Is Chinese Food in America Going Upscale…Finally?

Perhaps it is only appropriate that I’m firing off a quick post on Chinese food to usher in the new Year of the Rooster.

Chinese food in America has had a storied history – one that is embedded in the rich tapestry of immigrants in the United States. From the enormous success of the Panda Express chain to the thousands of Chinese buffets that exist in virtually every American community, names like “General Tso’s Chicken” are as familiar, and as American, as “Big Mac” (for an amusing and well-done documentary on the famous sweet/tangy chicken, check out “The Search for General Tso“).

Yet American Chinese food has thus far been unable to shake the one characteristic that’s perennially associated with it: cheap. The typical image of a Chinese restaurant for most Americans is either a cavernous dim sum hall crammed with lazy Susan tables or a relatively barren establishment whose decor mostly consists of a golden Buddha and/or a porcelain cat sitting on the check-out counter (I know, those are kitsch now). Unlike Japanese sushi restaurants–or lately, Korean joints and ramen shops–“high end” and “hip” are images that have eluded Chinese restaurants in America. “Authentic” Chinese food is best served in large suburban strip malls or their basements, preferably in a tiny, decrepit stall.

But we live in the era of the earnest hipster/foodie, as well as younger generations of Asian-American restaurant proprietors, who may be taking Chinese food to a new, exalted plane.

Taking Chinese food upscale has always carried with it some risk, because its cheapness has long been part of its authenticity. It’s the “why am I paying $15 for dumplings when I can get just as good dumplings in hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown for half the price” problem. “Well, that’s cuz those dumplings are filled with wagyu beef and pan fried in foie gras, sir, and those chopsticks are made from bamboo right in our panda garden behind the restaurant…”

Joking aside, it does seem like we are approaching a turning point in the American Chinese food scene in which authenticity (however defined) can coexist with “service, ambience, and price premium.” For instance, Mission Chinese was one of the earlier successful attempts in the “hip + authentic + pricey” direction. I had tried the location in San Francisco a couple years ago and thought it was decent but didn’t quite live up to what was admittedly high expectations.

Since then, quite a few more have emerged on the scene from SF to NYC and even Chicago. Over the Christmas holiday last year, I had a chance to try the acclaimed Mister Jiu’s in SF’s Chinatown. I was quite impressed. Not only was the space unique, the food was well executed, even if wasn’t entirely authentic (if authentic means traditional). In NYC, my informed sources tell me that China Blue is worth checking out – the space apparently evokes 1920s Shanghai and the menu reflects a similar Shanghai-centric sensibility. (Next time I’m in the city, I intend to go and perhaps report back.)

Here in the Second City, where I currently do most of my eating, the ramen bubble may be finally yielding to a similar trend of hipster-infused Chinese establishments where an entree hovers between the upper teens and mid-$20 range. One of the first movers was Fat Rice, which has heavy Macau influences. I have visited a couple of times and thought it deserved its acclaim.

But major restauranteurs in Chitown have also moved into this space, like Stephanie Izard’s “Duck, Duck, Goat” and the newly opened ‘Won Fun Chinese.” Unfortunately, I have not been to either yet, though do plan a visit to Won Fun soon. I’ll also aim to report back in this space about their potential to be the next wave of modern Chinese restaurants.

Whatever this trend may grow into, it is certainly not what one would consider authentic in the narrow sense. But authenticity can simply be about delivering thoughtful, well-executed food that can be both innovative and respect tradition. Evolution and change isn’t necessarily bad–along with potential market opportunities riding this wave–and strikes me as exciting and finally about time.

Happy New Year.

5 thoughts on “Is Chinese Food in America Going Upscale…Finally?

  1. Pingback: Saturday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION

    • Is that also the one NYC? I haven’t been, but I tend to think that much like the ramen phenomenon, Sichuan food has bubble-like characteristics too. I think Yunnan cuisine could get big here in US market.

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