The Girl Who Ate Everything

Blogging about food and whatever since 2004.

the demise of Chinese cuisine in NYC

There's a discussion about Chinese cuisine in NYC with Ruth Reichl at An excerpt:

...after living in California, it's hard to get very excited about Chinese food in New York. We just don't have the kind of monied, sophisticated Chinese eaters who support great restaurants. So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about local Chinese restaurants. They just don't have the same quality as those on the other coast - or those in Canada - where most of the big Chinese money resides.

Of course, she talks about the Chinese food in NYC that she does love, but this is an interesting point. As I've rarely eaten Chinese food in California (I have eaten Chinese food in Taiwan but I don't remember enough to wax poetic about it), I can't compare it versus NYC, but I'm under the impression that Manhattan's Chinatown of the lesser refined Chinatowns, to put it mildly. In response to a question about people taking Chinese cuisine more seriously, she says:

Basically, Americans are racist about Chinese food. We just don't think it should be as expensive as western food. When my friend Bruce Cost had a great Chinese restaurant in SF, one of the reviews actually said, "What makes him think we should pay as much for Chinese as French food?" And he was buying from the same purveyors as Chez Panisse.

But this will change, and I suspect very soon. As the Chinese become increasingly dominant in the world - which they are, and will be - our attitude about their cuisine will change. Today the great Chinese chefs all stay in Asia, where they're paid better and get respect. Why should they come here? But as we go there, and taste their food, we'll start to give it hte respect it deserves.

Another thing, of course, is that the esthetics of Chinese restaurants are completely different than those of Western places. And we'll have to get used to that. The most expensive restaurant I've ever been to was in Hong Kong - and it was bright, loud, cold, no romance at all. But the food!!

I too look at Chinese food as something that should be cheap. However, I'm thinking chinese food. If I thought the Chinese food were as "good" (a bad word to use, as it has so many meanings, but I'm thinking in terms of ingredients, techniques, presentation, taste, blah blah) as the sophisticated French food, I'd pay for it.

Then again, I've developed an idea of what counts as worthwhile expensive food while growing up in America, an idea that Chinese food hasn't entered into. Perhaps I've been eating the wrong food? Even in Taiwan, the most expensive food I ate wasn't Chinese, although it may have been Asian-influenced. I recall the great Chinese (I'm using Chinese to refer to Taiwanese food also, and while they're surely not exactly the same, I don't know enough about Taiwanese cuisine to talk about it separately) food stalls in the alleyways and the dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurants with great, simple, super-cheap food. Beef noodle soup was a favorite of mine (but absolutely no tendons, blech).

As for the more espensive places I ate at, I think they were mainly buffets. Taipei has loads of buffets (I guess we like to eat a lot, ahem) but they aren't like the cookie-cutter Chinese buffets you find in America. Is there a reason that we don't have more "nice" buffets in America, or at least New York City? I used to love going to the buffets in hotels and department stores in Taipei, in particular (before I lived there) at the Asiaworld Hotel (which also has its own ginormous department store; yup, we just like to eat, shop, and sleep) and this other hotel, either called Henry or had a restaurant with that name. There were other places but I don't remember them as well. Obviously, a buffet in Taiwan wouldn't have Chinese-American food, here, but there was definitely a difference. I recall there being few buffets at the Far Eastern Plaza. Good. Stuff.

I should probably add that I have been to the cheaper, mainly Chinese food buffets in Taiwan. Nothing against them, of course. Good stuff. I can't believe I wasn't fatter when I lived in Taiwan about eight years ago. (You may think I'm rather normal-sized now, but at the time I was "the chubby one" amongst my friends, who I swear all look generally the same today as they did back then. Even though I gained minimal height, I must have added 10-15 pounds to my frame since moving back here.)

...Yeah, I haven't eaten much good Chinese food in my life, have I? I'm really not a fan of Chinese restaurant aesthetics; what's up with them? Does anyone like eating while surrounded by garish decorations? My assumption is yes, although I don't know who these people are. However, if a Chinese restaurant didn't look that way, but say, more Japanese or European, it wouldn't feel very Chinese. Maybe. Not that it would matter if the food is good.

There's one, very distinct memory of eating Chinese food in Taiwan that has been lodged in my brain ever since I was 7 (or somewhere around that age). My mum and I took a trip to Taiwan, which largely consisted of traveling with a western sightseeing tour group. At one location while walking around a mountainous region (of course, I don't remember where it was but it was beautiful, rocky, high cliffs, greenery, nature, which I don't think much of these days) we ate lunch at a small noodle stand run by one woman. It was just there, out in the open near the entrance of one of the long, narrow bridges that traversed the cliffs. The seats and the tables were made of beautiful, ultra-smooth, polished black stone (I can almost recall running my fingers along the table's surface, which is kind of freaky). We ate our noodle soups out of plastic bowls--orange, I think. I don't remember what the food was like but I think I finished it and I'm sure it was good. I suppose that memory is more about the environment than the food itself but ...there. That was random.

This entry was a total brain splodge. I still haven't formulated responses to all the great food blog comments you guys left. [Should do that! Now!]


Kathryn Yu / December 8, 2005 3:17 PM

in nyc, i definitely see chinese food as being inexpensive...that is, inexpensive and delicious. only the shitty take out chow mein, fried rice, and things of that nature ("chinese fast food") are what i'd consider "cheap" (and low quality.)

having been to chinatown in SF, LA, and toronto, i can confirm that nyc's manhattan chinatown is dingy, dirty, gross, crowded. probably the grossest chinatown there is. when i go there for a meal, i expect a tiny, crowded, loud restaurant, bad service, paper napkins, and disposable chopsticks. not exactly the high-art, serene gourmet experience lots of people are willing to shell out lots of money for.

when i moved here, i was really disappointed with nyc chinese food at first -- lack of variety and lack of locations. chinese restaurants are spread out all over in suburban california, particularly in the greater LA area (i blame ranch 99). especially over areas where there's a high concentration of chinese people from all parts: mainland, taiwan, singapore, malaysia, thailand. you're going to find all of the major 8 genres of chinese food there, and stuff shipped in from asia is going to be fresher and in more abundance. nyc sucks in terms of fresh produce.

BUT i think the main reason chinese restaurants in nyc are often associated with "cheap" is because the other places to go cost so much! there are lot more mid-range restaurants of all cuisines in california, so a nicer chinese place in, like, LA costs about the same as a nice american style restaurant. whereas here, people gab about places where you can grab two dumplings for a dollar, because we're in search of a bargain.

also, it's worth pointing out people definitely shell out the big bucks for JAPANESE food. (and the nicest restaurant i went to in taipei WAS a japanese restaurant.)

Wei / December 8, 2005 5:28 PM

Oddly enough, the most I've ever spent at a restaurant was at a chinese restaurant (and no, i'm not being cheap either.. email me if you want the actual price of the meal). That and the time I graduated when we went to a restuarant to celebrate were fairly expensive. Both were in the So. Cal region. Other places that I've ate at (some in NYC, and some in other states), weren't nearly as expensive, but weren't nearly as good either.

As far as the decor of a chinese restaurant, heh, I can vouch for the fact that not too much planning goes into that. Most of the time, most mom/pop shops just throw up some random characters on the wall or some red lanterns and call it done. Chinese restaurants' emphasis usually is on the food and less on the atmosphere.

I've ate at some ok places including a dim sum place in NYC, but none of it really "knocked my socks off" so to speak. So. Cal chinese/asian cusine still ranked as the best I've ate anywhere.

Jason Truesdell / December 9, 2005 2:12 AM

Restaurant design in Hong Kong and, maybe to some extent, in Taipei, is more sophisticated than with most U.S. Chinese restaurants. Also, the food is often more extravant in Hong Kong than in the U.S., and quality matters more than price.

In Beijing, I can't say I saw any truly elegant restaurants; even the extravagantly priced "famous" duck restaurant our team went to, which actually ran about $35-40/person with everything our group ordered, somehow felt almost cafeteria-like.

I struggle with the perception of Asian goods as I try to promote high-end and artisanal Asian foods and crafts. To me, these are just as exciting as good cheese or chocolates or olive oil, and I probably make less money on, for example, my dragon beard candy per unit than the average importer makes on high-end olive oil or vinegar.

In the West Coast, we're starting to see more attempts at quality, total-package restaurants in the realm of Asian food... upscale Vietnamese places or Thai places that use better-than-average ingredients, emphasize good decor, personal service, and more elegant platings and presentations are starting to do quite well.

I think some of the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants who struggled to make it here are earning their MBAs and realizing they can create a lot of value by making the whole experience of Asian food more appealing, both on the interior end and on the food end. You don't have to cater to lowest-common-denominator American taste preferences (more sugar, more oil, more familiar, etc.) anymore, but there are some hurdles to customer acceptance. And, not everyone does it right; I've been to some places that make the same boring, undistinguished dishes, made with unremarkable ingredients, serve them on more expensive plates in a place designed by a fourth year interior design student, and just raise their menu prices a couple of bucks, and totally miss the point of doing it "better."

People are willing to pay a premium at Japanese restaurants in the U.S. But the strange thing is that many of the "fancy" Japanese restaurants I've been to here are no better than family restaurants or teishoku spots I've had the misfortune to eat at in Japan. They try to serve everything vaguely Japanese in one place and do a fairly mediocre job; it's just not possible to do great sushi and great tempura and great donburimono in the same restaurant.

In the domain of Chinese and Southeast Asian food, it's possible to fuse traditional motifs and contemporary aesthetics when building restaurant projects. It's just that not many designers and chefs have tried too hard to do that in the U.S. so far.

Rachael / December 9, 2005 12:12 PM

That is interesting food for thought.

The first thing I started to wonder when reading it was if in other countries people go out for expensive "North American" food or if THAT is considered cheap (read: fast food).

Rich / December 9, 2005 6:40 PM

I would say that yes, since moving to LA I have had way better chinese food than I ever had in New York.

That said, I like the atmosphere of the NYC chinatown. Also out in Flushing (Queens) there was some good stuff, but I didn't get out there more than twice. Chinatown in LA is sort of more of a hipster hangout than anything. Monterey Park and Alhambra is where the real food action is. None of it has ever seemed very expensive, though.

There is just so much more variety here in terms of Chinese, Taiwanese, HK, Vietnamese, Malaysian, etc. etc. Especially if you know people who are from these various areas. Still, something about the markets on Canal and the smell makes me happy.

On the Taiwanese food note, in NYC, you should check out So Go at 11 Mott St. They supposedly have pretty authentic stuff. Although I couldn't finish the plate of duck tongues that a friend and I ordered...

I think that since so much of the food I like from Asia is of the street vendor variety that just exists indoors in the US I'm more apt to naturally hit up the cheap restaurants. I mean, I grew up with sweet and sour chicken and egg rolls so anything is pretty exotic to me.

dt / February 8, 2006 4:00 PM

The best Chinese food outside of China is in east Los Angeles around San Gabriel. I don't mind expensive Chinese restaurants, but you should be able to taste it, which means that they use the best ingredients and meats that they can find. It doesn't have to be an experimental French Laundry type atmosphere. Some restaurants in LA are trying experimental food with success, but I've noticed that all good Chinese restaurants in LA focus on good shopping.

I wouldn't consider NYC to be the best place to represent the versatility of Chinese food. Asian cuisine really isn't a New York strength. But being a city that's known for Chinese food, it perpetuates the belief that the cuisine is that greesy Chop Suey type stuff. But it really is one of the best cuisines in the world.

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