1/23/2012 10:16:00 AM

Is NYC Still the Best U.S. City for Chinese Food?

Image via Flickr/roboppy
Maybe it’s just us, but lately it seems that NYC’s Chinese food scene isn’t what it used to be. In particular, Manhattan’s Chinatown, while still full of many authentic options, has changed a lot in the last decade or so as gentrification, rising rents and the recession have driven much of the Asian population out of the area. In fact, as of the 2010 census, Manhattan’s Chinatown was no longer home to the city’s largest Chinese population. And lately it seems like all the most authentic Chinese places we read about are in the outer boroughs or NJ. So with the Chinese New Year upon us, we got to thinking: is NYC’s reputation for having the best Chinese food still legit?

Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, who has long been covering the ethnic food beat, argues that the Chinese food scene in NYC has only picked up in recent years: “Ten years ago, if I had to compare our restaurants with those of LA or northern California, I would have hung my head in shame. Even though we had great Chinese food then, it was of a more limited and predictable sort.”

The trend of Chinese populations waning in major cities has seemingly altered the Chinese food landscape not just in NYC but nationwide, affecting top Chinese food cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Ask any LA food critic where to get the best Chinese food, and you will most likely be pointed to parts of the San Gabriel Valley or Irvine, both with rapidly growing Chinese communities.

LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold wrote a manifesto last year proclaiming Los Angeles “the best place in the world to eat right now.” In it, he cited the variety of Chinese cuisines available outside of the city as a major factor, stating, “When somebody asks if you feel like going out for Chinese food, the only sensible response is ‘What kind?’ The Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley, which stretches for almost 20 miles, supports restaurants from every corner of China, including districts you’d be hard-pressed to find on a map.”

Others will tell you that San Francisco’s Chinese options are neck and neck with NYC’s. Anita Lo, executive chef/owner of Annisa in NYC, recalls her experience: “I’ve had some great Chinese food in San Francisco. My mother lived there toward the end of her life, and we had some spectacular meals out there. It’s hard to say which city is better. I still remember having an eight-precious duck - a whole boned duck stuffed with sticky rice at a second-floor restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.”

But while it’s clear NYC has some competition on the Chinese food front, a new influx of immigrants has been steadily moving in, often occupying the outer boroughs and bringing their own unique regional cuisines to the table. Robert Sietsema notes: “We are currently undergoing a Chinese food renaissance in New York City. There have never been so many regional cuisines available, nor has the Chinese food been of such exceptional quality. Part of this is due to a crop of new restaurants that have appeared in the last five years, representing the cooking styles of northern China, but we’ve also multiplied our number of Sichuan places reasonably authentic in their use of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and organ meats. Now we can proudly flaunt the excellence and range of our Chinese restaurants, and go head-to-head with any other city or region in the country. Thanks, recent immigrants!”

Simultaneously, as more authentic options have cropped up in far-flung boroughs and neighborhoods, Manhattan restaurateurs have once again begun hawking high-end Americanized Chinese, a trend that NYC hasn’t seen since the late ’80s. Anita Lo remarks: “I came here in 1984 when high-end Chinese was still going strong. Places like Shun Lee, Tse Yang and David K’s were all highly regarded in the media and were popular. Those places have died off or have fallen out of media attention in the last few decades. But there seems to be a resurgence of interest with several Sichuan restaurants being buzzed about and new Chinese restaurants such as RedFarm and Wong opening.”

The newer shmancier Chinese food options, while good, are often pricey and watered down. “The food is often good, but also sometimes silly and facile,” says Robert Sietsema. “Inevitably, it seems aimed at Westerners afraid of trying the real thing. Yes, anyone can make any kind of food, but Chinese chefs currently have the advantage, and are introducing lots of new stuff from China that Western chefs, in general, have taken no trouble to find out about. And I hate that talented Chinese chefs are excluded from the celebrity chef system that dominates our high- and medium-price-range restaurants.”

So while NYC’s Chinese food scene still seems vibrant but simply decentralized, and all three of these major cities have seen de-urbanization of their Chinese populations, the question remains: which city’s existing options are the best? We turn the discussion over to you - let us know what you think in the comments.

34 comments :

  1. Without a doubt SF has the best Chinese food. Also, why wasnt Boston in this conversation?

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  2. I still think overall NY has the best Chinese Food. SF lacks variety and doesn't seem to change much over decades.

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  3. Los Angeles is, hands down, the best place in the country for Chinese food (and it has been for a long time.) The San Gabriel Valley (Alhambra, Monterey Park, etc) is filled with an astounding variety. No question we've got NY and SF beat!

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  4. BUT WHERE TO GO IN SF??????? PLEASE TELL ME! I JUST MOVED HERE FROM NYC AND NEED TO FIND A NEW PLACE FOR GOOD DUMPLINGS!!!! :(

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  5. Anonymous: Kingdom of Dumpling on Taravel will beat anything you ever had in NYC. SF has NYC beat hands down.

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  6. cool ! thanks for the rec!! :)

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  7. so if NYC's Chinese food is so great, please name three great restaurants in Chinatown so I can go there!

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  8. Toronto has the second largest Chinatown in North America and there are still some fantastic choices for Chinese food there. My son lived in China for two years and Toronto is still his go to, when he wants authentic choices now that he's back in the West.

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    1. Actually, Toronto has several "Chinatowns", just like several of the other cities previously discussed. The most traveled downtown one isn't nearly as impressive as those a little further out, such as in Markham. In my subjective opinion, it beats NY, SF, LA and all the others (and I say that as a native and flag-waving NYer).

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  9. How can you not even mention at least the names of some of the restaurants in the "far flung boroughs???". As if Brooklyn's Sunset Park and Queens' Flushing don't really exist!!! Pacificana can go head to head with any "NYC" restaurant!!!

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  10. I feel so sorry for you! One of the prices we pay for the climate on the West Coast (of FL), is there is, to my knowledge, no even passably acceptable Chinese Restaurant nearer than Orlando.

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  11. Chinese cuisine is one of the two most elaborate, culturally highly-esteemed, and inventive culinary traditions in the world. Why is it that no one can make a go of really high-end, no-holds-barred Chinese restaurants in North America? In New York, there are those who will pay $400 and more a person for high-end sushi (or even the occasional kaiseki restaurant). I do not mean to impugn the refined excellence of the best Japanese cuisine, but few would claim that the Japanese tradition is as rich or diverse as the Chinese, or has as many elaborate dishes hidden in its vast national repertoire.

    But even serious foodies seem to relegate Chinese food to the quasi-American corner takeout and the "authentic" hole-in-the-wall-that nobody-else-knows (except you have a hard time getting a table so somebody must). At those sorts of prices and in such surroundings, the heights of which Chinese cooking is capable just can't be reached. And I cannot, for the life of me, understand why, especially since so many Americans have now been to Hong Kong, to Taiwan, to Shanghai, to some of the expatriate temples of Chinese cuisine in Japan . . . It would be as if there were no serious French restaurants in New York or Chicago.

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  12. Places like Shun Lee and David K appeal to the non-Asian population. and quite frankly a ripoff.
    Charging 3-4 times the norm, is not indicative of the quality of the food served

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  13. Jing Fong on Elizabeth St near Canal.

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  14. Yes, one other individual has commented that Toronto has the best Chinese food. With seven so-called Chinatowns in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), the city has an amazing selection of restaurants in and around town.

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  15. The question about dim sum in SF, Yank Sing Rincon Center and Stephenson street locations. Excellent.

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  16. Speaking for the NYC area, the best roast duck is in Manhattan's chinatown. But overall Chinese cuisine can be in Sunset Park's c-town or Flushing's.

    Hands down the most varied, authentic and best tasting Chinese/Asian food is in the Greater Toronto area.

    City Slicker

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  17. nice green bo in chinatown nyc is really good for dumplings

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  18. Yee Li in NYC Chinatown on Bayard at Elizabeth is killing it. Still love Phoenix Garden on E.40th, too. Both amazing Cantonese. Great congee and simple soup and noodle lunches at East Wonton on E. Broadway near the Manhattan Bridge. Just came back from L.A. and was very impressed by the sheer magnitude of the choices in the San Gabriel valley. Also, very cool $15/hr. foot massages!

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  19. Thanks for the Yee Li rec. Will def try it!

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  20. Sorry, NY & San Francisco, Chicago,& Minneapolis but for years my vote goes to Houston, Tx. for the best Chinese, Viet Namese & Thai food. Besides the food being the best, the prices are bargain rate compared to Ca., NY, Il., & Mn.

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    1. Thank you for that. Many of my Houston friends moved to NYC or LA and say they can't get the same quality of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food.

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    2. I am in Houston now and would love a recommendation now. I love Vietnamese. Thanks.

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  21. New Orleans also has anexcellent selecion of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai & Japanese restaurants, very reasonably priced compared to the East and West Coasts!

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  22. agree w toronto and sf. sorry, ny. now i'm dying for dim sum

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  23. Is this really even a question today? Flushing is developing a good regional ethnic chinese food scene, but even NYC critics from Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain to the NYT have concede that LA has the best chinese food in the country, specifically the San Gabriel Valley.

    Anyone who covers or writes about Chinese food inevitably is lead to LA. No other city compares to the depth and breadth of regional chinese food there.

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  24. The best chinese food is NEVER in Chinatown. This applies to all three american cities where the newer Chinese immigrants have migrated elsewhere in their cities.

    In ranking order:

    1) Los Angeles (San Gabriel Valley) -America's epicenter of every variety of Chinese food imaginable.

    2)Toronto -has a similar Chinese immigration pattern as LA.

    3)Vancouver and San Francisco (Richmond district) -Cantonese is still strong

    4)NYC (Flushing) -Northeastern Chinese food, although not the most popular variety, is becoming stronger in Queens.

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  25. Los Angeles is the undisputed capital of great chinese for REAL chinese people. Jonathan Gold probably owes his pulitzer prize to his fantastic coverage of endless chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, which is an area that is uncompromising in authenticity.

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  26. LA is the only place to get real chinese food in the US.

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  27. I have been living in NYC for more than 5 years. Prior to moving to NYC, I had lived in SF for 2 years. Philippe at UES is the best Chinese restaurant I have ever had in NYC (but it is also expensive). Without doubt, SF (or South SF) has the best Chinese restaurants.

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  28. NYC hasn't been the best place to get Chinese food for nearly two decade. Has Zagat not been paying attention to what's happening in NY since 1995?

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  29. Eliminating is creating a excellent local cultural china meals landscape, but even NYC experts from Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain to the NYT have acknowledge that LA has the best china meals in the nation, particularly the San Gabriel Area.

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  30. Agreed. San Gabriel is overwhelmingly concentrated with excellent chinese restaurants.

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