Inside New York City’s Chinese restaurant crisis

An all-star roundtable of chefs and restaurateurs on the cultural, culinary, and economic implications for the industry nationwide.
January 25, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
Nom Wah has been serving dim sum and dumplings since 1920.
Courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

From 2016 to 2019, the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City dropped by 16% (from 2,969 to 2,493), or one in six, according to an analysis of Yelp data by the Chinese Hospitality Alliance Tea Talk (CHATT) and corroborated by the Museum of Chinese in America. Those numbers are roughly reflected by a 7% drop nationally, as 2014’s 46,757 Chinese restaurants fell to 43,638 in 2018. The American Chinese Culinary Federation now puts the national count at as low as 37,000, according to a Foreign Policy report.

In recent weeks, whenever he went on location-scouting trips in some of New York’s most popular neighborhoods for Chinese restaurants—including the East Village, Harlem, Midtown West, and Two Bridges, among others—Xuhui Zhang, Junzi Kitchen’s head of real estate development, routinely encountered an alarming urgency. “I would say more than 60% of these restaurants are selling or the owners are considering the possibility of selling,” he says. “The common reasons mentioned were upcoming retirement, long working hours, and diminishing sales.”

The crisis, though, is also an opportunity, not just to reshape the landscape and palate, but to unveil a joy shrouded for centuries: a truly Chinese approach to food in this country, free from American habits and the white gaze. Chinese cooking is an art again, and gastro-impressionists are everywhere. But just as a culinary renaissance is flourishing in the Chinese restaurants of Los Angeles—“knockout” mapo tofu lasagna, y’all!—an economic and even spiritual revolution is seizing young Chinese entrepreneurs in New York.

During low-key meetings at the Bank of China along Bryant Park and the China Institute in the Financial District, CHATT has gathered forces from 21 local restaurants—including Cafe China, Grain House, Junzi Kitchen, Little Tong, and MáLà Project—as well as four tea shops and half a dozen industry heavyweights, including Chowbus and Hall PR, all specifically to brainstorm and strategize for their futures. Cecilia Chiang, the godmother of Chinese restaurants in America, has addressed the group, as has her son Philip (the P in P.F. Chang’s). They talk about, for example, the economics of ghost kitchens with Zuul or delivery options with Uber. With so many closures, the pressure is on for young entrepreneurial chefs to expand just to make up the shortfall.

Fortune spoke with many of them and other major voices in the community to make some sense of these unprecedented culinary, cultural, and economic shifts.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The forbidding city

For generations, Chinese restaurants scraped by in hopes of getting ahead. What toll did that take?

Simone Tong, chef and owner of Little Tong (and soon Silver Apricot): It was survival. That’s why they had two menus: one for who they wanted to be, one for who they had to be.

Cecilia Chiang, James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner: They wanted green cards. They didn’t care if their food was good or bad. Dirty restaurants. Bad service. It was all golden dragons and red lanterns. So gaudy. So disappointing. So sad. And the saddest part is they never changed.

Two Asian men walk down narrow Doyers Street in Chinatown, New York City, circa 1945.
Lawrence Thornton—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hannah Cheng, cofounder of Mimi Cheng’s: They didn’t have choices to do other jobs.

Wilson Tang, second-generation owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest restaurant in New York’s Chinatown: I can’t imagine much worse than working 100 fucking hours a week for, like, $60,000 a year and just, when you do the math, realizing that you’re making way, way below minimum wage. And I bet you a large portion of these places that are closing or in trouble are exactly that situation. They just barely get by.

Jason Wang, cofounder of Xi’an Famous Foods: There was no succession plan, because success was seen as not having to do it anymore. It wasn’t a business venture, per se. It was just a beginning. The business venture was to send kids to college.

Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food: The parents did what parents are supposed to do.

Cheng: You wouldn’t want your child to go into it.

Lee: You could always hand it off to the next wave of immigrants. Toisan to Hong Kong to Taiwan to Fujian. But now it’s pretty good in China. Why go into debt coming to America and buying a restaurant? You should read the classifieds in Chinatown newspapers where they sell restaurants. They’re very aggressive in letting you know why they’re selling. It’s very TMI. We divorced! Our family broke up! My wife wants to go back! Anything to communicate that it’s their fault and not the restaurant’s.

Laboring under illusions

As China’s middle class grows, America’s well of replaceable Chinese immigrants has suddenly run dry. Who is left to cook?

Chiang: It’s very hard to get good Chinese chefs in America. Most are not well trained. A lot of people said, “I won’t be a chef, because I saw what being a chef did to my father.”

Jack Tchen, historian: They were coolies. In Chinese: kǔlì, literally “bitter labor.”

Lucas Sin, chef of Junzi Kitchen: Even success in that situation doesn’t feel like success.

W. Tang: Success is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t personally think of myself as successful. I closed two restaurants [in 2018]. Nom Wah Tu in March and Nom Wah Kuai in September. And Fung Tu closed the year before. New York has changed, especially the labor pool.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York’s Chinatown district.
Courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Wang: The backbone of the restaurant industry, of the city really—undocumented workers—has been removed or hurt.

W. Tang: If it’s not the Buildings Department, it’s the Health Department, or minimum wage. New York has made mom-and-pop operations really difficult.

Sin: Chinese restaurants’ habit of hiring from within the family—not just Mom and Pop and kids but also a cousin of a cousin of a cousin from Fujian—allowed an existence outside of the rules, the laws of physics of market forces. Now that’s gone, and market reality is hitting those Chinese restaurants hard.

Yong Zhao, CEO of Junzi Kitchen: Family is not going to report you for money under the table. But other employees might report you or blackmail you about it. Some takeout places are doing well, but they don’t want to expand for those reasons. So they’re stuck.

W. Tang: We’ve had a tough time keeping people. I think it’s the millennial situation. They don’t want to work hard.

Wang: Fast-casual is not so much about a new attitude or concept. It’s just the only model that works now.

Zhao: In China, the labor-cost rise also forced restaurants to change from the labor-intensive mom-and-pop store model to centralized food prep and production and restaurant chains. Both China and American Chinese restaurants have about 30% food cost, but a typical Chinese restaurant in China usually has 20% labor cost, which is less than the 30% or 35% labor cost in the Chinese restaurant in the U.S. market. What happened there will eventually happen here.

W. Tang: On a statistical level—away from crazy real estate—these models are still really strong outside New York. So for me, I’m looking elsewhere. [In 2019], I opened three locations in Shenzhen. And here, I have Philadelphia. And I’m looking in Florida, in Tampa.

Lee: You’ve gotta remember: There are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s combined.

The great leap downward

Widespread compromise has created an uncomfortable paradox: the faux authenticity of egg rolls and fortune cookies.

Tong: Lots of places serve what they think New Yorkers will like. That’s one of the least creative things you can do as a chef. Why not teach people to like something new? Why not expand what they like?

Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America: I never want to go out to eat Chinese food. Maybe August Gatherings. But the rest is so embarrassing. My husband sneaks around knowing I’ll be mad if I see the empty boxes from some random Combo #3 with egg roll in the garbage.

Amelie Kang, chef and owner of MáLà Project: When I finally got here, my roommates would eat Chinese food but as hangover food: greasy, quick, even guilty food.

Sin: You feel strange eating food that’s so close and so distant. But do you feel awful? There’s a wonder there for me. One of the best collaborations in food history—the Doritos Locos tacos at Taco Bell—is delicious. I hope I’d think that even if I came from a family that made tacos at home.

Cheng: You expected to go anywhere and order your usual: triple delight, moo shu pork, kung pao chicken. You didn’t even have to look at the menu. It was just there. Everywhere was the same. But until there’s variety, there can’t be authenticity. You can’t have an authentic clone.

Chiang: They all convey the same old thing. And people get sick and tired of the same old thing. They want something different, variety, but they didn’t get it.

Cecilia Chiang, who started the first upmarket Chinese restaurants in the U.S., at the Peninsula hotel, Hong Kong, May 22, 2004.
Dustin Shum—South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Lee: I grew up in New York, and we’d go to Flushing, and I’d order beef and broccoli, and my mom would say, “Oh, don’t do that. It’s not Chinese food.” I’d be like, “What are you talking about? Of course it’s Chinese food. They sell it at Chinese restaurants.”

Anita Lo, the first woman invited to cook a state dinner at The White House: My father was from Shanghai, and my mother was ethnically Chinese from Malaysia, but I was born here. My father died when I was young, and my mom worked, so I was raised in a white household—white stepfather, Hungarian nanny. When I was 7, my family went to China, 1972 but pre-Nixon. The visa took, like, a year. And it gave us all FBI files. Everyone was on bikes and in Mao jackets. The food was awful. It was weird and nice to know that the Chinese food was better in America.

Sin: I actually love all that shrimp lo mein stuff because it’s foreign to me, having grown up in China. One of my favorites is Wo Hop. I’ll be waiting for a table there and talk to the staff in Chinese. And they’ll ask, in Chinese, “Have you been here before? This is not for you.” I joke that I brought my white girlfriend, so does that make it okay?

Rise of the creative clash

A generation of brash young chefs is breaking the cardinal rule of Chinese restaurants by defying uniformity.

Sean Tang, owner of Pinch Chinese: My parents are Sichuanese and Shanghainese but grew up in Taiwan with its Japanese and Fujianese influences. So they like a mix of those places, all over. My dad likes spicy food. My mom, not so much. And I have all that in me. I can be colorful. I’m not one shade. Is any New Yorker just one shade of anything? We live outside of these boxes. That’s the story of New York, of America. It’s not complicated. It’s human.

Lo: I don’t want to sound like an angry lesbian, although I am [laughs], but there was never room, even in New York, for me. I always felt pigeonholed. If you’re not making your grandmother’s recipe, you’re pigeonholed.

Tong: My grandmother was not a great cook, but she was known for one dish: kǎofū [braised wheat gluten], which is funny because it’s Shanghainese, and we were in Chengdu. Do you really think Chinese food cannot be better than whatever your grandmother made? That was the best of our creativity?

Chris Cheung, owner of East Wind Snack Shop: Growing up in Chinatown, you didn’t talk about the best restaurants. You talked about the best dishes.

S. Tang: I read a thing about how there are nine Chinatowns now. Even that is not as much as it could be or should be. We’re still discovering Chinese food in China, let alone interpretations of it here.

Sin: Creative Chinese cooking is at a place it’s never been before. Isn’t that the point of creativity?

Lee: It’s the same you’ve seen in the Chinese communities of Malaysia and Singapore, or even Vancouver and Toronto. Some of the most creative food scenes out there.

Making dumplings at Mimi Cheng’s.
Nicole Franzen

S. Tang: We have a wine list because China is the largest consumer of wine.

Lo: I had a wine pairing when I did a state dinner for Xi Jinping at the White House in 2015.

S. Tang: They drink wine with dinner in China. That’s why you can’t find cheap French wine anymore. It’s not because it got better. It’s because China bought it all up and sent the price through the roof. Thanks, China.

Tong: Am I going to wear my grandmother’s qípáo? No. But that doesn’t mean I have to throw it away or hide it in a box forever. I can tailor it, transform it. That’s what food is: fashion. It changes six times a year but also comes in cycles. That’s why kung pao chicken will always be with us. It survives the fashions. Like jeans and a T-shirt.

Lee: General Tso’s chicken will stay the course. It’s sweet. It’s fried. It’s chicken. Who’s going to say goodbye to that? Chop suey is more deprecated, and that’s a good thing.

Sin: You could look down on it and condescend that it’s basic, greasy, not supposed to exist. But those “basic” places all have woks, fryers, steamers, hundreds of menu items—all with just four or five people. It’s not basic. It’s more efficient than we’ll ever know. I wonder, y’know, what if Steve Ells and the people who made Chipotle or Pret A Manger had interned at Hop Kee or Wo Hop?

Zhao: It’s not as simple as Subway, but people expect Subway prices.

Sin: A lot of canonical American Chinese dishes we take for granted have forgotten imperial roots. Egg drop soup is a good example. Looking into history, egg drop soup was a technical dish of the Cantonese imperial courts that showcased the chef’s finesse: a fine swirl of eggs that mimicked the gelatinous texture of a crystal clear stock fortified with roosters—whole roosters, old ones, the bones have better flavor—and Jīnhuá ham. And egg foo yong most likely comes from an imperial Jiangsu technique of cooking airy, cloud-like, egg whites and minced ham in a manner that makes it look like a confederate rose.

Lo: This happened in China, too. I used to go to Qingping Market in Guangzhou, like, the epicenter of SARS, a rural Tsukiji [the famed Tokyo fish market]. People would be killing chickens, eels, frogs. Once in the 1990s, I saw a woman just buy a sack of live cats. Now it’s gone, paved; there’s still some food stuff, but not really.

Tong: We’re not doing Chinese food from China, just Chinese technique. Why are recipes that already exist the only thing I can learn from Chinese food? Why can’t I learn to apply Chinese techniques in new ways?

S. Tang: Some people say we’re very authentic. Some say we’re inauthentic. Both groups are Chinese. What are ya gonna do? “Authentic” is just a way to say whether or not you like something that someone else made.

Wang: I love the confidence of DaDong, Tim Ho Wan, Gong Cha and all the bubble tea places. China is coming here.

Tong: It’s copy and paste. DaDong was a copy and paste.

S. Tang: I love DaDong in China. I’ve eaten there in Beijing and Shanghai. But here, I only ate once. I think they underestimated diners. They swung too hard towards palatable. Everything was so sweet because I think they thought that’s all Americans eat. I wish they had trusted diners more.

Zhao: I went to DaDong with Cecilia. Her dumplings were raw.

Sin: Ugh, I was there for those dumplings. But Haidilao! Dunhuang! They’re ballsy enough to try Flushing things in Manhattan now. Look at Szechuan Mountain House. It’s nice because I get bored of waiting for food writers or restaurant critics to discover the 7 train.

Mimi Cheng’s, in the East Village.
Nicole Franzen

Lo: We don’t get to talk about our future, the future of Chinese food, except that in the future maybe old recipes from a different province will come to the East Village. To all the straight white establishment—I mean, just look at the James Beard people—our future isn’t ours unless they say so. Some people do get to control their future. Dan Barber does. I wonder why. But either way, our future is coming.

Tong: The Whitney Museum can say something is art even if nobody else believes it. I want to do that—be that—for Chinese food.

Wang: That’s the natural order, the progression of life in America: Everyone wants to be better. Everyone wants to be proud. There’s so much more pride now. We’re not cooking with more chili or less MSG or whatever. We’re cooking with more pride. You go to China now, and you see people dressing in Tang Dynasty–style clothes instead of jeans being the coolest thing.

Crazy niche Asians

What happens when the cuisines of China’s 56 ethnicities all take root across America’s 50 states?

Wang: There’s a thing—nóng jīa lè—peasant’s delight. It’s a bed-and-breakfast vibe, almost: people coming from the city to enjoy local rural flavors.

Cheng: Interest in Chinese regionalism is not the goal. It’s a platform.

Mimi Cheng’s cofounders Hannah (left) and Marian Cheng.
Nicole Franzen

Sin: Chinese people have been cooking for at least 4,000 or 5,000 years. Think of all the recipes that have happened in that time. If we can make Chinese food better, all food can be better.

Kang: People used to think scallion or ginger were spices.

Sin: People think scallions are one thing. There are, like, at least a half dozen very different types of scallions.

Tong: Píxiàn dòubànjiàng, the fermented fava bean that’s so common in Sichuan food, it’s actually from Fujian.

Maasbach: Lots of “Hunanese” food was actually Cantonese.

W. Tang: Tim Ho Wan is owned by a Japanese company.

Wang: We use cumin, coriander, cardamom. Just like in the Silk Road days, it’s from India, not China.

S. Tang: Curry rice with a unique Cantonese interpretation is super popular in Hong Kong. Pasta is Chinese. Ramen is Chinese. The culinary history of China is so much older than China.

Lee: Chinese food in China has been evolving. It’s the American Chinese food that hasn’t. It’s more stuck here.

Lo: You go to China now, and everything is delicious. Ev. E. Ry. Thing. Here, for the most part, you can’t walk into a random diner and expect excellent food. In China, you can. I was just there for three weeks, all over, and there wasn’t one dud.

W. Tang: We opened three locations [in 2019] in Shenzhen. One in February, one in November, and one in December. Chinese food and Asian food in general has come to the forefront. I don’t know how long that will last. I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe it’s a fad. But you have to act when the opportunities are there. I’m a veteran. My skin is thick. I’m not super excited about what could happen. But you have to be aware of opportunities.

Nom Wah prides itself in being New York’s first dim sum restaurant.
Courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Kang: The customers are more accepting, open-minded, and educated.

Zhao: People learned the vocabulary: garlic chicken, scallion pancakes, dumplings, baozi, beef and broccoli. Maybe there’s a French way to make beef and broccoli. Or I guess a steak house technically serves that. But people know beef and broccoli is Chinese.

Wang: People’s tastes are changing, even in China. I was in Guangzhou looking for some milder seafood to eat, but everything was spicy because Guangzhou’s all about spicy right now.

Kang: Guangzhou now is all about Chaoshan beef balls. And dry pot is something new, even in China. But it also feels familiar. It’s like shítáng, like dining hall food.

S. Tang: I don’t say we’re authentic or classic. I’ll say we’re Chinese comfort food. Our ingredients, our flavors, textures, techniques, presentation, it’s all within your comfort zone if you like Chinese food. It can be familiar even if it’s new.

Sin: In China we ask, “Kǒuwèi?” “What’s your palate?” We recognize our diversity because diversity breeds excellence.

Critical condition

Chinese restaurateurs are sick of spoon-feeding white critics and foodies.

Zhao: There was an event in 2015—Chop Stick Nation—by Molly O’Neill from the New York Times. Jonathan Gold was there, too. Maybe 200 people. How many of those faces were Chinese? I can tell you: not many.

Tchen: It’s Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction”—judging taste as an act of social positioning.

Lo: Cultural appropriation wasn’t invented by Anthony Bourdain, and it wasn’t his fault, but it’s a lot of what he did. He told his straight white male audience of chefs, critics, fans, whatever, where it was okay to direct their straight white male approval.

Lee: What we eat is reflective of the society we live in.

Lo: It’s not really mean-spirited. But nobody tells them, “Whoa, calm down.” They don’t realize when they go too far. Sure, Pete Wells reviewing a taco truck is great. But I remember when the Times reviewed Jungsik and said it wasn’t Korean enough, as if Korean wasn’t allowed to be global. Meanwhile, Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] gets celebrated for adding lemongrass to French food, or EMP [Eleven Madison Park] does whatever it wants. I was so angry.

Xi’an Famous Foods is a chain of fast-casual restaurants based in New York City that serves authentic Western Chinese dishes. It found more fame with some media critics and consumers after becoming a favorite of Anthony Bourdain’s.
Courtesy of Xi’an Famous Foods

Tong: People—even critics, reviewers, experts—talk about my rice noodles being Yunnanese as if there is any restaurant in Yunnan that serves my food. It’s confusing and frustrating. Can I not have my own creations? When I was at wd~50, I saw people welcome creativity. Nobody was calling Wylie Dufresne inauthentic.

Lo: I’ve never been authentic to anything other than myself. What else is there, really?

Zhao: The central idea of American prejudice is ethnic exoticism. Where is the modern creativity in that? Minorities should be doing minority things authentically in their own way, not as like a performance or show or historical reenactment. I have no interest in preserving my past or teaching others about my past in a way that blocks me from building my own future.

Tchen: People are making more sophisticated choices, but that doesn’t mean they know more about what they’re doing. There is still the equivalent of Chinese food snobbism of eating California rolls and calling it sushi. Being hip is not the same as being informed.

Maasbach: We have places like Goubuli. Amazing dumplings. But do you know what gǒu bù lǐ means? It means “Dogs Ignore It.” The name is always better in Chinese. In English it’s just like Golden Palace or Number One Asian Gourmet. It would be too weird for white people to see it called Longevity and Prosperity for All. There are two worlds apart even before you walk in the door.

Lo: You can try. You can sympathize or empathize, but you just cannot know or understand unless you’ve grown up as an other.

W. Tang: To this day, people don’t know what proper Chinese food is. It’s up to myself and other tastemakers to educate.

Lo: It’s annoying to have to educate people.

Inside Junzi Kitchen, self-described as a modern Chinese restaurant, with several locations in New York City.
Courtesy of Junzi Kitchen

S. Tang: Growing up, I’d go to Chinese restaurants only, like, four times a year. With friends. Culturally, the restaurants haven’t done a good job of translating. We’d go to a dim sum place and—especially buns—my friends would have no idea what was inside. You’d ask the person pushing the cart, and they’d just say it was a bun. Maybe they’d say something like “meat.” It’s not daunting but still inaccessible, hard to access.

Zhao: Sweet-and-sour pork is a special food.

Sin: The original is called guō baō roù.

Zhao: You should share it and get one piece, maybe two pieces, that’s it. Now I see people eat it where the whole plate is theirs. I don’t know how to explain what it’s like to see that. Yes, it’s a traditional food, but it’s all wrong. It’s like watching someone eat half a Thanksgiving turkey at their desk on their lunch break.

Lee: I learned fortune cookies weren’t Chinese from reading The Joy Luck Club when I was, like, 14. That was mind-blowing. It was the confectionary equivalent of the truth about Santa Claus.

Cheung: You think duck tongue is a delicacy because you’ve never tried it before or you never saw it on a buffet? They sell that at the Shanghai Zoo as a snack. It’s like thinking ballpark nachos are a delicacy. I mean, sure, we ate egg rolls, but only as drunk food on Saturday night, the same as everyone else in Hop Kee at 3 a.m.

Chiang: In America, they add sugar to mapo to calm the spice. But that’s wrong.

Cheung: You know that’s always been the case, right? I’m sure you’ve gone to a Chinese restaurant and been really proud of yourself because there were a lot of Chinese customers there, so that meant to you that it was a legit place. But I hate to break this to you: They were eating something totally different from what you were eating. You eat, I dunno, beef and broccoli or General Tso’s. We don’t eat that. We eat haam daan juk beng [salted egg pork cake] and si yau gai [soy sauce chicken]. It was always two restaurants in one. That’s why the menu was so big. And that’s not even getting into the secret menus.

Lo: A standard greeting in China is “Have you eaten yet?” People here don’t know that, but maybe they’re starting to see it.

Mimi Cheng’s special dumplings for Lunar New Year.
Courtesy of Mimi Cheng’s

The joy luck curve

The table is set for a brave new world as chefs create Chinese recipes that have never been tried before.

Wang: I think the Beijing Olympics changed everything. It introduced the world to the new China.

W. Tang: There’s a word for it: fùèrdài. It means “rich second generation.”

Zhao: People talk about China as an economy, as a power, as a dictatorship of Communists. It lacks humanity. They don’t see the people. They don’t recognize or acknowledge Chinese life. We are just a way to let them try new things. We were not allowed to be more than that. We were trapped in a way by their respect, by what they thought was respect.

Cheung: What’s happening now is that the Chinese restaurant is breaking out of the Chinese-American restaurant. It’s a kind of independence movement.

Tong: We’re liberated, not just free from Chinatown, but also free from China.

Lo: I had three days to put together 12 recipes for that White House state dinner for Xi Jinping and his wife in 2015. I’m known for these foie gras soup dumplings, but that doesn’t work for 250 people. And I don’t know a ton of Chinese recipes. But I put together something, and my chef de cuisine went to the White House to do tastings. Michelle Obama picked four. No pressure! And on the day, all 250 covers, four courses, went out and were done in 35 minutes. It was a weird blur. But it was me.

A spread of bings and noodles at Junzi Kitchen.
Courtesy of Junzi Kitchen

Maasbach: With these new unapologetic places like Junzi, it’s almost like we’re repairing the racism. This is me wishing, but it’s almost like we can finally be who we really are, our full selves. Almost.

Wang: My goal is we’re doing very well in 100 years. That just wasn’t a dream Chinese restaurant people used to have.

Kang: A few years ago, if I wanted to go on a date, I wouldn’t pick a Chinese restaurant. Now I can.

S. Tang: We get that in online reviews a lot: great for a date. It’s interesting because it needs to be said, because the expectation is maybe that Chinese is not good for dates. It can be a backhanded compliment, like, “Your English is very good,” but I’ll take it.

Combo special

Chinese chefs are discovering the newfound power of taking a collective stance for innovation.

Tchen: Do you know why everything is handmade and hand-pulled here now?

Kang: Handmade is not as rare in China as in America.

Tchen: It’s because Chinese people are not about to go out to eat something they could make at home. Just like Americans don’t cook porterhouses at home. But as Chinese immigrants get busier in the American workforce, there’s less time to do all the handmade stuff at home. So hand-pulled noodles are something that will appeal to both Chinese and non-Chinese customers. The difference is that the non-Chinese customers don’t know what goes into it, really, or how it’s supposed to taste.

W. Tang: Success is different for different people. Maybe with the chef-driven places, the restaurant is a way to get a book deal or to go against Bobby Flay. Being open is not the same thing as being profitable.

Chiang: I was the first. But change takes more than one person. I’m happy for this new generation.

Zhao: A tree cannot make a forest. A thread cannot be a rope. There are a million ways to say this in Chinese. It’s always all about working together.

Sin: The supply is going down, but the demand is going up. Now is the time when we need to work together.

W. Tang: I’m cordial with all these folks you’re talking to, but it’s not like we’re going into business together or sharing trade secrets.

Wang: It’s still just my dad making the chili oil for all 15 locations. He has his secret recipe of 30 spices. I don’t even know what’s in it.

Father and son: Xi’an Famous Foods founder Jason Wang (left) and David Shi.
Jason Wang

Zhao: It’s funny that Chinatown culture became about mystery and secrets. For us, I don’t care about that. Community is more powerful than secrecy. We grew up in the 1980s. Nixon was history. China has always been open for us. We want to be bigger than for everyone: We want to be by everyone. We can’t have a large company with only minority workers, only Chinese workers. Everyone makes pizza. Everyone eats pizza. We want to be like pizza. Nobody thinks they have to go to Italy to get real pizza. Nobody thinks only an Italian person can make good pizza.

Cheng: Every Italian family has their own meatball recipe. All these tweaks, all that variety. Breadcrumbs or not. What kind of breadcrumbs. That’s allowed. Chinese food should be like Italian food: sit-down, takeout, new, old, cheap, fine dining, normal across the spectrum.

Tong: People say, “Oh, I’ve already tried that.” “I’ve already tried hot pot.” “I’ve already tried rice noodles.” I laugh. Can you imagine anyone saying, “I’ve already tried pizza?” What good is it to be curious if your curiosity is so lazy or tired?

Lee: Korean food got to where it is by sneaking in as tacos. I saw a thing that scared me: bánh mì on ciabatta. That’s how you know you’ve really made it: insane bastardization.

S. Tang: Modern. Future. New. Whatever you want to call it, embrace it.

Chiang: When I came to San Francisco in the 1960s there was one or two major Japanese restaurants. Now they’re everywhere. But Chinatown is the same. I think Japanese people are more unified than Chinese.

S. Tang: White people know what unagi is now. And everyone is using shiso or uni in everything. But that took years—decades.

Sin: The Chinese in the U.S. are the Indians in the U.K.: the ultimate foreigner, the cheap go-to. But, man, that’s scalable. Peppercorn is as scalable as curry.

Wang: I call that the c-word. With chains, it becomes very washed down. You lose the soul of the food. We have 15 locations. All in the city. No marketing. No investors. It’s just us. But I was just in Boston yesterday looking for new locations. I’ll be in Philadelphia next week. I’m looking at L.A., D.C. My role models are Ray Kroc and Howard Schultz, but more the early years.

S. Tang: McDonald’s in Shanghai is phenomenal. The burgers look like the pictures. It can be done!

Zhao: We don’t have a secret to keep. We have to share the future together. All these old places that are closing, they don’t have a team. No marketing. No PR. A company needs a supporting corporation. CMO. CFO. COO. Structure. We just got $5 million from some of the same investors who backed Sweetgreen. We can have a burn rate. Better planning. Better growth. Big fish cannot get bigger. Better to be a small whale. We are a small Uber. There are lots of followers and not many leaders. Following doesn’t have big returns. Leading does.

Lo: When I read about how Junzi is approaching dying takeout spots, I thought this could be good or it could be carpetbagging.

Junzi Kitchen chef Lucas Sin.
Courtesy of Junzi Kitchen

Sin: We’re in the age of Jason Wang and Wilson Tang. We have the stepping-stones laid by Jason’s dad, by P.F. Chang’s, by Panda Express. What’s the next step? What’s the next level? It feels like a continuation, a natural evolution, as opposed to a direct construction or elevation. In some ways we’re not trying to make it happen. It’s happening, and we’re just in business when it is.

Cheng: Rising.

S. Tang: Tides.

Sin: Lift.

Cheung: All.

Wang: Boats.

Sin: There used to be three jobs that your parents just wouldn’t allow: actor, prostitute, and chef. Now that list is down to one.

Lo: I hope in the future we’re treated like everyone else, which, y’know, I mean I hope we’re treated like straight white men are.

Cheng: I love that I opened because I was homesick and now I can go to Win Son for fàntuán [Taiwanese rice roll] breakfast.

S. Tang: I’m still homesick for my mom’s cooking, but I never would’ve dreamed that places like Little Tong, Ho Foods, and MáLà Project would’ve existed, would’ve been accessible. The thing about all those Golden Unicorn Wok King places was they gave you everything except an experience. It was for eating, not dining. Even today, Chinese dining feels a little foreign to me. I hope it won’t in 50 years. Or five years.

Tong: I opened in 2017, and now there are maybe eight other noodle places around me. People want to know the secrets of Chinatown? Here is the secret: The East Village is the new Chinatown. We can be anywhere now. We can do anything. Look how far our patience has taken us. It just takes time to develop comfort and comfort food. People might look at my food and think it’s not real Chinese food. Okay, but just not yet. It will be.

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