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10 Best Chinese Restaurants in America

David Chan, a Los Angeles accountant and attorney, has eaten at more than 6000 Chinese restaurants. He says the best are all in California and most opened in the last decade. Click the link for the actual list, which isn’t of that much interest to me since I don’t live in Los Angeles. But Chan’s cultural explanation is fascinating.

Ranking the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States is fairly easy for me. It’s something I’ve often thought about, though I have never put pen to paper. However, I feel as though I must provide an explanation first, since I suspect the result is not what you might expect.

As you see, all 10 of the restaurants I listed are in California, most of them are in the Los Angeles area, and most of them serve Hong Kong style food. That might lead one to believe that I am biased towards restaurants in the city that I live that serve a particular cuisine.

However, that is absolutely not the case. I’ve been to all 50 states and eaten at 300 Chinese restaurants in New York City alone. Virtually all observers, particularly Chinese themselves, agree that the best Chinese food comes out of Hong Kong. Furthermore, the great thing about Chinese food is that it continues to evolve and improve. And most of the evolution starts in Hong Kong, where food obsession is the norm. If you look to see where in the United States you see the greatest Hong Kong influence, it’s Los Angeles first and San Francisco second. (Not to say there aren’t a lot of other different Chinese regional cuisines represented in our restaurants here. Many of them are very good. But few of these other regional restaurants reach the elite level.)

On the other hand, New York has relatively little Hong Kong influence, and I like to describe its Chinese food as being mired in the 1990s. Part of the issue is that while New York City does have a continuing influx of Chinese immigrants, their influx is more of the working class ilk, and heavily weighted towards Fujian province, not a culinary mecca. In contrast, more wealthy/professional Chinese settle in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, and they demand, and can afford, a higher quality of Chinese food.

A comment I heard the other day was even more blunt — the person said New York Chinatown food reminded him of post-World War II San Francisco Chinatown food, which is as big of an insult as it sounds.

[...]

The other fact which you may wonder about is that most of the restaurants are located in outlying suburbs rather than core city Chinatowns. Once again there is a logical explanation. American Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by immigrant villagers from rural southern China. Then for several decades the U.S. barred most Chinese from immigrating. As a result, Chinatowns and Chinese food in the U.S. stagnated. It was only when Chinese immigration to the U.S. was legalized, starting in the late 1960s, and the new immigrants from places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai and elsewhere in China brought their food with them that Chinese food here became worthy of attention. And in large part these immigrants bypassed the old Chinatowns, especially as time went on. Consequently most Chinatown food today is not particularly good.

Now, food is a matter of taste and it’s quite possible that, like most “foodies,” Chan’s tastes are more complex and different from my own. But it stands to reason that the best food–defined as using the best ingredients and having the most talented, innovative chefs–of any cuisine type would be in a place that draws a critical mass of young, wealthy people from that part of the world.

It’s actually remarkable, too, that Chan has managed 6000-plus Chinese restaurants. Even granting that he looks to be on the tail end of middle age or perhaps a wee bit beyond, it would require eating at a different restaurant every day for 16.4 years to manage that feat. Presumably, even though he’s clearly looking for novelty rather than just a quick bite, he’s repeating some restaurants a lot. Not only is there a convenience factor but there’s not much point in having favorites if you never go back. So, let’s just say he eats a lot of Chinese food!

(There is an old joke that eating Chinese food means you’ll be hungry again in an hour. While I never found that to be the case, maybe because I consume a lot more protein than carbs even when eating Chinese, I suppose it’s possible that it’s actually true for David Chan.)

via Ezra Klein

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    A comment I heard the other day was even more blunt — the person said New York Chinatown food reminded him of post-World War II San Francisco Chinatown food, which is as big of an insult as it sounds.

    Dead on. The best Chinese food in any city is not in that city’s Chinatown.

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  2. MstrB says:

    A few thoughts.

    Of the three places in China I’ve been (Hong Kong, Beijing & Guangzhou)…Hong Kong did have the best food.

    I am not surprised by the location of the Los Angeles Area restaurants, its long been know that the Alhambra/San Marino/Rosmead area of the San Gabriel Valley had more and better Chinese Food than Chinatown in Downtown LA.

    Now I have a list of new places to try this weekend.

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  3. Maxwell James says:

    Virtually all observers, particularly Chinese themselves, agree that the best Chinese food comes out of Hong Kong. Furthermore, the great thing about Chinese food is that it continues to evolve and improve. And most of the evolution starts in Hong Kong, where food obsession is the norm.

    I am not Chinese, but I speak Mandarin and have lived in China. I doubt there is nearly as much consensus on the issue as he suggests. Personally I prefer Sichuanese food to Cantonese, though both can certainly be delightful.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    Unless his list has Mary Chung’s in Cambridge, MA, it’s not complete.

    (One of those hole-in-the-wall restaurants that doesn’t take credit cards and looks like a typical Chinese place. But the Suan La Chow Show is divine. Even has a wikipedia page. )

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  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I’m glad he mentioned Yank Sing, in San Francisco. If there’s a better dim sum place out there I’d sure as hell like to know about it. I’m glad he didn’t mention Tommy Toy’s. That place is overrated. In any event, my strategy for the whole “you’ll be hungry in a half hour” thing with Chinese food is simply to eat a lot more. I figure if I’m basically in a state of catatonia by the time I leave the restaurant then I’ll be quite good until the next feeding session.

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  6. Tlaloc says:

    Furthermore, the great thing about Chinese food is that it continues to evolve and improve.

    Proof that critics are useless. I have no interest in having my food evolve. I want it to be exactly the same- I ordered it because I liked it how it was. If it comes out significantly different than the last time that only pisses me off and encourages me to eat somewhere else.

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  7. Racehorse says:

    I have always wondered – is that real chicken that they use?

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  8. Davebo says:

    But it stands to reason that the best food–defined as using the best ingredients and having the most talented, innovative chefs–of any cuisine type would be in a place that draws a critical mass of young, wealthy people from that part of the world.

    Vancouver? Seriously, an Angelino proclaims that CA has the best Chinese food. Stop the presses!

    Hell Amsterdam has better Chinese than you can get in LA.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo:

    Hell Amsterdam has better Chinese than you can get in LA.

    You sure you’re not thinking Indonesian food? That’s sort of what they’re famous for, aside from Belgian beers.

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  10. sam says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Unless his list has Mary Chung’s in Cambridge, MA, it’s not complete.

    Years ago when I lived in Cambridge there was a Chinese restaurant on Mass Ave (can’t recall the name, but it was just beyond the law school going toward Porter Square) that served a dish called Gai Gon Lon Har Pan. It was this wonderful combination of deep-fried chicken livers, lobster and vegetables in a beautiful brown sauce. Delicious. Never had anything like it all these years later.

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  11. al-Ameda says:

    Talk about stacking the deck. …
    David Chan (of Los Angeles) asserts that most people prefer or believe that the Hong Kong Style of Chinese Food is the best or most preferred, then he goes on to show that … surprise! … most of the best Chinese restaurants are Hong Kong Style restaurants in the greater L.A. area.

    The fact is, out here on the West Coast – from San Diego up to Seattle – there is a lot of good Chinese food, much of it outside of the traditional staples of Chinese cuisine that we became accustomed to in the previous 40 years. People are more innovative now, and the restaurant market out here is really competitive. You can still get the same-old at a reasonable price, but you can also get really good Chinese cuisine in many venues.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: I don’t think he’s stacking the deck so much as pre-empting the obvious criticism of a list comprised solely of California-based Hong Kong style cuisine. I don’t know whether he’s right but his explanation is plausible–the best food in China is where the richest Chinese live and the best examples of it here are where the rich Hong Kongers settle.

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  13. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:

    I understand your points James. I’ve been to Hong Kong and the best food I had there was Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian foods. I also had good Chinese food too.

    My personal preference is for Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine, and not so much for the Cantonese type that you find in Hong Kong.

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  14. Racehorse says:

    While we’re on this subject, around here what we have in the way of Chinese are mainly small restaurants in strip shopping centers next to large grocery stores. They do a lot of take-out and lunch specials. I haven’t been to many of the other states, so I can’t compare them. My favorite is usually bourbon chicken or shrimp/fried rice/lo mein noodles/egg rolls. Once in a while I head to the next county where there is a large Chinese buffet place that is packed on weekends. It seems the food is loaded with msg and really makes me thirsty, but I love Chinese food. Now I think we have most places beat when it comes to barbecue: huge plates of ribs, minced pork, hush puppies, slaw, and onion rings! There are different styles of bbq around and everyone has their preference. The other top thing we have are the fish camps – large restaurants that serve fresh fried fish: flounder, shrimp, bass, perch, and a few others. These places are packed on weekends. About 4 hours away is the coast with the inevitable seafood buffet places that line the boulevards down there and have acres of buffet lines with every kind of seafood available. Sometimes we drive down just for that and a walk on the beach, then back home in the same day!
    All you can eat and buffets are real popular around here: fish, pizza, Mexican, barbecue, even fast food chicken!

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  15. nightrider says:

    Is there any actually great Chinese food inside the Beltway? I’ve lived in California and been to Hong Kong and China, and I’m not a food snob but really the Chinese food in DC that I’ve found is just not up to par.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @nightrider: There’s a really good place out in Seven Corners, near Falls Church, and actually a quite good one in Hybla Valley. The latter is just a couple miles from me but the atmosphere is pretty lousy and they don’t deliver, so I just get takeout occasionally. The Thai is better here and delivers, so I tend to just get it.

    There is, of course, China Town in DC. Some people swear by it, some swear at it.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    @sam: That actually might have been at the old Mary Chung’s. (The place moved from the north side of Mass Ave to the south side of Mass Ave.) The dish you describe sounds familiar as well. I must have had it at least once.

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  18. I was surprised a few years ago when a Vietnamese friend told me that California had better Vietnamese food than Vietnam. He said it was the same cuisine but better or higher consistency ingredients.

    So I’m not surprised.

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  19. @al-Ameda:

    Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan Restaurant

    @Racehorse:

    I have always wondered – is that real chicken that they use?

    I was walking up to a restaurant with a Chinese friend. He says “I like this place, fresh ingredients” and then he nods a the pet hospital next door. Good one. lol.

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  20. @nightrider:

    Tyler Cowen’s ethnic dining guide is all about that region.

    He and I look for the same things – neighborhood immigrant restaurants for immigrant families.

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