|Image via Flickr/roboppy|
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.