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May 6, 2013 01:22 PM

Are Chinese restaurants in SEA under-visited?

Nancy Leson's twitter feed today linked a great Sea. Times post with demographic survey data about Chinese restaurant patronage, showing the Town dead last in visits:

This is somewhat surprising to me given prior research about the relatively significant Chinese-American population in SEA (#8 nationally), certainly higher than No. 2 in the survey, San Antonio, TX. See

A few thoughts come to mind (hardly unique to me, as they have also been mentioned or discussed in countless prior posts here):

1. Assuming the survey captured only Seattle proper, it would be significant that most of the best Chinese restaurants in this area are not in Seattle, but rather Bellevue (perhaps not incidentally, the sixth-most Chinese mid-size city in the US) and other surrounding municipalities.
2. Somewhat relatedly, the most acclaimed restaurants in the Chinatown/ID zone are often not Chinese, but rather Viet, Japanese, etc. With various worthy exceptions, many ID Chinese restaurants have predictable, lowest-common-denominator menus of Canto-American standards, making for an experience that may be simply too forgettable for a survey subject to later recall.

What do we think? Is this survey consistent with our dining experience?

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  1. Nancy's survey was for the Metro area:
    "Less than a third of people in the Seattle metropolitan area say they’ve eaten in a Chinese restaurant in the past 30 days, according to surveys conducted by market data firm Scarborough Research."

    I don't have an explanation, but I wouldn't look toward quality/authenticity to explain it. I would bet that MOST Americans that have eaten "Chinese" in the last 30 days did not eat something exemplary. In fact I bet most Americans still eat the "predictable, lowest-common-denominator menus of Canto-American standards." My 80 y.o. Iowan mother in law loves Chinese food, and eats it in her small Iowa town. She would have replied yes to the survey. You can guess exactly what the quality/authenticity of that meal was like.

    If anything, maybe Seattle just doesn't have enough of those old school crappy places that other people still visit, and that's why we rank low. And then there's the lack of options in the city. When I think about the variety of Asian places that have opened the past 10 or 20 years, it seems like it's mostly Vietnamese or Thai or Japanese. I don't see interesting new Chinese places opening in Seattle proper. We have great Szechuan and Taiwanese options in Bellevue, but it's interesting nothing is opening in the city.

    I eat Szechuan twice a month, and I go to the 'burbs to do it, so I would have answered yes.

    6 Replies
    1. re: christy319

      You may be right about the SEA suburbs being captured in this survey. I had my doubts because I see in the graph there is a seperate listing for "Long Island, NY" which is often considered part of the NYC metro area. I also see your point about what most Americans likely eat when they eat "Chinese," but remember that SF is number one in the survey and also boasts the highest % of Chinese Americans of US major cities and numerous high quality/authentic restaurants.

      1. re: equinoise

        I think with SF, greater LA and NYC, you legitimately have lots of great Chinese food (although it's funny, when you go on the SF board and try to figure out where to eat, everyone tells you there's no good Chinese in the city). So they win. I'd love to have their Chinese scene.

        But for all those other cities ahead of Seattle, I'm thinking it's not anything to be jealous of. Besides my already given Iowa example, I'm thinking of my friends in Denver, who always complain about the lack of good Thai and Vietnamese there. The majority of what they have for Asian is Chinese, and it's not good Chinese for the most part. And Denver's not a backwater. I think in so many parts of the country, Chinese is still THE Asian cuisine. If someone wants noodles. they go to Chinese. Here in Seattle, you have a lot of other options. So the more I think about this, it's not really that surprising. And yes I'd kill to have the kind of Chinese options they have in LA, SF, and NYC, but we are so much smaller than these areas, and we are not getting much in the way of current Chinese immigration like LA nad NYC are, that I know it's not a fair comparison.

        One more thought: besides bad C-A food, how many of those respondants said yes because they ate at PF Changs? Probably a lot.

        1. re: christy319

          Totally agree about the elusive nature of specific recs for SF Chinese. The locals all agree that there is this "amazing" scene that offers so much, but you try for specifics and it seems to come down to 2-3 places with no English name that used to exist/be good, depending on certain conditions, but have unfortunately "gone downhill" in the recent past. I can say from personal experience that Ton Kiang is stil good (better than SEA but worse than Richmond), and Mission Chinese is great.

          1. re: equinoise

            Isn't that always the way it is? I'm in NYC soon and will be going to the legendary Spicy and Tasty in Flushing, despite the fact that some people say it's gone downhill. If there were any consensus about where to eat Szechuan elsewhere in NYC (and there are a ton of choices, but no clear consensus) I'd do that, but there are boosters AND naysayers for every place and my head hurts thinking about it.

            1. re: christy319

              This is a couple years back but I had a good meal at Grand Sichuan NY II on Queens Blvd., and really good XLB at Nan Xiang Dumpling House in Flushing.

            2. re: equinoise

              i agree with both you and christy319.

              used to live in SF and a frequent of their SF board before moving back home to seattle and as a chinese american i can maybe provide some insight why the trend.

              the chinese in SF's chinatown isnt considered any good anymore because the successful chinese have migrated to the suburbs for better living conditions and schools. the good food follows them because they follow the money. chinatown is then refilled with the next immigration wave which so happens the most recent are a lot of ethnic chinese from vietnam. there are some exceptions in Chinatown like those you mentioned and R&G Lounge that survive off the Financial District crowd and the tourists.

      2. About the only Chinese restaurant I go to anymore is Din Tai Fung for dumplings. I used to enjoy the occasional dim sum experience, until I realized that I always felt kind of gross afterwards. Chinese food often seems oily and heavy, when Vietnamese and Japanese seem fresher and lighter.

        1. We rarely eat at Chinese restaurants as opposed to Japanese or Vietnamese, because the restaurants here are just not that good.

          1. a bit of background. I am a chinese american with my family very close to the Seattle Chinese community and restaurant scene having owned a chinese restaurant and provided food deliveries to many chinese restaurants. so i can provide an intimate viewpoint.

            I believe some of the reasons is a couple of outside economic factors and a change in demand.

            community maturation and migration
            as seattle's chinese population matures, the successful chinese move out of the international district or beacon hill into the suburbs for a better life and schools for their kids. bellevue has flourished with this and the good food follows the money.

            as the americanized chinese move out and spread out into the suburbs, seattle's international district is replenished with the next immigration wave which so happened to be vietnamese and ethnic chinese vietnamese back in the 80s. my dad's business provided bean sprouts to pho bac when it first opened (my life being phoever changed). we are seeing now the first generation of the vietnamese community grow up and learn to americanize and elevate their cuisine where the Cantonese have not. the most recent immigration wave would be the Taiwanese and mainland China as they come over to the States to study or visit. Which begat the recent trend of Taiwanese, Northern Chinese and Shanghainese cuisine (Din Tai Fung). Where the Cantonese were from the poor South that found work in America, this new wave of Chinese are the more wealthier and educated from across the seas. They too have helped transform their cuisine.

            also bellevue has free parking that makes it less compelling for eastside chinese and anyone wanting to eat a cheap chinese meal to drive to seattle and pay for parking. i talked to Tom the owner of Subsand and he complained that he sells a $5 sandwich but parking is $3 (they recently gave a reprieve on the parking meters for the ID).

            why we are eating less at Chinese restaurants in Seattle?
            I believe the Seattle palate has diversified and matured. No longer is there a demand for egg foo young or chop suey. Seattle has a love for the healthy or the cheap like pho and teriyaki. Although orange chicken is delicious, fried dark meat chicken with a sweet orange glaze won't show up in your low carb, paleo diets of today (and white rice!). I have been disappointed in the lack of innovation or elevation of the Chinese Cantonese cuisine (i am cantonese) and have joked the last new invention was honey walnut shrimp. The lack of emphasis on service and atmosphere in a Chinese restaurant has hurt the vertical more than they realized. I believe that's why PF Chang's and the Bellevue Din Tai Fung's are so successful. Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese have all elevated the cuisine and provided a great atmosphere to enjoy a meal. The demand is there and the Seattle Chinese scene hasn't supplied it. I believe that's why Din Tai Fung will do well in U Village.

            Sorry for the long rambling post. But this has all been in my mind the past few years.

            10 Replies
            1. re: shaolinLFE

              Very interesting post. It sounds to me like you'd be the perfect person to open an innovative, modern Chinese restaurant in Seattle. Preferably in the Ballard/Phinney/Greenwood area. :)

              This is kind of a tangent but some of your points remind me of the article about westerners opening Thai restaurants in Bangkok that was in this month's Food and Wine. They're doing this because they can't find innovative and interesting restaurants there and in some cases are even bringing back traditional dishes that have been long forgotten by Thai cooks.

              1. re: christy319

                I have not visited Thailand, but have heard reports from American family members that travelled extensively there about their surprise that it was so hard to find restaurants with food that was any more interesting or deep than what they could find at common Thai joints in the U.S..

                1. re: equinoise

                  funny. i just recently came back from a SE Asia trip that included Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Bangkok, and Taipei. I was left largely unimpressed with the pho and pad thai. i can kind of figure out why about Pho, we have better ingredients and the bones and marrow needed to make Pho in the States are cheap by-products where as in Asia they are in demand.

                  but really it was only pho that was disappointing. HCMC's food is amazing.

                  my picture of the bowl of pho i had.

                  1. re: shaolinLFE

                    I was in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Hanoi a few years back, and I completely agree re Thai food--I was more impressed with what we have here. The pho and others I had in Hanoi, however, was miles ahead of what we get here, something, ironically, I attributed to the ingredients, since the herbs and veg were clearly immaculately fresh there, like they'd been picked that morning, and the rice noodles were so fresh.

                    I'm wondering if the real issue you had with the Pho was that you were HCMC, rather than Hanoi--pho, as I understand it, is from Northern Vietnam? Or at the very least, is different in the north vs. the south.

                    Also, looking at your picture, all I'm going to say is that looks darn fancy for real vietnamese pho. The advice I was given (and followed) was the following: real pho is served from 6-9am, as they consider it a breakfast food. It's almost always eaten outside, from plastic stools that are the right size for a kindergartner. Look for crowds of people squatting on the the stools, that's where you want to go.

                    Apologies for the blurry photo:

                    1. re: dagoose

                      Thanks for the tip dagoose! I will have to keep that in mind on my next trip. I do believe there is a stark difference between Hanoi style pho and HCMC. I once had a bowl of "Hanoi-style" pho at Turtle Tower in SF. It was starkly different from what I remember. Next trip I'd like to just eat my way through Vietnam. Cheers!

                      1. re: dagoose

                        Early in the morning, and out of an old lady's thermos.

                2. re: shaolinLFE

                  I think concluding that "tastes have matured" gives a little too much credit to the general dining public. Let's face it, people who post on CH are the 1%ers of food. Randomly pick any 5 coworkers (and your spouse's) and most are just not plain adventurous - and will go for what's "safe" and "in vogue". Shoot, I work in Redmond in high tech and there are plenty of people who flat out refuse to eat out in "ethnic" restaurants. In 2013. Sandwiches every single day. Literally.

                  Thai is in vogue now. I know lots of people who go to "Thai" (in quotes because 99% of Americans would vomit up the fish-sauce-laced real stuff) restaurants and order fried rice and egg rolls - but hey, it's not from a Chinese joint so it's "not as greasy and nasty" (rolls eyes).

                  But agreed with the lack of progress on service issues - Chinese diners traditionally don't really give a hoot about service. Westerners are much more likely to need the whole "check 15 minutes after the food comes" charade, and Chinese restauranteurs are frankly not equipped to deal with that - not when it's a 1:50 waitress-to-diner ratio at some of these joints. Some of these other Asian cuisines have figured out more collectively about these types of things, and as a result are getting more business.

                  Another good point already raised - there's already tons of high quality world-class Cantonese offerings not too far north of here. The Chinese community in Seattle/Portland haven't blinked twice before driving up there for a food trip for the last 3 decades. There simply isn't the critical mass in Cantonese population here to support anything interesting in Cantonese cuisine. Mainlanders have long ago overshadowed the old-guard Cantonese migrants in most major American cities (these days, you hear more Mandarin spoken on the streets of Vancouver than Cantonese - eek!).

                  1. re: HungWeiLo

                    More Mandarin than Cantonese in Van , really , where ? Thats not my experience at all and I live here

                    1. re: vandan

                      Cantonese is certainly more prevalent in Richmond...but Vancouver as a whole has certainly shifted to more and more Mandarin for a while now. I think the last census report I saw, Mandarin and Cantonese are about neck and neck in BC.

                      I still remember when there was almost no Mandarin heard in Van around 20 years ago.

                      Last time I was in Guangzhou, it didn't even seem like many people spoke or understood Cantonese anymore - even in the service industries. I've been told that less than half of the Shanghainese can't speak Shanghainese anymore. All the migrants from up north will only exacerbate the dominance of Mandarin over other Chinese dialects.

                      1. re: HungWeiLo

                        Well , I won't rely on stats just what I hear and I live in and stay cspend most of my time in Van and still don't experience anywhere close to as much Mandarin as Cantonese

                3. I absolutely agree with ShaoLinLFE. I have complained to the City about the parking fees in the ID jacking up the cost of a meal humongously. The ID merchant's association did too, and got some relief, but not enough. My partner and I always ate in the ID before going to a Mariners game, but no longer, due to the outrageous parking policy. That said, I'm not sure why good new Japanese restaurants (Miyabi, Miyabi 45, Issian) are popping up, but good new Chinese ones are not. The Japanese restaurants are being opened by Japanese immigrants, not Japanese Americans.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: PAO

                    Based on Shaolin's comments and our collective experience, can the problem with Chinese food in this area be more specifically identified as a problem with *Cantonese or Southern Chinese* food? I do better appreciate and enjoy the relatively recent wave of offerings in mainland and Taiwanese cuisines, e.g. DTF, Spiced, Ping's, Little Garden, Little Sheep, etc.

                    Is this somehow related to Vancouver/Richmond being a continuous hotbed of innovative and high-quality Cantonese food?

                    1. re: equinoise

                      The food followed the money. All the wealth of Hong Kong immigrated to Vancouver before China took it back. That is why some of us like to call our neighbor to the north, Hongcouver.

                      My theory is that it is the Cantonese immigration wave. My generation has had no interest in owning or opening a Chinese restaurant. Driven in part by the parents to focus on American education and for better paying careers.

                      The food i enjoy are mostly owned by northern Chinese or Taiwanese owners. because it's very easy to extend their menu to include the Chinese American favorites. Yea's Wok is a prime example. They're Taiwanese, but do great things with their Cantonese dishes. It's a down cycle right now for Cantonese food. Until there is a demand in Seattle for better quality with a nice place to go to, it'll be hard for it to succeed. I never got a chance to go to Bako before it shut down but I was rooting for it.

                      and on a tangent, on my recent trip from taiwan, i had the most amazing dumpling at the original Din Tai Fung. The black truffle soup dumpling (and for some reason, the XLB there tastes so much better than the ones made in Bellevue). Now that's a prime example of innovation and fusion that Cantonese cuisine has been lacking here.


                      1. re: shaolinLFE

                        FWIW, Din Tai Fung in Bellevue also serves black truffle XLB - at $25 for an order of 5.

                        Worth it.... once.

                        1. re: shaolinLFE

                          Bako was just meh, IMO. More "fusion" than real innovative or traditional Cantonese. Some items were better than others. More style than substance.

                          Here's what I want: a menu like this:


                          PLEASE. JUST. ONE.

                          1. re: equinoise

                            Without the shark's fin, please.