Cheap Delicious Cafés Spearhead Chinese Culinary Hegemony

If food is a window to a culture’s competitive potential (as I’ve suggested in my earlier piece about Korean vs. Japanese cuisines), American cultural hegemony may ultimately give way to the Chinese.

I’ve been through every food infatuation — Korean, Cajun, Italian, Mexican, barbecue, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Indian, Persian, Russian, Afghan. I remain a promiscuous eater, susceptible to the lineup of cuisines that only Southern California can offer. But when I have time to indulge my deepest cravings, Chinese is increasingly becoming my go-to option.

I’m not talking about any old Chinese food. I’m talking about the offerings of what may well be the world’s most competitive eateries — the modern Taiwanese and Chinese cafés that thrive in the brutal competition of Asian foodie hotbeds like Atlantic Times Square, Valley Boulevard, Baldwin Ave and Colima Road.

My earliest memories of Chinese food are of the jjajiangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce) and tangsooyook (sweet & sour pork) I ate as a kid in Korea. Their flavors and textures were a world apart from my daily fare of Korean and American. Looking back to those days I marvel at the proliferation of Chinese restaurants along Korean streets, including the streets and alleys of Myongdong, Seoul’s lively entertainment and shopping district. Back then Korea was poor but it was already crowded with restaurants offering Korean and foreign cuisines. Chinese restaurants outnumbered them all.

My second infatuation with Chinese food came when I was a teen coming home to Korea for the summers. My friends and I would crowd into one or two of the tiny kimchi cabs waiting outside the gate of the US military compound and head downtown. We started our evenings by buying bottles of cheap wine to take into the private rooms of our favorite Chinese restaurant. We drank them with yakki mandoo (fried dumplings). Each plate was always served with little dishes of dakkwang (yellow Japanese-style pickled radish) and onions with jjajiang (salty black-bean sauce concentrate).

Looking back I marvel that we paid only the equivalent of a dollar for a heaping plate of yakki mandoo, each dumpling stuffed and elegantly folded by nimble fingers into plump pleated crescents and browned so the edges were crispy. We ordered plate after plate while taking advantage of our room’s paper-door privacy to engage in teen shenanigans. Our summer carouses through the streets and clubs of Korean cities were fueled by Chinese potstickers. For us they were the equivalent of pizzas, hamburgers and tacos all rolled into one.

Settling into the life of a young professional in the states I didn’t visit many Chinese restaurants. In those days yappies (young Asian professionals) ate Italian, Cajun, French, sushi, Thai and, of course, nouvelle. Back then Chinese restaurants were seen as purveyors of inauthentic fare cooked up for Americans who didn’t know better — hardly an image that appealed to ambitious young Asian Americans. It also didn’t help that Chinese food was linked to the culture of an impoverished communist giant struggling to emerge into the modern world.

After I had kids priorities changed abruptly. Image went out the window; taste, comfort and value moved to center stage. Suddenly we found ourselves back in Chinese restaurants a couple times a week. Country-style tofu, moo-shoo vegetables, orange chicken, broccoli beef, egg fu-young and, yes, noodles in black bean sauce satisfied my family’s collective palate without putting big dents in our plastic. And unlike Korean or Vietnamese restaurants, Chinese restaurants were everywhere, including even our coastal suburb.

In those days Chinese restaurants were of the old-school, serving dishes drenched in thick, often undifferentiable sauces. The menues were probably little different from the ones concocted in Chinatowns in the 19th century. On the westside the Chinese restaurants were scarcely less pricey than their European or Japanese competition. Still our favorite ones became our erstwhile home kitchens, always ready with comfort food when we were too rushed to cook.

Fast-forward two decades. Having exhausted the possibilities of every cuisine displayed along pedestrian-friendly streets from San Diego’s University District to Napa, a decade ago we rediscovered Chinese food. Our new infatuation began with drives to the eastside for dim sum. On New Year’s Day, the one day of the year when America goes into hibernation, we could immerse ourselves in the festive din of a hundred families engaging in ritualistic gluttony. What could be more fun than ordering twenty plates and OD’ing on the assault of flavors, textures and shapes? And all for about the price of a meal at a mid-level restaurant in Santa Monica or Brentwood.

What moved Chinese food from the occasional excursion to a weekend routine were the hip new cafés that began appearing in Asian enclaves. Applying modern Taiwanese and Hong Kong sensibilities to traditional Chinese dishes and flavors, they served up an updated version of Chinese cuisine that’s tasty, aesthetic, quick and cheap. Just as importantly, they freed the Chinese dining experience from dim dens lined with red overstuffed booths and moved them out into open spaces with tall windows, clean lines and modern, upbeat decor. Rather than descents into the not-so-glorious past, a Chinese meal took on the feel of a sneak preview of a healthier and richer culinary future.

Despite their sleek look Chinese cafés are much more than suggested by their names. Their menus typically fill a half dozen pages. Places like Fortune Dumpling, 101 Noodle Express and Guppy Teahouse serve much more than exquisite steamed dumplings, flavorful beef noodle soups or dozens of flavors of milk tea drinks. You can also find delicacies like wasabi fried oysters, exquisitely sautéed fish filets and beef wrapped in fragrant herbs — all at prices ranging from $5 to $9, not counting special deals like $3.99 for a 10 steamed pork dumplings at Fortune Dumpling. The same can be said for many other cafés like Din Tai Fung, Green Island, Chef Hung’s and Tasty Garden.

Of course we probably spend more on gas and wear-and-tear on our cars driving out to the eastside than what we save on the delicious food. And we always end up ordering more food than we should. But that’s beside the point. We’re all suckers for great food at great prices no matter how much time and money we have to spend to get it.

And while I’m enjoying our Chinese café meals I can’t help reflecting on the rich culinary heritage, disciplined aesthetic sensibility, industry, efficiency and daring that went into creating and running such establishments. Their incredibly low prices are only possible because they serve so many customers each day with such impressive efficiency — without skimping on service and amenities. For example, our steamed dumplings come with several tiny immaculate sauce dishes, including one filled with slivered fresh ginger. Our beef noodles come with a stack of extra bowls and spoons that we didn’t even ask for. All this for what we might pay for pizzas or hamburgers in our suburban neighborhood.

I can’t help wondering how many Americans will ditch pizza parlors and burger joints for Chinese cafés as word spreads of their values. Thirty years ago few Americans had heard of sushi. Today there isn’t an American town of over 20,000 that doesn’t have at least one sushi bar. Modern Chinese cafés may even become as ubiquitous as their old-school predecessors. I don’t think I can find a town of over 5,000 without a Chinese restaurant.

Already Chinese buffets — admittedly a different kind of food venue than modern Chinese cafés — are becoming a fixture in towns across American, even ones far removed from metropolitan areas. Several years ago, during a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia I was surprised to see at least two Chinese buffets.

The spread of the modern Chinese café will bring renewed respect for a culture that had been dusted over by two centuries of misfortune but which is now reclaiming its proper place in modern civilization. To my mind they embody the vitality of a culinary tradition reborn into the modern world with all the advantages of a flavor palette that took thousands of years and dozens of regions to develop.