Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why I Don't Crave Vancouver Chinese Food Like I Used To

For over 40 years I have periodically travelled from Los Angeles to Vancouver in search of superior Chinese food.  My first trip was in 1970, which predates the "modern" era of Chinese food in the United States and Canada, as the effects of the repeal of discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration laws by both countries had yet to affect the local dining scenes.  The Chinese communities in Los Angeles and Vancouver were still essentially Toishanese/Cantonese, as were all other North American Chinatowns.  While the Chinese food we ate in Vancouver Chinatown in 1970 may have better than what we were used to in Los Angeles (as much due to L.A.'s tertiary status as a Chinese community back then), it was only marginally so, and indeed what impressed us the most was how much larger the portion sizes were in Vancouver Chinatown.

My next visit to Vancouver did not come until 1993.  Really there was no reason to travel to Vancouver as far as Chinese dining was concerned, until the panic that set in during the late 1980s as Hong Kongers realized that control of Hong Kong would indeed revert to Mainland China in 1997.  The mass exodus out of Hong Kong to Vancouver created an early 1990s Chinese dining nirvana in Vancouver that the entire Chinese community in Los Angeles knew about.  Tales of Angelinos returning from Vancouver detailed how every Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, and the suburb of Richmond, even the stalls in the food courts, surpassed the best Chinese food in Los Angeles.  So we all went to Vancouver whenever we could.  And indeed the tales were true.  Returning from Vancouver, we could not bear to eat the inferior Los Angeles Chinese food for weeks after our return, and we couldn't wait for our next trip to Vancouver to partake in the Chinese food.

Angelinos continued to make the pilgrimage to Richmond B.C. for Chinese food into the 21st century.  But in the past five years things began to change.  Fewer Angelinos made the trip to Vancouver, and those who did go came back not quite as impressed.  Yes, there were restaurants in Richmond B.C. which exceeded anything we had in Los Angeles, but a lot of others were now only "just as good", or "not any better".  So what happened?

What happened is two things.  The main factor is that Chinese food in Los Angeles has gotten so much better in the last decade.  But it's been a gradual process, such that we here in Los Angeles who eat Chinese food on a day to day basis aren't as sensitive as to how much the food has improved. This was driven home to me by two almost random comments made to me in the past couple of years.  One was made by the maitre'd at a Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong.  As you know, Hong Kong is ground zero for great Chinese food, and the best Chinese food there knocks the socks off of anything that we have.  Anyway the gentleman commented that he lived in the San Gabriel Valley for many years, had to return to Hong Kong for family reasons, and missed the SGV.  Then he commented that "the Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is very, very good."  To hear that from somebody tending one of the best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong was quite illuminating.  More recently, I met a Chinese foodie from Vancouver who was in Los Angeles for a visit, and who told me that he was surprised at how good the dim sum was at Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights.  Given that I would rank Happy Harbor probably around #7 in the Los Angeles area dim sum pecking order, that also says a lot about the current state of our Chinese food.

In addition, Vancouver Chinese food has appeared to have plateaued in recent years.  There are two potential explanations for this factor.  First of all, there has been a degree of migration back from Vancouver to Hong Kong, as fears as to what would happen to Hong Kong under Chinese rule turned out to be largely unfounded so far.  Indeed we've encountered a number of these Canadian returnees in our travels.  And of course among some of the returnees were some of Vancouver's top chefs.  Secondly, like every Chinese community outside of Asia, the demographics are changing with non-Cantonese Mainlanders, many of them with tremendous wealth, now moving into North American Chinese communities.  Naturally they're bringing in their own regional style of Chinese food, but in this regard Vancouver is actually trailing other areas like the San Gabriel Valley, as the Chinese restaurant scene in the SGV shifted away from Cantonese food before Vancouver did.  As such, Vancouver is playing catch up to the SGV as far as many of these regional cuisines are concerned.  For example I had heard about a splash that a new Shandong style noodle house was making in Vancouver, which sounded like Vancouver's answer to the SGV's 101 Noodle Express group.  However, a scout who went up to try it reported back that it wasn't nearly as good.

I think the bottom line assessment is that there are some Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, Hong Kong style, Shanghai style, and hotpots, that are clearly better than anything in Los Angeles and an occasional visit up to Richmond B.C. is warranted.  However the number of such restaurants is diminishing.  Furthermore, top mainland Chinese restaurants that are starting to open up branches in North America are choosing to do so in California, where they perceive the action to be.  So as the focus in both cities turns to other regional Chinese cuisines, Vancouver loses its advantage over Los Angeles.


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