The simple truth is that while Los Angeles is one of the great centers for really good, first class, fresh-from-the-mainland Chinese Cuisine.
It is also one a centers for really average, really starchy, sugary, bull@#$% Chinese Food as well. It’s time you learned the difference.
Jennifer 8 Lee wrote what I hoped was going to be the definite work on the subject in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”. While the book does have its virtues, I can’t recommend it because of its, frankly, slapdash organization. It isn’t so much as a history of Chinese Food in American, as it is a collection of Ms. Lee’s essays on the subject of Chinese-American cuisine, which aren’t bad, but…it just goes to show you, don’t send a Math Major to do a writer’s job.
The earliest groups of Chinese immigrants were men, who came to basically be cheap labor for the railroads and other industries. They were not allowed to bring their wives, and were expected to pretty much high-tail it back to China after their “shift” was done. These immigrants tried recreate their food here, but the experiment was give and take given the limited access to familiar ingredients. Eventually, Chinese Immigrants who were able to stay in America opened restaurants serving the food from home they knew and loved. Of course, the earliest patrons were other Chinese, but Foodies (even historical foodies) sought out these new flavors. In time, Chinese Food became popular…here and there, in parts. Some items, of course, appealed to American taste more than others.
(Okay, right there, I’m going to stop and thank both Ms. Lee and Simon Schama (in “The American Future”) for their scholarship on the subject.) Hey, despite the fact I didn’t much like Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I still learned a little something from it, so…kudos.
Let’s get back to the main issue, the food. Some of the things that sold best in those olden days, some of the things you might think of as Chinese Food, would be unrecognizable if served in Mainland China, like: Chop Suey or General Tso’s Chicken or even the Fortune Cookie. These are dishes that were invented, reinvented or popularized here in the States, but really don’t exist in traditional, mainland Chinese Cuisine.
So let’s say you’re a novice at this stuff, been eating at Panda Express or P.F. Changs, and want to try the good stuff, I encourage you to try.
So, what signs should you look for in picking a good Chinese Restaurant.
1) It goes without saying the best Chinese Restaurants are geared toward the Chinese community. So first thing, you should look for your local Chinese-American community, hub, or suburb. In Los Angeles’ case, we’re talking about Monterey Park, San Gabriel or Arcadia. I probably should include Chinatown on that list, and it will certainly do in a pinch, but old Chinatown has been taken over by a lot of Southeast Asians (lovely people, but a different culture) than Chinese now. Though a lot of historic Chinese places are still in operation there.
Another tip? if you go into an area of town, and the Advertising switches from English to Mandarin or Cantonese, you’re in the right place.
Now, you might not work in an area close by to the Chinese Immigrant population of a given own. You might be on your own at a strip mall or a local joint. So go in, and ask yourself another important question…just how many Chinese people are eating there?
To be perfectly honest, the fewer Chinese (or any Asians) in a Chinese (or any Asian) establishment, the worse. Native Chinese, and their Chinese-American kids and grandkids grew up with Parents and Grandparents from the mainland know what this stuff is supposed to taste like. They know it to their bones. They know it as a part of their proud birthright. Thus, when it comes to restaurants, they don’t suffer fools gladly or at all. They go where they know the stuff’s good, and they will wait in line (if necessary) to get it. So if you go to a Chinese Restaurant, and if as a Non-Asian, you are one of the few Non-Asians in the house…you are in good hands, my friend. And for the record, struggling to communicate with the Waitstaff, and resorting to pointing to what you want on the menu is a mark of quality.
2) Now that you’re inside the place, the first thing you should smell is a strong, pungent, smoky smell. It took me a couple years to realize, but what you’re smelling is Sesame Oil, the base of any and all Chinese cooking. In the hands of a Chinese Chef, the stuff is magical. But if you don’t smell it, that could mean one or two things. Either a really, really good ventilation system, or they cooks in the back are using something else to cook the food. So, that strong smoky smell is a mark of quality.
3) Are there forks waiting for you at your table, or chopsticks? This makes a difference, because it shows you the mentality of the place. A place that has chopsticks waiting for people who consider them the first best option for dining. A place that has forks waiting for you…well, that should tell you a lot about who’s coming in here.
4) How much do you just flat out not recognize on the menu? This, of course, varies from person to person, and we’re not all experts on all avenues of Chinese cooking. Even me, who’s got Chinese Godparents, and has come as close to being raised around the stuff as one can be without being Chinese, don’t know and haven’t tried everything. So, consider the unfamiliarity a good sign, and a challenge.
And let’s keep in mind what we’re really talking about here. We’re talking about a Restaurant’s willingness to be adventurous. Now, we’re not calling out everyone, because there are such things as food costs to consider, and how much a business (and that’s what these Restaurants are, after all) can expect to move a particular product. But the fact that a Restaurant is willing to try something a little out there, particularly if it’s a Chinese place, is a damn good thing.
5) Do they even serve Dim-Sum, ever? This is a Sunday Tradition for a lot of folks, me and my folks in particular. Any halfway respectable Chinese place, I think, is going to try to do some form of Dim Sum, even if just on the weekends. Even Frontier Wok tries it…yet at the same time a place like Yujean Kang’s does not. Go figure. Now, the Dim Sum doesn’t have to be spectacular, original or even great. But for a Chinese Restaurant to not even try says something, and usually it’s a little concerning.
6) Finally, most important of all, do you like what they’re cooking? Of course, this is the ultimate arbiter for all Restaurants, not just Chinese ones. But hopefully, once you’ve sat down, once you’ve ordered, hopefully you’re not just going to like what you’re eating, but you’re loving it. And when it comes time to pick a place to go, it’s that memory, the thought of that taste, that flavor, that’s going to bring you back.