How Chinese Food in America Lost Its Way

For more than two decades, Chinese cuisine ruled. So how did it end up marked by egg rolls and fried rice? 

What ever happened to Chinese food? Not in China, I mean, where it’s doing fine, but in the United States, where it used to be exciting and exotic. Whether it was finding the hottest Hunan fish heads, or the most delicate Shanghai-style steamed snapper, from the early 1970s to the mid-’90s, regional Chinese food was what every foodie needed to know about, and it was turning up in all the fusion dishes of French chefs who made Chinese techniques part of nouvelle cuisine. 

Mr. Chow, with its era-defining elegance, reigned in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. People traded the addresses of obscure Chinatown holes-in-the-wall (Bobo’s, in New York, comes to mind) like dealers with the purest Maui Wowie. There was no doubt that Formica-tabled restaurants required excursions. On one food trip I made to Hong Kong, I spent an exhausting night trailing Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang as he followed every lead for Chiu Chow cuisine, for his education and, I suspected, to lord it over his friends. 

But somewhere along the way, Chinese food lost its chic. In 1993, Ruth Reichl made her mark as a New York Times critic by giving her first three-star review to Honmura An, a SoHo Japanese restaurant for hand-rolled soba noodles. Fukien? Chiu Chow? Who cared? The cool kids had long since moved on to Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Singaporean. They go far to find the best banh mi, while Chinese is relegated to airports (Panda Express), malls (P. F. Chang’s), and takeout. It’s hangover food—MSG and grease. Nothing you’d go out for. 

What turned the—you should excuse it—red tide? Immigration laws, according to Jennifer Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, and Merry White, an anthropologist at Boston University who specializes in Asian cultures and food. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882 as a xenophobic reaction to a wave of workers, mostly from the southern region of Canton (now Guangdong), during the Gold Rush (chop suey, born on U.S. soil, dates to this era). It wasn’t until the 1970s that a new influx of Chinese arrived, after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 and the onset of the Cultural Revolution. In the ’70s and ’80s, the quality of Chinese food ratcheted up. Sichuan and Hunan in western China became as prominent as Canton, and Americans, freshly primed from the heat of Mexican cooking, leapt at the fiery cuisines. Regional Chinese had arrived. 

But in tight-bordered today, visas are harder to obtain, Lee says. H-1B, a standard work visa, requires years of secondary education; O visas, for “performers or trade workers possessing unusual or extraordinary skills,” are practically reserved for Nobel laureates, scientists, and the occasional model. Thus, the most innovative Chinese chefs go to Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore, and England. Then there’s the changing Chinese economy. Chefs who wanted to make money used to need to leave China, says New York restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld, whose “Cambridge and Oxford,” he says, was being maître d’ at Shun Lee West. Now top chefs can earn $250,000 at a luxury Shanghai hotel. “If you’re in an unhappy marriage, you like the idea of Miami,” he says. “If you’ve got kids and a mortgage, you stay in Shanghai.”

So where is the white-tablecloth, black-jacket Chinese today? I went on a bi-coastal tour to investigate. Standbys still, well, stand by. But the heat long ago cooled and the food is as staid as the crowd. David Chang’s Momofuku and Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese have breathed new energy into a cuisine in desuetude. Even those places, though, treat it as a kind of lingua franca—a plangent wannabe, acceptable as part of a buffet of influences, including the Asian food that muscled in on Chinese. Korean flavors are more pronounced at Momofuku. At Mission Chinese’s Lower East Side outpost, the food doesn’t provide the rethinking one might like (noodles are inedibly salty; fried rice is just an inverted-bowl lump). Mostly, that is, Chinese food is the cuisine that dare not speak its name.

Some are reinvigorating Chinese. In New York, Schoenfeld serves unapologetic Cantonese cooked by Joe Ng at his two RedFarm locations and at Decoy, which has what is probably the city’s best Peking duck. At RedFarm, Schoenfeld and Ng are not so much reinventing Chinese as freshening it for the next generation, decorating in today’s de rigueur farmhouse style and lightening the food. Everything familiar is there: starchy sauces, thick without butter or cream; Katz’s pastrami egg rolls, a classic crossover dish; meat as adjunct seasoning and rice as ballast instead of bread. There’s something nostalgic about snow peas in sauce with nail-shaped enoki swimming like koi in a pond.

At Myers + Chang in Boston, the celebrated pastry chef Joanne Chang reawakens the homestyle food she grew up eating in Texas as the daughter of Chinese parents, with clean-flavored versions of pork pot stickers and dan dan noodles. Under chef Karen Akunowicz there’s more fire in the cuisine and more heat around an already hot restaurant. The decor is updated diner, with pink and gold accents, the hospitality is terrific, and the crowds are happy. 

San Francisco has a famous Chinatown where Mandarin, opened by Cecilia Chiang in 1961, helped Americans understand the range of what many considered to be the world’s next-greatest cuisine after French. Since it closed in 2006, few restaurants have followed the lead of Mission Chinese. The most exquisite place is Benu, from chef Corey Lee, who reportedly terrorized Thomas Keller’s French Laundry before putting his training to ultra-refined Chinese. For the young and beautiful, there’s Mister Jiu’s, from Chinese American chef Brandon Jew (the way the immigration agents spelled it, he says). The food is more fun than refined. Sizzling rice soup (floating with bubbles of, the menu surprisingly says, “schmaltz”) has rice cakes you toss in like Pop Rocks. The vegetables are superior and the crowd is dressy. 

The place that seemed the successor to Mr. Chow and company was New York’s Café China. It’s perpetually crowded with artists and Chinese families. The food is Shanghainese, and the purity of the flavors—the broths, the feathery dumplings, the minced pork in pot stickers—is enough to make anyone fall in love with Chinese again. And the vintage Chinese ads of femmes fatales on display restore the glamour that should never have been lost.