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Op-Ed: Time To Move Past American-Chinese Food In Los Angeles

Bittman and Chen
Bittman and Chen

Watch: Chop Suey's Next Wave

Mark Bittman visited the Chinese food scene in Los Angeles recently, guided by Yong Chen, author of "Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America." The five-minute video starts off with him at China Café in Grand Central Market, then Chinatown, and then finally at Class 302 in Irvine. The transitions are purposeful. It starts off with American-Chinese food in Chinatown and then ends with authentic Chinese food in the Southern California suburbs.

While he touches on good points, over half of the video is stuck in the past. Authentic Chinese food doesn't make its debut until the three-minute mark. It's a common national perception of Chinese food in Los Angeles: visitors seem perpetually surprised that the Chinatown of yesteryear has died, even though its death happened 35 years ago.

While American-Chinese food is no doubt a part of Los Angeles' past, it no longer is an active part of the conversation around these parts. Frankly, no one comes to L.A. to eat at China Café. Lovely and nostalgic as that place is, you'd be wasting your time if you wanted a true Chinese food experience. Chop suey simply isn't a dish to write home about.

American-Chinese food was created as a response to poverty and arose from the rural immigrants of Guangdong. These days, the Los Angeles Chinese population is much more diverse and exceedingly affluent. You can see it in the food; you've been seeing it in the food for the last part of the century.

Now, Bittman's video is great content, and it serves its purpose well. It is not meant to be a where-to-eat piece. At least, I dearly hope not.

I urge anyone inspired to visit Los Angeles' Chinese food scene after the video to look further. Those modern suburban Chinatowns that Chen and Bittman touch on are what you should be targeting. Over 50% of regional Chinese food is represented in the greater Los Angeles area. There are popular ones like Sichuan, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hunan as well as more obscure varieties like Liaoning, Xinjiang, and Hubei food. Nowhere else in the country has as much regional variety as Los Angeles. And yes, we are far ahead of New York and San Francisco.

 

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Bittman and Chen's choice of authentic Chinese food is curious. They make a stop at the marvelous Class 302 in Irvine for oyster omelets and fish cakes. It's a wonderful restaurant that represents Taiwanese cooking well, though I suspect it was chosen mostly out of convenience (Chen is a professor at UC Irvine). Because while Irvine and Orange County contain a great variety of Chinese food, Bittman should have visited the San Gabriel Valley for better context.

The San Gabriel Valley is the nation's Chinese food powerhouse. There are over 800 Chinese restaurants, by recent estimates, in the San Gabriel Valley alone. Roughly 200 to 300 of those restaurants are congregated along Valley Boulevard, which began its reign as a Chinese food destination in the mid-1980s.

The Chinese culinary scene here is wonderful and diverse. You can get hand-pulled, cumin drenched noodles alongside pieces of soaked bread in lamb broth. Or opt for large Beijing meat pies. Sichuan has been the hottest thing in town lately and believe me when I say there are plenty of options to choose from in that category. Of course, you can't talk about Los Angeles Chinese food without a nod to the wonderful dim sum scene, which religiously attracts hour-long crowds every weekend.

I assure you -- no where else in the country can you get this brilliant mosaic of Chinese regional cuisine.

As for the future of Chinese dining in Southern California? They are right on point in the video; there's a move towards the upscale. As more immigrants file in with more spending power, there are higher standards when it comes to service and quality.

But also coming of age are the second-generation Chinese-American eaters and chefs. It's not just recent immigrants who are leading the Chinese culinary scene, but the people who live in the area. Asian fusion is on the rise, where provincial and country borders are being blurred. This isn't just a Los Angeles trend. It's a international one.

At the end of the day, it seems, it's all about what tastes good.

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