Tag Archives: History

The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Asian Food In American Politics

When you walk up the stairs to the second floor dining room of the Hunan Dynasty restaurant in Washington DC, you will pass by a set of signed photos adorning the wall. No, these aren’t the actors and celebrities you might find at various longstanding and tired restaurants in New York or Los Angeles. These are, in a rather Washingtonian fashion, signed photos of various political figures in the United States, from both parties, including former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Now, it’s not the food that draws these throngs of politicians (the food is rather mediocre), but rather it’s their location, just a couple blocks from the Capitol building.

Given its convenient location, Hunan Dynasty has been richly rewarded, especially as members of Congress increasingly are in a cycle of perpetual fundraising. A search on Political Party Time, a website by the Sunlight Foundation to spotlight and create more transparency on Congressional fundraising, shows that Hunan Dynasty has been the location of at least 100 fundraisers since 2006. It’s an equal opportunity, bipartisan host of these prolific fundraisers as well, with events helping candidates across the spectrum, from liberal lion Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to socially conservative and failed Republican candidate for Missouri Senate, former Representative Todd Akin.

Combo of Dim Sum Plates by pchow98 https://flic.kr/p/8PiMC8

Combo of Dim Sum Plates by pchow98 https://flic.kr/p/8PiMC8

Now, Hunan Dynasty may be the Asian restaurant that has hosted the most number of political fundraisers, but it is certainly not the only restaurant to do so. In New Mexico, StreetFood Asia, a personal favorite restaurant of mine, was host to a fundraiser supporting the Senatorial bid of State Auditor Hector Balderas. In the Bay Area, Congresswoman Judy Chu had a fundraiser at Dynasty Seafood Restaurant in Cupertino, CA, co hosted by a number of Asian American leaders. However, all of these one-off political fundraisers at Asian restaurants pales in comparison the the volume of Asian food present in the events supporting Representative Adam Schiff of California. Schiff’s candidate committee hosts a semi-annual spectacular sushi luncheon, a semi-annual fundraiser featuring Korean barbeque, and even a fundraiser at Lunasia, which is often on lists as one of the top restaurants serving dim sum in Los Angeles. Now I don’t know why Schiff has a prolific number of fundraisers featuring various Asian food, though I suspect his district’s pre-2012 boundaries that included heavily Asian cities like Alhambra and Monterey Park and current district’s large Asian populations in areas like Glendale and Los Angeles’ Thai Town has something to do with it.

While I can only speculate on the reasons why Schiff continually has Asian food fundraisers, the growth of Asian American communities across the United States is increasingly influencing the elections and activities of political leaders across the country. Representative Loretta Sanchez, who represents a heavily Asian and Latino district in central Orange County, has regular visits to her large Vietnamese constituency. Further down in my hometown of San Diego, the competitive election in California’s 52nd Congressional District has brought dueling press conferences and statements by both candidates on who has greater support among the Asian American community in San Diego. However, the candidates aren’t reaching the broader Asian American community just by televised press conferences. In fact, Representative Scott Peters (who, for full disclosure, I support) has been seen campaigning by talking to voters during dim sum at Jasmine Seafood Restaurant and held his AAPI campaign kickoff at Pangea, a Taiwanese bakery in the heart of San Diego’s pan-Asian commercial corridor of Convoy Street.

Char Kway Teow at Street Food Asia

Char Kway Teow at Street Food Asia

In district events at Asian restaurants and other locations that serve Asian food aren’t the sole provenance of West Coast political figures or Democrats, however. This year’s heated race in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District in suburban DC to replace retiring Representative Frank Wolf is an example on how the large growth of Asian Americans is impacting politics across the country. Recently, NPR aired a story about the growing Asian community in Northern Virginia and how candidates Barbara Comstock and John Foust have purposefully outreached to Asian voters, including dueling Korean language ads. The Washington Post even reports on how Comstock has highlighted her attendance at the Punjabi Mela Festival and how the Republican National Convention hosted an event in support of her at Woo Lae Oak, a popular Korean restaurant in Tyson’s Corner. And Comstock is not the only Republican candidate the party has hosted Asian specific outreach events for. Just this year, the Republican Party has hosted an event at a Filipino restaurant for Ed Gillespie, their candidate for Virginia Senate, as well as an event with former Representative Joseph Cao in a Vietnamese restaurant around New Orleans.

While the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is not homogenous and has a diverse range of political beliefs, immigration status, socio-economic status, and other demographic factors, its growing size means that political candidates from city council to Congress are paying attention.

Tagged , , , , ,

A Relatively Brief History of Chinese Food In America

I almost wrote about another new authentic ramen restaurant in Albuquerque. Yes, I am excited that there are more places to get ramen in the Duke City! Unfortunately the food is uninspiring and I didn’t have the heart or will to write it (but I may write about it next week on a possible return visit).

So instead, I’m taking advantage of the fact that it is a Chinese holiday today (Mid-Autumn Festival to be more specific) to write a brief-ish history of Chinese food in America. I am by no means an expert in the history of Chinese food in America. For that you can read more by picking up a copy of Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles or Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey for more of an in depth look on the subject. However, I thought that a brief-ish history of Chinese food in America would be interesting for friends, family, and fellow readers of this blog.

As most Americans know from high school courses on American history, it wasn’t until the Gold Rush of 1849 that there was a large influx of Chinese immigrants to America. Political events in China such as the Taiping Rebellion, famines, and stories of California’s “Gold Mountain” from the Gold Rush led thousands of Chinese, especially those in the Taishan region of Guangdong province, to come to America and strike it rich. When they arrived in America, gold was not only hard to pan, but racism meant that many of the best places for gold panning and mining were off limits to Chinese people. Those that stayed in America instead took other jobs, including building railroads, becoming laundromats, or, of course, having their own restaurant.

There are various tales on how chop suey was invented and became so popular, but by the 1880s and 1890s it was a staple item in Chinese restaurants all over the country. Chop suey, meaning “odds and ends”, was basically a stir fry of a number of vegetables and meat, kind of like stir frying leftovers at home (similar to how fried rice at home typically is a stir fy of leftover rice from the day before and a few other ingredients). Thus, chop suey is sometimes called the “biggest culinary joke ever played,” though some scholars believe it was just an attempt by Taishanese immigrants to reinterpret home cooking that just took America by storm at the turn of the century.

For the next few decades in the early 20th century there was not much innovation or change in the menus of Chinese restaurants in America. Much of that is due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned any immigration from China for more than 60 years meaning that almost all the Chinese people in America was from one county in Southern China. Essentially Chinese food was stuck for a long time and it is one of the reason’s why many take out Chinese restaurants in America today serve very Americanized versions of very simple Cantonese food. As David Chan writes, it’s like if all the Americans in China were from Victoville, CA and that was the representation of American food.

After the Magnuson Act and the Immigration Act of 1965, however, Chinese food in America began to change. Chefs and people from Taiwan started immigrating and brought along flavors originating from other regions of China, particularly Hunan and Sichuan province. One of these most famous dishes the was created at the time is, of course, General Tso’s Chicken. General Tso’s Chicken was invented by Chef Peng Chang-kuei in the 1950s when he was in Taiwan and became popular and sweetened when he opened a restaurant in New York City in the early 1970s to adapt to American tastes. Other dishes with adapted Sichuanese or Hunanese flavors that came in vogue at the time included Hot and Sour Soup and Kung Pao Chicken.

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

Dim Sum at Sea Harbour

It wasn’t really until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that more authentic restaurants started to come to America, thanks in large part to wealthier Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants that moved into larger American cities and suburbs, especially Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In particular there were a number of Hong Kong immigrants that came as a result of fears of the 1997 handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to China (and caused an even more dramatic growth of Chinese people and extraordinary Cantonese food in Vancouver and Toronto) as well as the marketing of suburbs, like Monterey Park in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” The influx brought an infusion of wealth as well a high level chefs from Hong Kong who opened upscale and large seafood restaurants that served Dim Sum at lunch as well. The spread of these newer Chinese immigrants to more suburban and smaller cities with tech heavy influences (as opposed to old urban Chinatowns) led to the growth of suburban Chinatowns in Las Vegas, Houston, and Atlanta. Not to be left out, areas of high concentrations of Taiwanese immigrants, like Irvine, CA and Rockville, MD, brought Taiwanese dishes like beef noodle soup to American communities.

In the early 2000s, Taiwanese style bubble tea shops that also sell Taiwanese (and sometimes Hong Kong style) desserts started coming to California. Bubble tea and the shops that made them were popularized by young Chinese Americans (myself included) and the drink quickly spread across the country, especially in college towns like College Park, MD which has no less than three places that is mostly or entirely about selling bubble tea. The growth of bubble tea places was also an early indicator of the growing influence of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese American millennials, many of them who were born and raised in suburbs with large Asian American populations and restaurants and whose appetite for Chinese (and other Asian foods) can make a big impact in and around their communities. This is typified in the Fung Brothers’ popular 626 youtube video.

Stir Fried Sichuanese Chicken

Stir Fried Sichuanese Chicken

More recently, there have been an increasing number of Chinese immigrants from Mainland China. This has brought increasing diversity to Chinese food in America including Chinese Islamic food, Liang Pi cold noodles from Shaanxi province as popularized by Xi’an Famous Foods, to authentic Sichuanese food that uses very liberal amounts of mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns. These dishes aren’t just being popularized in big cities either. The large growth of Chinese international students, particularly from Sichuan and Dongbei provinces, has meant that relatively small college towns like West Lafayette, IN, are also able to eat non-Cantonese and non-Americanized Chinese food for the first time.

While this history is not definitive in any way, especially as Chinese food in America continues to involve and new trends like renown Chinese chains setting up shop in America may affect our palettes in ways I can’t foresee, I do hope that it shines a light on some cultural history that is less well known. As I enjoy some mooncakes tonight and make a few phone calls to close relatives to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, I’ll also be looking back at the fond, chaotic, and rich history of diaspora, family, and food that has helped define the Chinese American experience.

Tagged ,
Advertisements