Sunday, January 14, 2018

Fake Canto Food Comes To Los Angeles Chinatown

For the first century of Chinese presence in the  United States, most all Chinese residents in America were Cantonese in origin (and of this group, predominantly from the rural counties in Toishan).  As a result, all Chinese food in America during this time period was Cantonese/Toishanese.  However, the big news in the 21st century has been the impact of Mandarin speaking Chinese immigrants to the United States, almost completely flipping the Cantonese/non-Cantonese mix of Chinese food in Chinese American communities. 

Indeed, the demographic disparity has gotten so out of line that the 21st century has seen the rise of what is now sometimes referred to as the "fake Canto" restaurant, a term coined by food blogger Tony Chen.  Fake Canto restaurants are those opened up in Chinese communities by Mandarin speaking non-Cantonese immigrants from mainland China.  Well before the advent of fake news, these fake Canto restaurants were opening up, occasioned by the lack of sufficient real Cantonese restaurateurs in the particular locality.

Fake Canto restaurants originally arose in the eastern United States in Chinese communities where there were few, if any local Cantonese restauranteurs available to satisfy the local demand for dim sum and Cantonese banquet facilities.  These included communities that never had a Chinese community, prior to the 1960s reform of the US immigration laws, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, or communities where the Cantonese community had all but died out, such as St. Louis.  

The fake Canto phenomenon had initially been limited to the East, Midwest and South, where Fujianese immigrants have dominated the Chinese restaurant industry since the 1990s.  However, fake Canto has now taken a new step forward, now showing up in localities that do have an existing Cantonese presence, such as Manhattan Chinatown.  

Now comes clearly the most startling episode of fake Canto restaurants where in December of 2017, East Garden restaurant opened up in Los Angeles Chinatown.  This is truly startling since Los Angeles Chinatown is the culinarily the last greatest bastion of Cantonese food in the country.  While most every new Chinese restaurant in the nearby San Gabriel Valley serves Mainland non-Cantonese food, there is only one such restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, Qin West.   So with Los Angeles Chinatown so top-heavy with Cantonese food, why would anyone open up a fake Canto restaurant?  Another Mainland Chinese restaurant would make more sense in Los Angeles Chinatown, particularly with the nearby pool of Mainland Chinese students attending USC.  Yet, fake Canto has come to Los Angeles Chinatown.

Fake Canto, does not necessarily imply a lesser quality product.  The food at East Garden is pretty decent. 

The egg tofu with mushrooms was one of the best versions I’ve eaten.

The honey garlic short ribs, a variation of a dish more associated with pork chops, was also quite good.

But a major tipoff that we were talking fake Canto was the appearance of pork rolls, a dish never seen on Cantonese menus, and most commonly seen in Taiwanese restaurants described as chicken rolls.

Besides this and other non-Cantonese items on the menu, East Garden’s fake Canto giveaway is that the staff only speaks Mandarin.  Another clue was that the beef chow fun was cooked spicy, and had no “wok hei” to the flavor.  And in the company’s logo, the Chinese name uses the Mainland simplified characters, not the traditional characters.

East Garden is in Chunsan Plaza, downstairs from Ocean Seafood.


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