As many of you know a couple of years ago I came out with a Top 10 Chinese Restaurant in the United States listing for the Asia Society , and which was reproduced as a sidebar to the Los Angeles Times article about my quest for 6,000 Chinese restaurants. Unlike most best restaurant listings seen in print or on the air, I made no attempt to balance the list for geographic locale, regional cuisines, or any other factor to make the article more palatable to a wider group of readers. Rather I gave my personal opinion as to what were in fact the best Chinese restaurants in the country. As a result my list consisted of restaurants all located in California, the majority of which represented Cantonese style cuisine. The reaction from two quarters was swift. I was pilloried by New Yorkers, incensed that no New York restaurants were included, with innumerable internet comments that I was obviously a “homer” who was biased towards California food. A lesser degree of complaint came from supporters of Sichuan and similar non-Cantonese Chinese food who made similar allegations based on my Toishanese/Cantonese ancestry.
As to the status of New York Chinese food it appears that while it had been previously unspoken, many people were thinking what I said. After the original wave of outrage from New Yorkers, it is common to see concessions from New Yorkers on the restaurant message boards that New York Chinese food is behind the curve compared to California and Canada. And my more recent comments on the second class state of New York Chinese food draw little negative reaction. All this is not to say that Chinese food in New York is bad. There are many excellent Chinese restaurants in New York, and I look forward to visiting Manhattan Chinatown and other venues in New York City to sample Chinese restaurants. My only point is that, to use a boxing term, pound for pound the Chinese food in New York is clearly inferior to that in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.
With regard to Cantonese vs. non-Cantonese food, the analysis is slightly different. No question, there is outstanding Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Dongbei, Taiwanese and other regional Chinese style restaurants to be found in California, New York and other locales. However, at the time that the original Top 10 listing was published, there just weren’t enough signature restaurants in those categories to make a large dent in the Top 10, though some of the Sichuan style restaurants in various parts of Manhattan outside of Chinatown definitely deserved honorable mention.
However supporters of New York Chinese food and Sichuan style Chinese food can rejoice in that they now have recently opened restaurants that clearly are of Top 10 caliber. Just weeks before my Top 10 list was published, the London based Hakkasan chain opened its first US branch in midtown Manhattan at 310 W. 43rd St. At the time, many people assumed it was just another expensive Chinese restaurant that served Americanized Chinese food a la Mr. Chow. However, it did not take long for observers of Chinese food to realize that Hakkasan was the real thing, and that their mantra of offering modern authentic Chinese food was a valid description. While some of their fare may not seem like authentically Chinese fare, such as Peking duck with Kaluga caviar, it is certainly consistent with modern Chinese food trends in places like Hong Kong and other Chinese food centers. Hakkasan has since opened branches in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Beverly Hills.
Meanwhile , in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, since its opening less than a year ago, Chengdu Taste has taken the food world by storm, becoming the hottest ticket in town both in terms of taste and buzz, and even capturing the attention of New York food writer Ruth Reichl. With its mouth numbing Sichuan menu full of complex flavors, the lines at this relatively small restaurant at 828 W. Valley Bl. in Alhambra are ridiculous. Prime time waiting time may be upwards of two hours and if you can get in with a wait of under an hour at anytime, consider yourself fortunate. To accommodate its crowds, Chengdu Taste extended its closing time by two hours and is hastily opening up a second location a few miles east on Valley Bl. As I have said many times before, Chinese food continues to evolve and the next great restaurant is waiting to raise the bar once again.