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.



Cleo · May 3, 04:10 AM · #

I didn’t eat a single roadside skewer when I was in Beijing!

NOBODY LISTENS – Halal my Aunt Fanny!

KAMIKAZIPILOT · May 3, 08:25 PM · #

Oh Cleo, I ate plenty of lamb kabobs when I was in Beijing and they were delicious. Even if they were somehow rat meat, they still tasted good.

Sinopuppy · May 6, 04:34 AM · #

I ate roasted DOG pretty regular while I was in Gwangyu,South Korea. It’s pretty common. In Seoul people eat spicy DOG stew. It was a change from burgers. It’s not bad really. They make it with leeks,onion & Cojujang.

In U.S Colonial People were cannibals – ate HUMANS

Cleo · May 6, 06:08 AM · #

wouldn’t it be nice – in addition to a crime blotter – to have a food section with positive articles as well as alarming ones

Sinopuppy · May 6, 06:05 PM · #

MICHAEL GORMLEY – Associated Press

NY political world reeling as 32 state officials implicated in corruption cases in 7 years

ALBANY, New York — With the arrest Monday of another former state Senate majority leader, Albany has seen 32 state level officials snared in corruption cases in the past seven years.

The fourth arrest in the past four weeks came as the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned to clean up Albany, had repeatedly insisted that state politics has shed its dysfunctional past.

“They can’t continue to go forward saying Albany is working great and it’s no longer dysfunctional,” said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “This is clearly not true.”

New Yorkers seemed to doubt it, too.

Two weeks ago, more than 80 percent of New Yorkers in a Siena College poll predicted another indictment. On Monday, a federal prosecutor accused Democrat Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn of funneling funds into his failed campaign for Brooklyn district attorney.

The latest spate of arrests has sent fear throughout the Legislature because two lawmakers working as informants for federal prosecutors secretly recorded years of conversations in Albany and New York City.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Maurice “Mickey” Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University poll and a journalist who covered New York politics starting in 1960. “It’s one thing after another and it amazes me.

“The idea of not one but two legislators would wear a wire, it’s disgraceful,” Carroll said. “I’m not usually one short of comment, but, honest to God, this takes your breath away.”

The arrests “made a bad situation worse,” said Cuomo, who pushed through what he’d called a historic ethics reform in 2011. He said in a radio interview that the charges should energize New Yorkers to back his latest reforms, which include public financing of campaigns and what he would consider an independent enforcement headed by his appointee, with Senate confirmation.

“The governor loses an important part of his narrative in that he has made Albany work better and helped to make Albany a better place,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll.

“Do I think people will potentially look at statements he’s made and say, ‘You were wrong on that one?’ Yes, I think that’s possible,” Greenberg said. “But I don’t think anyone can hold any governor responsible for the illegal acts of legislators. … That’s where the blame lies.”

Other officials in corruption cases include:

—In April, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a Bronx Democrat, is accused of bribery. Assemblyman Nelson Castro, another Bronx Democrat, was indicted on a charge of perjury in connection with a campaign crime and has worn a wire as an informant in Albany since 2009.

—Also last month, Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat and the former Senate majority leader before Sampson, is charged with conspiracy and extortion. He is accused of scheming to buy the Republican line to run for New York City mayor. He had been part of the Independent Democratic Conference that shares control of the chamber with Republicans.

—In 2012, Republican Sen. Nicholas Spano of Westchester was convicted of tax evasion.

—In 2010, Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada, a Bronx Democrat who had been chosen by Democrats and later Republicans to a top leadership post, was indicted for on corruption and pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

—In 2010, Republican Sen. Vincent Leibell of Putnam County was convicted of corruption.

—In 2008, Republican Sen. Joseph Bruno of Rensselaer County, who was a long-serving Senate majority leader, was convicted of corruption, but that was vacated and he faces a new trial.

Cleo · May 7, 08:34 AM · #

except for Mayor Bloomberg, NYC officials RARELY look like they deserve to represent this city – they look like they take and hold positions that no one else bothered to go for because everyone else was competing in real jobs.

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