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A Bumpy Future for Chinese Food?

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Writing recently for a New York Times dining blog, Eric Asimov didn't mince words. "Chinese is one of the world's great cuisines," he wrote, "yet in New York, and I daresay in much of the country, it remains for the most part consigned either to great expressions of immigrant food in various Chinatowns, to touristy, kitschy environments or to delivery status."

Although Asimov shared the names of several Chinese restaurants where he enjoys dining, he contends that the typical Chinese eatery in the U.S. is, well, too typical. I heartily agree.

I enjoy Peking duck, steamed dumplings and several other Chinese dishes. Yet these foods no longer impress me as much as they once did. Many restaurants rely on salt, soy sauce and MSG as if these ingredients are the holy trinity of flavor.

From my experience, both the menu and food at one Chinese restaurant is virtually indistinguishable from the next. And the typical menu is much too long. Many Chinese menus have dozens of entree choices, and I find myself questioning whether a chef's staff can be skilled and polished at preparing that many dishes.

Think about it. Where did you make a reservation the last time you wanted to take someone out for a "special occasion" dinner? I'm willing to bet it was a restaurant specializing in French, Italian, or some other cuisine. But not Chinese.

This isn't a case of hemispheric bias. There are at least three superb Japanese restaurants in my hometown of Washington, D.C. -- Sushi Taro, Makoto and Kaz Sushi Bistro -- that provide superb food in a charming ambiance. Why aren't there Chinese restaurants like these?

Research has shown that Generations X and Y are embracing more exotic types of ethnic food. Chinese eateries will suffer unless they do a better job of connecting with these younger diners.

No one can claim that Chinese culture doesn't value high-quality food. Chinese premier Mao Zedong may have ruled like a communist, but he ate like a capitalist. Mao insisted on the best ingredients, and he cared deeply about how his meals were prepared.

Mao's rice-eating preferences required farmers to husk the harvested rice slowly and by hand to preserve a membrane between the husk and kernel that he believed enhanced the flavor. Mao's favorite foods were often shipped to him from faraway regions of China. In one instance, a fish from the southern province of Hubei was transported alive roughly 600 miles -- in a plastic bag with oxygenated water -- to Mao's residence, where it was prepared for his next meal.

A few years ago, I felt a little sad and nostalgic when I heard that Yenching Palace, a restaurant located three miles north of the White House, was closing. I had eaten a lot of meals at Yenching Palace. The Chinese restaurant was where American and Soviet envoys reportedly met in 1962, sat down at a booth and negotiated a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Back in the 1960s, Chinese restaurants must have seemed as fresh and hip as wine bars in the U.S. seem today. But as Yenching Palace prepared to close in 2007, the Washington Post observed that the restaurant had "become a relic in a time when Asian restaurants are abundant, and high-end Asian-fusion cuisine is wildly popular."

Other Chinese restaurants should consider whether they too risk morphing from restaurants into relics. Dining trends shouldn't be chased, but neither should they be ignored. Like any other business, a restaurant has to carefully review, reconsider and refine how it operates.

There are some Chinese restaurants that get it. New York City's Amazing 66 serves traditional dishes, but it also offers braised abalone and pumpkin with pork spareribs -- two enticing entrees that diners won't find in the typical Chinese establishment.

Thai, Japanese, Korean and Pan-Asian restaurants give American consumers an array of choices for enjoying the unique flavors from that region. Chinese restaurants could lose their popularity -- especially with young, hip diners -- if they don't streamline their menus, improve their wine and beer lists, and build their street-cred by relying more on fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Fortune cookies are usually delivered to diners. But there's a fortune-cookie message that should be sent to the proprietor of every Chinese restaurant: "Beware of a complacent kitchen."

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