour without worrying about whether he was clear, coherent, or contradicting himself.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    Lousy Americanized Chinese is a problem in lots of places. I work in Davis which is basically full of mediocre and tame Americanized Asian cuisine. There is some truly wretched Chinese food in Davis. Part of the problem is that restaurateurs assume that Western palates can’t deal with Authentic Asian cuisines so the food ends up being dummed down.

                                    But in places like the Bay Area and around NYC there has been a resurgence of more authentic regional Chinese cuisine in recent years that is keeping Chinese food vibrant and relevant. As has been mentioned Bauer did not discuss any of these places (I am thinking of places like Z & Y and Beijing restaurant and Jai Yun as has been mentioned). Since trends often start in the coasts and slowly spread to the rest of the country there is some hope that regional Chinese restaurants will become more popular across the country (and I hope in Davis). So I don’t think there is any threat of the extinction mentioned in his article.

                                    The interesting thing about Mission Chinese is that it’s not really authentic BUT it’s really good. It shows that you can make inauthentic Chinese food that is really good if you don’t dumb down the food and use some creativity.

                                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Oh yeah, I agree with all your points. With all due respect, Cecilia Chiang isn't the end all be all of Chinese food. The thing about Chinese food is that there are so many regions in China that the food isn't homogenized. There's also a difference with City and country cooking. A lot of stuff my folks make are considered country food that you can't get in a restaurant.

                                    My father wouldn't consider Mission Chinese as authentic either. He'd say it was Chinglish food.

                                    Bauer makes it sound like Chinese food all but disappeared in America. That is not true. There is more variety now than when the Mandarin was open.

              2. The original comment has been removed
                1. This seems like a relevant place to post this. I'm certainly excited to try it when it opens!


                  2 Replies
                  1. re: possumspice

                    Me too. I felt that this is what MB was alluding to in his comments.

                    1. re: rubadubgdub

                      Even though I'm looking forward to it, I don't mean to imply that I otherwise agree with Bauer's position. If anything, what I miss most in SF proper is not a Charles Phan does Chinese food restaurant (we got that; it was called Wo Hing, and it wasn't very good) or more banquet-style dining...what I'm missing is the really great authentic street food and lower-end stuff that you can find in Taiwan, HK, and yes, even mainland China. Judging by the multiple requests on CH for hand-pulled noodles and jianbing, that's how a lot of others feel as well.

                      Also, it's a bit dramatic to say the state of Chinese food is dismal all over the country: how much eating has he done in the SG Valley?

                  2. I read his piece and all I can say is what an over-privileged snob and ignorant to boot! I don't live in SF any more so when I visit I don't pay much attention to his musings especially because most of his places just aren't in my preferred price range. I loved the comment about all the "white" people in the photo. I'm sure he was quite comfortable. Are there any Chron contributors who ARE knowledgeable about Chinese food? If so, perhaps they'll call him to task. Nah. Not going to happen.

                    15 Replies
                    1. re: c oliver

                      Agree, I don't even bother to read MB's reviews...let alone something out of his comfort zone or something he has little knowledge or interest in. Basically he'd be happy at PF Changs, with a twist, slab o' meat option, full bar and flirty waiters.

                      1. re: ML8000

                        Sorry to dissent.

                        I agree, almost completely, with Michael. IMHO, I find the Chinese food in SF to be totally boring, non inventive and not particularly healthy -- massive sodium matched with carb overload. Tragic.

                        So sad to have this opinion as I grew up in the Bay Area and adore Asian food, But, I find myself flying to Vegas for Raku or NYC for the Momofuku options. I'm going to Hong Kong in the fall and Singapore next year to venture further afield.

                        In SF, however, I've retired from Chinese food. Awful.

                        Thanks for any help and counseling you can add.

                        1. re: cortez

                          Sorry, I guess you didn't read the article. MB and this thread are about CHINESE food. Neither Raku nor Momofuku is Chinese.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            My apologies. You are right that the Asian restaurants I frequent now lean more towards Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese rather than Chinese.

                            However, this underlines rather than contradicts the Bauer criticisms of Chinese cuisine in SF.

                            1. re: cortez

                              the bay has really good korean and vietnamese - not as sure about japanese. are you blanket saying bay has bad asian food? think even MB would disagree with that

                              1. re: hungree

                                And I think SFBA has good to great Chinese food.

                                1. re: cortez

                                  Also, if you like Raku, you might want to check out Ippuku in Berkeley.

                                2. re: cortez

                                  No need to be sorry but yeah, helps to know the differences in Asian cuisines.

                                  Any way, I get the point how Chinese food seems to have lagged behind in SF but when it comes from MB, it's baloney. For pete freakin' sake I bet fish eyes freaks the guy out.

                                  His assertion is that there's a drop because there's no fusion type places stepping up. This only has merit IF you subscribe to his way of reviewing/liking restaurants. New fusion places doesn't mean they're automatically of quality or it's good, so it's just a theory.

                                  The reason why Chinese food isn't as vibrant as say LA is because of the combination of a high real estate market, limited immigration, talent and limited ethnic enclaves, unlike LA. Ask anyone how much a new restaurant costs at start-up in SF. It is not cheap.

                                  Also the high percentage of ethnic Chinese in SF proper (35%) who like their food traditional and are NOT willing to eat fusion cuisine for traditional situations also boxes out change. Do you build a new place for only mid-range non-Chinese clients, and expect to succeed? There can only be so many Slanted Doors and Tommy Toy's.

                                  The same can be said about Mexican food between LA and SF. It's the immigration patterns and local economies that dictate things. The competition for space also kills many new places.

                                  Instead for many Chinese places there's an eternal turn over and exchange of ownership at places...and part of that legacy is keeping every damn thing on the menu because someone just might want sweet and sour pork. It's pretty common for a chef or staff to buy out an existing place and not change much.

                                  There are also issues of pidgen-holing, stereotypes and people unwiling to pay high dollars for certain Asian cuisines. This applies to Mexican food as well...few people are willing to pay mid-range prices for Mexican food.

                                  Part of that is the restaurants but it's also driven by internal cultural realities - Chinese (and Mexicans) tend not to want to pop for $$$ for food they know, and know how it should be.

                                  For things to change in the Bay Area, there needs to be a way for immigrants to come in, change the food scene but do so without having to drop $1.5m on a new place. Isn't this what all the pop-ups are about, a chance for the small guy?

                                  If anyone is going to change things up, my guess is a hot shot Chinese American chef, or a hot shot chef from another part of the world with a lot of backing. Someone with a big vision who can sell both the existing Chinese market and the non-Chinese. Basically a new Koi Palace with exceptional quality...and it will not be cheap.

                                  1. re: ML8000

                                    Good points. Charles Phan didn't start with a big, glossy, high-profile restaurant. For that matter, Mission Chinese Food (whether it counts as Chinese or not) is on a similar arc (only his glossy, high-profile restaurant is in NY). And Phan was fortunate that he didn't have to battle decades of pre-conceived notions about what Vietnamese cuisine should be like (including the price point).

                                    And I agree there is the problem of developing the right customer base. As noted, Americans are conditioned to think of Chinese food as cheap, and the Chinese community tends to be traditionalist and not like "innovative" places. Finally, the kind of meals that Chinese people do spend money on are often centered around expensive luxury ingredients that are not appealing to American palates.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      The original Slanted Door was big and glossy compared with the Manhattan branch of Mission Chinese Food, which is in a small, cramped space below street level.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        At that time (90s) rents were much reasonable in San Franisco. 2,000 SF in the 90s isn't the same as 2,000 SF today in NYC or start-up costs. Rent must be even higher in NYC now.

                                        1. re: ML8000

                                          Sure, I'm just saying that Mission Chinese Food hasn't followed an arc similar to Slanted Door's. The NY branch might be more of a dump than the original.

                                      2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        Is Bowien's Mission Chinese in San Francisco still a pop-up restaurant? Although his NYC outpost is always packed it is surprisingly down-market in appearance. It is not in a prime location, it is in a basement and patrons have to walk past the glassed-off kitchen to then climb some stairs to enter a dining area that seats perhaps 40.

                                        1. re: scoopG

                                          MCF has been full-time in that space for quite a while.