Californian Connoisseur Says There's Finally Good Chinese Food in New York City
As many of you know, back in 2012 Asia Society ran my listing of the top 10 Chinese restaurants in the United States. Unlike most "best restaurant" listings seen in print or on the airwaves, mine made no attempt to balance the list for geographic locale, regional cuisines, or any other factor to make the article more palatable to a wider group of readers. Rather, after sampling more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants all over the United States, I gave my insights into what I believed were in fact the best in the country. As it turned out, my list consisted of restaurants all located in California, the majority of which represented Cantonese-style cuisine. The reaction from two quarters was swift. I was pilloried by New Yorkers, incensed that no New York restaurants were included, with innumerable Internet comments suggesting that I was obviously a "homer" who was biased towards California food. A lesser degree of complaint came from supporters of Sichuan-style food, who made similar allegations based on my Toishanese/Cantonese ancestry.
As to the status of New York Chinese food, it appears that while this opinion had been previously unspoken, many people were thinking what I said. After the original wave of outrage from New Yorkers, it has been common to see New Yorkers on restaurant message boards conceding that New York Chinese food is behind the curve compared to California and Canada. And my more recent comments on the second-class state of New York Chinese food draw little negative reaction. All this is not to say that Chinese food in New York is bad. There are many excellent Chinese restaurants in New York, and I look forward to visiting Manhattan's Chinatown and other venues in New York City to sample Chinese restaurants. My only point is that, to use a boxing term, pound for pound, the Chinese food in New York is clearly inferior to that in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.
With regard to Cantonese vs. non-Cantonese food, the analysis is slightly different. No question, there are outstanding Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Dongbei, Taiwanese, and other regional Chinese-style restaurants to be found in California, New York, and other locales. However, at the time that my original Top 10 listing was published, there just weren't enough signature restaurants in those categories to make a large dent in the Top 10, though some of the Sichuan-style restaurants in various parts of Manhattan outside of Chinatown definitely deserved honorable mention.
However, supporters of New York Chinese food and Sichuan-style Chinese food can rejoice — they now have recently-opened restaurants that clearly are of Top 10 caliber. Just weeks before my Top 10 list was published, the London-based Hakkasan chain opened its first U.S. branch in midtown Manhattan. At the time, many people assumed it was just another expensive Chinese restaurant that served Americanized Chinese food a la Mr. Chow. However, it didn't take long for observers of Chinese food to realize that Hakkasan was the real thing, and that their mantra of offering modern authentic Chinese food was a valid description. While some of their dishes, such as Peking duck with Kaluga caviar, may not seem like authentically Chinese fare, they are certainly consistent with modern Chinese food trends in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Chinese food centers. Hakkasan has since opened branches in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, and Beverly Hills, but Manhattan is still the flagship.
Meanwhile, in the San Gabriel Valley, outside of Los Angeles, since its opening less than a year ago Chengdu Taste has taken the food world by storm, becoming the hottest ticket in town both in terms of taste and buzz, and even capturing the attention of famed New York food writer Ruth Reichl. The lines at this medium-sized restaurant — with its mouth-numbing Sichuan menu full of complex flavors — are ridiculous. Prime-time waiting time may be upwards of two hours, and if you can get in with a wait of under an hour at any time, consider yourself fortunate. To accommodate its crowds, Chengdu Taste extended its closing time by two hours and is hastily opening up a second location a few miles east on Valley Boulevard.
As I have said many times before, Chinese food continues to evolve, and the next great restaurant is always waiting to raise the bar even higher. That's what makes Chinese dining so special and so interesting.