Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When Chinatown Dominated the Los Angeles Chinese Food Scene

These days it's a very rare occasion for us to eat in Chinatown.  The Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley is so much superior, and unless you're traveling during rush hour, it isn't that much further away.  But there was a time when Chinatown was the place to go for Chinese food, and I don't just mean the time period before the Chinese started moving to the San Gabriel Valley.  As I previously discussed, the first noticeable movement of Chinese residents into Monterey Park occurred in the early to mid-1960s.  The Chinese population in the Los Angeles area began to swell in the late 1960s as the change in U.S. immigration policies took effect.  Yet, it wasn't until the mid to late 1980s that the San Gabriel Valley overtook Chinatown as the preferred locale for Chinese food.

As discussed before, the first traces of Hong Kong style Chinese food landed in Los Angeles Chinatown in the 1960s, shortly after the new Chinese immigrants started to arrive from Hong Kong.  In contrast, my recollection is that modern authentic Chinese food did not come to the San Gabriel Valley until the 1976 opening of Kin Kwok on Garvey Ave. in Monterey Park.  Other notable San Gabriel Valley openings in the late 1970s included Nam Tin, in Monterey Park, probably the first banquet sized restaurant to open, and House of Louie, also in Monterey Park.

Meanwhile, things were hopping in Chinatown.  1979 marked a significant step forward with the opening of the Food Center, the street to street, all food mall that opened between North Broadway and Hill St.  Patterned after "Sihk Gaai" in Hong Kong, the Food Center was stuffed top to bottom, end to end  with new restaurants offering the best Chinese food in the metropolitan area.  And these weren't Hong Kong  Low or Lime House restaurants.  These were brand new restaurants, with the large anchor spaces taken by Szechwan Palace and Great Shanghai, pioneering restaurants for their genre in Los Angeles. 

This is not to say that the San Gabriel Valley wasn't evolving.  The first Hong Kong style seafood restaurants opened up around 1980.  Sea Palace, which opened up in Monterey Park in 1980 may have been the first in the San Gabriel Valley.  Other  Hong Kong style seafood restaurants followed in Monterey Park, such as Sea Dragon, Champagne Restaurant and Fortuna Seafood.  But these were matched in Chinatown's Food Center by Hong Kong Jade Garden and Manning Seafood, later followed by Diamond Seafood,  and Regent Seafood on Main St. 

But it was Chinatown which brought us the first superior Hong Kong style seafood restaurant in 1984 with the opening of A B C Seafood.  Replacing the venerable but boring Lime House, this was the first knock your socks off Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  This was the quality of Chinese restaurant that Angelenos used to drive to San Francisco to find, or even fly to New York City, only better.  For more than a decade, Chinatown's ABC Seafood would represent the best Chinese food in Los Angeles, if not the entire United States.  And in the ultimate ascendancy of Los Angeles to claim the title of having best Chinese food in the U.S., the opening of A B C Seafood was the initial round.

Ironically, the success of A B C Seafood in Chinatown also ultimately led to the San Gabriel Valley eclipsing Chinatown as the locus of Chinese food in the Los Angeles area.  A B C Seafood was  a rollicking success but its fewer than 30 table capacity limited its potential  Consequently, a sister restaurant christened N B C Seafood opened up in palatial sized premises in Monterey Park just two years later in 1986 in the space formerly occupied by the Golden Shark buffet, likely providing the tipping point for the San Gabriel Valley to become the premiere Chinese dining area in Los Angeles.  This was followed by the opening in the late 1980s of several shopping centers housing dozens of Chinese restaurants on Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel, including large numbers of non-Cantonese style restaurants, which would turn the city of San Gabriel into the epicenter of Chinese food (amazingly  until around 1983 there were no authentic Chinese restaurants in the city of San Gabriel); the opening of the first large Chinese mega shopping center in Rowland Heights in 1990, setting the eastern San Gabriel Valley up as a major player in the world of SGV Chinese food; the opening of Ocean Star Seafood in 1992 amidst unbelievable hype as the ultimate Hong Kong style food palace; the mid-1990s ascent of the SGV as the locus of the best Chinese food in the US, as Angelenos completely stopped driving to the Bay Area on weekends to get better Chinese food, and Bay Area eaters started coming down here to get their Chinese food fix; and the 2002 opening of Vancouver's Sea Harbour restaurant in Rosemead, marking the start of high level Chinese dining and widening the gap between Los Angeles area Chinese food and the rest  of the country.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Why Aren't There Great Chinese Restaurants In New York (Reprint of My Menuism Article)

I was commissioned recently to write an article detailing my choices for the 10 Best Chinese Restaurants in the United States, when I quickly realized I had a problem. No, it wasn’t that I felt unqualified to draft such a list, since I have eaten at thousands of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, hundreds of Chinese restaurants in New York City, and a representative sampling of the best Chinese restaurants in Chicago, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Honolulu, Dallas, and any other city having a decent sized Chinese community. The problem was that when I compiled my list, all 10 restaurants were in California — seven in Los Angeles and three in San Francisco, which didn’t look like the national list it was supposed to be. The article ran anyway, with the editor spinning the title to ask if all of the best Chinese restaurants were in California.

The response was immediate: Californians, particularly those who were familiar with New York Chinese food, in complete agreement, while many New Yorkers gave me the Bronx cheer and accused me of being biased towards my hometown food. That accusation is easily refuted by the fact that if I were to do a 10 Best list for Chinese food in North America, all my choices would come from Canada, either Vancouver or Toronto, and none would come from California. Note that many New Yorkers who had actually eaten the Chinese food in Los Angeles and San Francisco agree on California’s superiority, with most New York naysayers admitting they had not eaten in the San Gabriel Valley in suburban Los Angeles, home to the best Chinese food in California (and the country). A prominent food blogger for one of New York City’s newspapers referred to New York Chinese food as “crappy” compared to Los Angeles. So I believe the premise that New York clearly trails Los Angeles and San Francisco in the quality of Chinese food is a reasonable one.

So what is the reason for this gulf between California and New York Chinese food? After all, New York Chinese food did surpass San Francisco as America’s Chinese food mecca back in the mid-1980s, while we in Los Angeles would actually talk about specific Chinese restaurants we would like to try in New York. And the Chinese population in the New York area is comparable to, if not larger than, the Chinese populations in Los Angeles or San Francisco, so community size doesn’t seem to be the difference.

The real reason for the chasm between New York and California Chinese food is demographics. I have often said that New York Chinese food is stuck in the 1990s. Make no mistake — 1990s Chinese food was very good and there are many, many very good Chinese restaurants today in Flushing, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. But Chinese food has evolved significantly in the past decade and that evolution has largely bypassed New York. One major demographic difference can be seen in comparing the Chinese populations in New York and Los Angeles. As first brought to my attention in a Business Week article two decades ago and reinforced by a book and New York Times articles written by Jennifer 8 Lee, Chinese immigration to New York for over two decades has in large part originated from Fujian province. The Fujianese are largely working-class people, and many of them are undocumented. Check out Manhattan’s Chinatown, particularly the portion off East Broadway, and you can see this densely packed area is largely minimum wage territory. Obviously, the entire New York Chinese community isn’t working-class, but there is a heavier weighting in that direction.

In contrast, the Chinese population in Los Angeles skews more to the upper-middle class. Not to say there aren’t working class Chinese here, and indeed there are plenty. But there hasn’t been the large working-class immigration from China to California like there has been in New York. (There are virtually no Fujianese immigrants here). Rather, for over 30 years the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles has been marketed in Asia as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” Wealthy Chinese investors would buy houses in the San Gabriel Valley and send their families to reside while themselves continuing to live abroad. Meanwhile, a heavily professional technical upper-middle class Chinese community has spread across the San Gabriel Valley. Indeed the economic strength of the Chinese community is shown by the fact that there has been little residential real estate price erosion here during the great recession, and prices in the most expensive San Gabriel Valley city of San Marino are at historic highs. This is a community that demands and can afford the best Chinese food.

Furthermore, the San Gabriel Valley has spawned what the press has dubbed the “626 Generation”, referring to the San Gabriel Valley’s telephone area code. These are the upper-middle class twenty- and thirtysomething Asians who have developed a food-centric culture. For this generation weaned on the Food Network, good eating is king. They dine out a dozen or more times a week in local Chinese restaurants, and then head to the local boba shop for drinks and dessert.

One other demographic factor distinguishes California Chinese food from New York. If one takes what are often considered to be the best Chinese food centers in North America — Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco — and compares them to New York, there is one stark reality. The Chinese food in all four of these cities has a heavy Hong Kong influence, while New York does not. Chinese food continues to evolve and improve, and a major hotbed of this evolution is Hong Kong. While eating in Hong Kong knocks the pants off any Chinese food on this continent, there is enough of a presence to continually raise the bar in these Canadian and California Chinese communities.

Beyond The "X's" and "O's"--Why Stanford Beat UCLA in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game

Last night, Stanford beat UCLA 27-24 in a nailbiting conference football championship game that went down to the wire. This was just six days after the same two teams met at the Rose Bowl, with Stanford prevailing 35-17. While few people gave UCLA a chance to win the rematch, the oddsmakers favoring the Cardinal by 8 points (after opening as a 10 point favorite), I thought UCLA would win due to factors other than the physical matchup, which one might refer to as psychological or behavioral factors. However, as things turned out, Stanford won the game, and again for reasons beyond the X's and O's of game analysis, I fully accept the outcome.

There were two main reasons why I thought the Bruins would win. First of all, UCLA had played an atypically bad game against Stanford the week before. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley failed to scramble as he usually does when pressured in the pocket, his throwing accuracy was off, his receivers had uncharacteristic dropped balls, and the defense missed tackles. To me this was easily explainable. UCLA had just beaten crosstown rival USC the week before, for the first time in six years (and as statisticians point out only the second time in 13 years, though as most statisticians ignored, also the tenth time in 21 years), and I was sure that the team was still savoring that win. I know I was, and for the first time in memory I was sitting in the stands at the Rose Bowl, not particularly enthusiastic about the game unfolding in front of me. Plus Stanford really needed the win. Consequently I expected UCLA to play much better in the rematch.

The second reason was that Stanford had played three emotional, must win games in a row against Oregon State, Oregon, and then UCLA. It is my strong belief that no team can bring its "A" game four weeks in a row--it just isn't humanly possible. Just go back to UCLA's stunning 13-9 win over USC in 2006. Even though most observers had mailed in a USC win even before the game, USC had won three straight games against tough, ranked opponents, Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame, and was bound to have the letdown that they did. While the Bruins played a gutty game that night, SC's off night was also a major factor in the loss that knocked them out of the BCS championship game. As such, I did not expect Stanford to play their best game last night.

As things turned out, I was right on both counts. Where UCLA was unable to run the football the week before, this week they shredded Stanford's seemingly impenetrable rushing defense. And UCLA's defense really stepped up its overall performance against Stanford. Yet, in the end, Stanford won again despite a performance which upset Stanford coach Shaw throughout the game. Bruin fans lament the nearly "Pick 6" thrown by Hundley early in the game with UCLA leading by 14-7 and threatening to score again. UCLA fans also point to the Bruins' statistical advantage and declared that despite the score, UCLA was the better team that day. But while I was certainly extremely disappointed by the loss, I don't look at the "what if's" or think that UCLA should have won, though I agree that they could have pulled it out.

With regard to the apparently game changing interception, I don't think that changed the ultimate outcome. Through 50 years of watching football and other sports, I have concluded that some games are meant to come down to the wire, and that the details of the game coming up to crunch time are nearly irrelevant. Yes, if Hundley didn't throw the interception UCLA might have gone up 21-7 or 17-7, but under those circumstances I believe the game would have unfolded differently. Athletic contests are interactive events, and when one team does something, the other team responds. You can't assume that if you change the outcome of one play in a game that everything else would be the same. And in a what turns out to be a close game there is just going to be an ebb and flow.

My other behavioral observation from years of watching sports is that the "better" team is the one which performs when it counts. Statistically and aesthetically, UCLA did look like the better football team. But the important thing is who came through at crunch time. Last night, despite having the better offensive performance, UCLA did not score in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line, while Stanford scored 10 points, which was sufficient to give them a 3 point win.

So while I was terribly disappointed in the outcome of the game, I was pretty much over the loss fairly quickly. In hindsight, Stanford is a great team, significantly better than UCLA, and UCLA was fortunate in being in a position to possibly win the game at the end. It was a game that UCLA could have won if everything went right, but not one which they should have won.