Seeking Authentic Chinese Food: Have Passport, Will Cross Border!

Since moving back to Seattle, I often get asked what are some of the things I miss most about living in Hong Kong.  What I miss most are my Hong Kong friends, and so the people are obviously number one on my list.

But I have to be honest… and I confess that good Chinese food finishes a close second to my friends in Hong Kong.

Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love living in Seattle.  I love the majestic natural beauty I’m surrounded by.  I love the quality of life, and the self-deprecating and quirky sense of humor people here posses.  I love the entrepreneurial spirit and independent thinking that permeates the clean lush air that we breathe.  I love that Seattle is a perfect city for nerds and studs alike, and that people from all over the world are moving here and choosing to stay.

So with the exception of the typical “Juneuary” summer—as I type this sentence via cold blue fingers, this American Taitai is shivering in her goose down jacket huddled by the heat register as she waits for the heat to come back on—I love it here (omit sarcastic voice!)  Taking into consideration affordability, quality of life, and culture, there is absolutely no other city in the US I’d rather live in.

Well, I mean it until the subject of Chinese food comes up.  When that happens, my stomach flutters in despair and I clench my teeth.  Then I get angry.

I am passionate about my food, and I am particularly passionate about my Chinese food.  It is a problem, and DH has (rightfully) accused me of being close-minded and stubborn.  I respond with the logic that I have certain standards when it comes to Chinese food, and I absolutely refuse to compromise.  It’s all or nothing, baby.  And so far in Seattle, nothing has won out.

I am a Chinese food snob.

I generally abstain from the vast majority of Chinese restaurants here because they are not authentic.  It has gotten to the point where left to my own devices—unless homemade—I pretty much refuse to eat Chinese food in Seattle altogether, with the exception of maybe three restaurants in Bellevue, and one restaurant in Seattle.  Outside of these four places, I generally nibble at large family gatherings held in forgettable Greater Seattle Area Chinese restaurants with dated Lazy Susans holding an array of various un-Chinese dishes such as beef with giant uncut broccoli florets.  While the purpose is the company and NOT the food, I can’t help but to pick at my food in silent protest.  It’s just not very good.

Now I find it fascinating to contrast the explosion of local Western haute cuisine restaurants with the stagnancy of Chinese restaurants here.  The preponderance of “New School” Continental European, Nouveau-American, Italian “owner/chef” boutique restaurants in our fair city has grown significantly over the last fifteen to twenty years—mostly as a result of the influx of “foodie” people to Seattle.  There is no question that the Western food and restaurant scene here has drastically upped its game, particularly in the last ten years.  Seattle boasts multiple James Beard award-winning chefs who currently own and operate their own restaurants.

Unfortunately, I’ve observed that in stark contrast to the vibrancy of Seattle’s Western food landscape, the Chinese food scene here remains totally stagnant, light years behind current “locavore/fresh handmade pasta/connective tissue/bone marrow/scratchling” trends.  Instead, our Chinese food here remains stuck in its lackluster, sweet and sour pork past—hovering at or below mediocrity at best—both in terms of execution and innovation.

It’s totally baffling.

Why?  Well, mostly because what we as Seattleites think of as “Chinese food” really isn’t Chinese at all.

My parents were recently in the Bay Area, catching up with family and old friends.  A friend of a friend, who happened to be the former owner of a very successful and authentic Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area, was hosting dinner.  When she heard that my parents had recently retired and moved to Seattle, she commented about the dearth of good Chinese food there.  In her professional opinion, she thought the Chinese food she had in Seattle “was not edible because it was either unrecognizable as Chinese, or it was extremely unrefined.”  She wouldn’t have considered what she ate in Seattle real Chinese food.

And she’s right.  The vast majority of the 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States (including most Chinese restaurants in Seattle) do not actually serve good authentic Chinese food.  This phenomenon is eloquently and entertainingly discussed in Jennifer 8. Lee’s TEDx talk about her “hunt for General Tso.”

Lee perfectly sums up why General Tso’s Chicken is so popular in the US: “He is sweet, he is fried, and he is chicken.  All things that Americans love.”

One of the funniest parts of Lee’s talk occurs when she shows a video of the Chinese chef credited with inventing General Tso’s chicken.  The famous chef was presented with pictures of the American version of his dish.  Not only did the chef fail to recognize the altered Americanized staple in photographs, but he was also clearly horrified and confused at the transformation.

Unless you make it yourself at home, good Chinese fare is limited here, and I never understood why.  It’s not as if Seattle was like rural Eastern Washington where I grew up.  Seattle is an otherwise cosmopolitan city with a sizeable Chinese population.  Asians accounted for 13.6 percent of Seattle’s population as of 2010.  And as the largest ethnic group within the Asian & Pacific Islander category, we Chinese accounted for almost 3.5 percent out of the 13.6 percent.  As of 2010, there were over 19,400 people of Chinese descent living in Seattle, out of a total population of over 560,000.

So recently I’ve been asking myself, “WHY is the Chinese food here so mediocre?”  And since Tony Bourdain probably won’t be taking his new CNN show to Seattle to unearth the mysteries of why the Chinese food here sucks relative to her French, Italian, and Nouveau American counterparts, allow this American Taitai to take a stab at it.

I’ve heard a compelling sociological theory explaining the main underlying reasons as to exactly why the Chinese food here in Seattle is subpar relative to the sizable local Chinese population.  (Full disclosure: my main source for this evolving theory is DH, since he belongs to that rare breed, the “real” Seattle person having grown up here…)

The answer is multi-faceted and ultimately lies in the Seattle customer who partakes of the Chinese food here, and what he or she is willing to pay.  So here goes.

1) Being All Things to All People Makes for Bad Chinese Food

Like the people, Chinese food is extremely diverse.  I’ve posted before about how disparate regional differences in language, culture and food within China abound.  But we all tend to simplify by generalizing different sub-cultures into one overarching category.  And we don’t just do it with Chinese food.  Northern or Southern Italian food simply becomes Italian food.

Here in Seattle, Chinese restaurants must offer both large quantities and multiple varieties of food from disparate cuisines at the expense of quality.  This is understandable since the customer base here doesn’t demand specialization, but rather, large quantities of sweet-and-sour, sauce-laden, fried foods.  So many Seattle Chinese restaurants continue to offer what sells to the American palate: General Tso’s or Almond Chicken and Beef with Broccoli—which BTW, is far easier and less expensive to make and to sell relative to more authentic Chinese dishes.  The Chinese restaurants here must cater to their customers’ tastes in order to survive.

Along these lines, when you are searching for an authentic Chinese restaurant, it should be clear what region or cuisine the restaurant specializes in: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Sichuanese, Chiuchow, Hakka, etc.  In Hong Kong, almost all the Chinese restaurants are categorized by region or by cuisine: dumpling and noodle-shops, Dim Sum and seafood specialists, etc.

2) Nerds Don’t Have the Time or the Budget

Another key factor to consider is the customer base of the Seattle Chinese restaurant.  Most Americans still regard Chinese food as a meal offering good value.  Relative to other ethnic cuisines, American Chinese food is arguably the cheapest in terms of volume of food per dollar.  People expect this and have a hard time tolerating any other paradigm.  Today, you can buy a heaping daily lunch special in a Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District for between six to eight dollars.

Further, the socioeconomic profile of many of the Chinese immigrants who moved to the Greater Seattle area during the 1970s and 80s is one where the economic realities of “dining out” for Chinese food (which they could easily have made themselves at home at a much lower cost) puts a dollar and quality cap on the Chinese food available here.  While we Chinese in Seattle love good Chinese food, we aren’t willing to pay for it.  I’d wager that among the Chinese community here in Seattle, you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to pay more than 20 dollars per person for Chinese food.

Let me explain why, as much relates to the history of Chinese immigration to the US.  After the initial settlement of Chinese laborers to Washington State and to Seattle during the mid to late 19th century during the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the US between 1882 and 1965 as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  During this second period, only certain specific designations of Chinese (diplomats, merchants, and students) were even allowed to travel to the United States.  Furthermore, the Chinese already here were confined to segregated ghettos, called “Chinatowns.”

The third wave of Chinese immigrants moved to the Greater Seattle area after passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  This period of immigration is often referred to as the “Brain Drain of the 1970s and 80s” in Asian American studies because these new immigrants either already had professional jobs lined up, or were coming to the US to attend graduate school.  Most of these new immigrants had college degrees.  After obtaining PhDs and other advanced degrees here, many decided to stay in the area, becoming Boeing engineers, researchers, or teachers, rather than go back to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or China.  During the 90s, some got jobs at local “start-ups” like MSFT or AMZN or other technology companies.

So the typical profile of the professional “worker-bee” Chinese immigrant family in Seattle is one that generally has neither the time, nor the budget to enjoy extravagant Chinese food.  These worker-bees are always at the lab doing research or working late.  They will cook and eat decent Chinese food at home.  And they definitely won’t pay more than 20 dollars a person for mediocre Chinese food at a restaurant in Seattle.

Now contrast this typical Seattle worker-bee profile with a CEO or a professional wine-and-diner who basically eats fine meals for a living in the process of deal making in Hong Kong?  Who is going to demand fine Chinese cuisine?  Not the Seattle worker-bee.

While Seattle is a center for innovation in biotech, research, technology, and engineering, it is less of a center for international banking and business.  And so the culture of wining and dining in the name of deal making isn’t as prevalent here.  If a serious, high-level business dinner were to take place here in Seattle, a discrete steak house or nice Italian restaurant with a private room would be more likely venues.

A serious business meal would not likely take place at a Chinese restaurant here, precisely because there aren’t any quiet, upscale Chinese restaurants with the requisite private rooms specifically built for these types of meals—unlike in cities primarily driven by finance, like Hong Kong.  Restaurants there (particularly the nice Chinese restaurants) are specifically built, and derive a significant portion of their revenues from business meals serving VIPs.

3) The Canto Effect

A well-known generalization amongst Chinese is that the Cantonese are, by far, the most passionate regional group when it comes to food.  Cantonese cuisine is famous for its subtle and elegant treatment of fresh seafood and for popularizing the culinary art of Dim Sum.  When people generally refer to Chinese food in the West, it is usually Cantonese food they’re referring to.

Hong Kong is filled with many outstanding Cantonese restaurants, including one run by the first Chinese chef ever to receive three Michelin stars, Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak, of Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons in Hong Kong.  In fact, the Four Seasons in Hong Kong is the only hotel in the world to house TWO Michelin Three Star restaurants, which just goes to show just how serious Hong Kong people are about their food and fine dining.  But this is also reflected in the cost of a meal there, which can be quite expensive.

Most of the Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown-International District in Seattle are typically Cantonese restaurants, but few of them would be considered good Cantonese restaurants.  This is partially attributed to the history of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, and to the survival of Seattle’s Chinese restaurants that I discussed in the two previous sections.  The result is that Seattle’s Chinese restaurant chefs are not required to have the top-notch skills needed to execute high-level Cantonese cuisine.  There isn’t a sustainable demand for that type of food, and so the top Chinese chefs do not come to Seattle.  They flock elsewhere (to the Bay Area, Vancouver, Toronto, etc.)

And while a significant proportion of Chinese living in Seattle would consider themselves Cantonese, there isn’t as large a concentration of Cantonese Chinese obsessed with outstanding Cantonese food in the area, given the large influx of immigrants from Taiwan and Mainland China who arrived after 1965 during the Brain Drain.  This adds to the argument that there isn’t enough of a critical mass of Chinese people in Seattle who demand, and are willing to pay for outstanding Chinese food here.

4) Overwhelming World-Class Competition to the North

I know that I have not been fair in comparing Seattle’s Chinese food with some of the world’s best in Hong Kong and Vancouver.  But the fact that I can find outstanding, world-class Chinese cuisine just three hours north is particularly irksome for me as a Seattle person.

If you ask anyone from Seattle where to find good Chinese food, most everyone says the same thing: Bring your passport and drive 3 hours north to eat in Vancouver or Richmond, BC.  It’s not called “Hongcouver” for nothing.

Vancouver’s Chinese food scene has vastly improved and benefited from the Hong Kong exodus to Vancouver in the 1990s, prior to the 1997 Handover.  This resulted in a relatively significant flow of elite culinary talent from Hong Kong to Canada, and particularly to the greater Vancouver region to cater to this growing Chinese Canadian population.  Easier immigration policies into Canada relative to the United States was natural given Hong Kong’s Commonwealth ties with Canada.

Today, the growing population of Chinese from the PRC far supersedes Canadian immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan.  These more recent PRC immigrants also possess significantly larger disposable incomes.  (Just ask any Vancouver resident how they feel about the soaring property prices in certain Vancouver neighborhoods.)  But these newest immigrants from China are also folks who will demand and who are willing to pay for very good Chinese food.

The unique combination of all of these factors contributes to the virtuous circle ensuring that the greater Vancouver area will continue to pride itself on providing world-class authentic Chinese cuisine.

Conclusions

Phew!  That was a mouthful.

Now that we’ve established a few key sociological reasons as to why the Chinese food in Seattle is so mediocre, let me conclude with an anecdote to reassure you that all is not lost should you live in Seattle and want a sampling of authentic Chinese food.

One of my favorite Chinese food chains from Taiwan, Din Tai Fung (DTF), arrived in Bellevue last year.  I am a huge fan of DTF, and I grew up eating at the original Xinyi Road restaurant in Taipei.  I have also eaten at the second location in Taipei on Zhongxiao East Road, as well as both DTF restaurants in Hong Kong.  Both Din Tai Fung restaurants in Hong Kong have been awarded One Michelin Star, and the New York Times ranked Din Tai Fung as one of the world’s top ten restaurants.  It’s a successful restaurant chain, and I am a big fan.

So imagine my excitement when I learned that DTF was opening a franchise in Lincoln Square in Bellevue!  And so I went, of course with tempered expectations.  Despite the fact that the DTF is a franchise, I didn’t expect the food in Bellevue to be on par with that of the DTFs in Asia, but on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised.

What first caught my eye was the very sizeable bar area at the front of the restaurant.  In contrast, the DTF’s in Taipei and Hong Kong do not have a bar area, using the coveted space to seat more tables.  But of course, we are in the US, and margins on drinks and alcohol far outweigh those on food.

But the food was decent.  The steamed buns were good and the quality was relatively consistent for Seattle.  My own personal litmus test for the quality of these types of Chinese restaurants is not the Xiao Long Bao (XLB, or steamed minced pork dumplings) but the vegetarian steamed dumplings.  If the vegetarian filling is finely chopped and filled with quality ingredients, then I know that a Chinese restaurant is legit.  The Bellevue DTF does ok on the veggie dumplings, and so I’d assign it a B in the scheme of all the DTFs I’ve tried.  But it is by far the best XLB you will find south of Richmond.

I’m hoping that the arrival and success of the DTF chain to Seattle will spur on new ideas and competition.  And I’m keenly on the lookout for new authentic Chinese restaurants with a regional emphasis that might crop up as a result.

I’m headed back to DTF this weekend to celebrate a family birthday.  There was much debate within the family as to choosing DTF as an “appropriate” venue, since 20 dollars a head is considered “ridiculously expensive” merely for steamed buns and pork-chop fried rice.  But we are splurging because a very elderly family member has never eaten there.  So I plan on eating well and not picking at my food.

I love living in Seattle.  But I also love the fact that I am just a three-hour drive from Vancouver, where I know I can get first-rate, authentic Chinese food.  You can be sure that I will be bringing an empty stomach and my passport with me!

 

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