Starting from 1849

In contemporary America, Chinese cuisine has become an important component of the food culture. Since its first introduction in 1849, Chinese restaurants in America have thrived, transformed, and adapted, forming a distinct culinary style which is vastly different from its origin. Now, Chinese restaurants in America typically represent a much broader variety of regional cuisines than before and offers a much wider range of options for eaters.

Along with its evolution, the history of Chinese food in America has also faded and are rarely mentioned. The look, taste, and style of the very first Chinese food in America are now a mystery for most people, even for many current Chinese restaurant owners. Nevertheless, this article will guide you back to the past and uncover the starting point and the path of Chinese food in America.

In 1848, California, an abundant gold reserve was found at Sutter’s Mill. This breaking discovery immediately drove a huge number of opportunists and gold-seekers to rush to California in seek of quick money. At the same time, on the other side of the globe, merchants in Canton, China, also saw this lucrative opportunity. In 1849, a group of courageous Cantonese merchants sailed to San Francisco, marking the start of Chinese immigration to America. Equipped with abundant business experience, this group of merchants quickly found their own ways of generating profits as traders, grocers, herbalists, warehouse owners, and restaurant operators.

Among all these occupations, restaurant operator was the most popular one. A number of Chinese restaurants were quickly built and assumed the role of providing tasty Chinese food to gold miners for very low charge. As a result of the owners’ diligent work, Chinese restaurants soon became a popular dining option in California.

The success of the first group of immigrants motivated more and more Chinese citizens to move to America. Supported and backed by the pioneers, waves of Chinese workers immigrated to America, seeking a new life. Most of them engaged in mining, while a few of them worked as agricultural laborers. As more and more people of different social classes immigrated to America from China, they spread to different regions and explored new business opportunities. The upsurge of immigration to America brought two profound impacts to Chinese restaurants. First, the cooking style became more diverse. While Cantonese cuisine remained the most prevalent culinary style, Sichuan, Hunan, and Peking cuisines began to emerge in metropolitan cities. Second, by the end of the 19th century, Chinese restaurants had entered many small cities and towns, serving a more local community.

In the 19th century, the most popular Chinese dining places were the small, cheap Chop Suey houses. Chop Suey, a combination of cheap meat and vegetables, was the most recognizable symbol of Chinese restaurants at that time. For miners and workers at that time, a plate of warm, delicious, and cheap Chop Suey was a delight in their day.

Due to the prevalence of Chop Suey houses in America, Chinese restaurant was perceived as a cheap dining option. Despite many Chinese restaurants provided good service, their status remained unmatched with their quality. However, moving into the 20th century, people’s attitude toward Chinese food changed dramatically and Chinese restaurant industry faced its second bloom.

 

Reference:

LIU, HAIMING, and Huping Ling. “CANTON RESTAURANT AND CHINESE FORTY-NINERS.” From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 8–17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16nzfbd.6

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A Course of Continuous Altercation

Thanks to its high profitability and steady consumer base, the Chinese restaurant industry in America has expanded. At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese restaurants had dotted the American landscape and become a nearly ubiquitous feature of American urban and suburban life.

Starting from the late 1930s, a revolution in the Chinese restaurant industry swept across America. A group of courageous entrepreneurs believed that Chinese food and Chinese restaurants had the capability of attracting high-class non-Chinese customers. To test the possibility of instilling elegance into the experience of Chinese dining, they opened new Chinese restaurants which were elaborately decorated and provided high quality Chinese dishes to customers. The courageous entrepreneurs’ attempt was proved to be a success. Chinese restaurants shake off its cheap stigma and gradually gained reputation and respect in America. During the Cold War period, Chinese restaurants continued to increase in both number and popularity. At the same time, people started to modify their attitudes toward Chinese food. They now believed that Chinese restaurants can provide as high quality food as European restaurants and offer comfortable dining atmospheres for social gatherings, businesses, or romantic dates.

From the late 20th century to now, Chinese restaurants in America continue to change and assimilate new ideas into their culinary practices. In contemporary America, there is a very wide range of Chinese restaurants. You can find traditional Chinese food in Chinatown of major cities, classy Chinese restaurants, such as Hakkasan, surrounded by other pricy counterparts, and new-style Chinese restaurants in artsy areas. Restaurants also present all the regional cuisines in mainland China. Both Chinese immigrants, tourists, students, and non-Chinese citizens can find different types of Chinese food they like in major cities.

As Chinese restaurants became more and more Americanized and experienced several waves of innovations, their authenticity remains the center of controversy. Some people argue that as Chinese restaurants seek to adapt to local culture and attract non-Chinese customers, they lose their original identity and authenticity. However, just as tradition is mutable and contingent, so is authenticity. Within a culture, different acceptable models exist for the same practice. For Chinese restaurants in America, due to limited access to traditional ingredients, Chinese chefs are modifying their procedures of cooking. This modification shows the current situation of Chinese restaurants in America – preservation of authenticity and adaptation at the same time.

The course of changing is continuous and endless. Chinese restaurants in America are actively altering and are modifying their ways of cooking and serving to be competitive and appealing. It is hard to predict what will come next for the Chinese restaurant industry. Only time will tell.

 

Reference:

Shun Lu, and Gary Alan Fine. “The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3, 1995, pp. 535–553. www.jstor.org/stable/4120779.

Hsu, Madeline Y. et al., editors. “From Chop Suey to Mandarin Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity during the Cold War Era.” Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture, Temple University Press, 2008, pp. 173–193, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bw1kgq.11.

The Story of P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express

Probably among all the Chinese restaurants located in America, P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express are the most widely known and popular. These two restaurant giants are examples of brilliant innovation as well as commercial success. Both restaurant chains took risks and were willing to implement changes as well as differ from norms.

The story of P.F. Chang’s can be dated back to the 1990s. Philip Chiang, a passionate chef and restaurant owner in Los Angeles, met Paul Fleming, a restaurant chain owner, by coincidence. Their partnership was quickly established after their first meeting as they shared the common idea of creating a high-end Chinese restaurant which would offer customers authentic Chinese food as well as a fine dining experience. Their first restaurant, named P.F. Chang’s, was opened in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1993. This first restaurant was elaborately decorated with hand-painted Asian murals and equipped with fashionable restaurant furniture as well as an open kitchen. The relaxing atmosphere and high quality service gained P.F. Chang’s instant recognition as well as popularity from native eaters. The success of P.F. Chang’s continued, and it currently owns more than 200 restaurants in 22 countries.

Besides being the biggest full-service Chinese restaurant chain in America, P.F. Chang’s was also the first Chinese restaurant chain to employ a white executive chef. This move embedded cultural fusion into P.F. Chang’s corporate philosophy; it allowed the restaurant chain to provide authentic Chinese food with slight variations that better satisfy American customers’ diet and preferences.

If P.F. Chang’s is a symbol of Americanized Chinese food, then Panda Express is the pioneer of this path. It is now widely known as the largest fast-food Chinese restaurant chain and the fastest-growing Asian restaurant in the United States. Founded by Andrew and Peggy Cherng in 1983, Panda Express was the first Chinese restaurant that adopted and integrated the American fast-food concept. Standardized operation is the key for Panda Express’s success. Fixed formula for preparation, cooking, and serving helps Chinese and non-Chinese employees to work efficiently and provide foods of consistent quality. Now, Panda Express has over 1900 chain stores in America, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. It remains competitive in the fast-food market among restaurant giants such as Burger King and Mc Donald’s.

As American diet and eating habits became more and more multicultural as time went by, Chinese restaurants in America also made progress in different directions. By the end of the 20th century, Chinese restaurants were no longer simply the chop suey houses. Fine dining restaurants such as P.F. Chang’s and fast-food chains such as Panda Express entered the competition and found their own ways of success in different fields. It is hard to tell whether foods served in P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express are still authentic or not, but there is one thing we are certain about – Chinese restaurants in America are continuously improving and innovating.

 

Reference:

LIU, HAIMING, and Huping Ling. “WHO OWNS CULTURE?” From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 128–145, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16nzfbd.13.

Kosher Chinese Food

In America, where different cultures merge, an interesting connection between Chinese food and Jewish culture has developed in the course of history. Though Chinese and Jewish people share little similarity in culture and religious belief; in America, they are connected by food. Jews in America are among the most faithful customers of Chinese food and eating Chinese food has become a weekly routine for many Jewish families.

Jews’ connection with Chinese food can be dated back to the 1900s, the period when a large number of Jews immigrated to America, especially to New York. These early immigrants found the tasty and low-cost Chinese food attractive and convenient as they mostly lived in areas neighboring Chinatown. Although Chinese food contains certain ingredients that are forbidden in Jewish culture, American Jews tend to perceive it as an acceptable dining choice mainly because its special cooking procedures. Chinese chefs usually chop ingredients into very small pieces, so that prohibited foods are often sufficiently disguised. Healthy food such as green onion, ginger, and vegetables also appeal to Jews and convince them the reliability of Chinese dishes.

In addition to this interesting phenomenon, Jews in America have also developed a tradition of going to or ordering from Chinese restaurants for Christmas Eve. As they do not celebrate and prepare food for Christmas like Christians, Jews prefer Chinese restaurants which remain open on Christmas Eve. Moreover, since Chinese restaurants do not have any religious affiliation, Jewish people feel comfortable eating in or ordering from there. Therefore, a preference of eating Chinese food for Christmas has gradually been embedded into the American Jewish culture.

The bond between Chinese food and the American Jewish community remains to this day. Currently, Chinese restaurants are common wherever there is a sizable Jewish population, and many of them provide fine kosher Chinese food for the Jewish community. Liu, the author of Kung Pao Kosher, mentioned “it is a rare but significant case that the food of one ethnic group became an expressive form of another group’s identity” (85). This special case represents America’s unique cultural inclusiveness and fusion.

 

Reference:

LIU, HAIMING, and Huping Ling. “KUNG PAO KOSHER: American Jews and Chinese Food.” From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 71–85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16nzfbd.10.

Reviews of Chinese Restaurants in Atlanta

As a Chinese foodie studying in America, I like to explore different Chinese restaurants around the place I live in. Starting from the beginning of the fall semester, I have visited a number of Chinese restaurants near Emory University. The following are my personal reviews of some Chinese restaurants that I considered worth discussing about.

 

CHOW MEI MEI     $

Chow Mei Mei is a fast-food style restaurant at Emory Point which serves Asian cuisine. It is the most convenient Asian restaurant near Emory campus, being just about a 15 minutes’ walk from residential halls or a 5 minutes’ bus ride from Woodruff circle. The restaurant is relatively small and decorated in modern style. It offers common Asian foods such as sesame chicken, fried rice, soba, and Pad Thai. The prices are reasonable, ranging from $7 to $10 each dish. I ordered shrimp lo mein and California roll. The waiting time for the food was very long during my visit, when there were only a few customers. The taste of the food was below average, the lo mein was too greasy and the California roll was too hard. However, considering its low price, this restaurant is acceptable.

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https://www.zomato.com/atlanta/chow-mei-mei-asian-diner-atlanta
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https://www.zomato.com/atlanta/chow-mei-mei-asian-diner-atlanta

Overall Rating: ★★☆☆☆   Not recommended.

 

HK HARBOUR     $$

Hong Kong Harbour is a big Chinese restaurant near Emory, serving Cantonese food. A first glance of the restaurant gives me a feeling of history. The restaurant is decorated in old Chinese style with many traditional furniture and sculptures. Its menu contains a wide range of options for consumers and it also provides dim sum for lunch time. The price is reasonable with each dish for approximately $10. Despite its traditional Chinese atmosphere, its food does not taste very authentic, compared to other Cantonese restaurants in New York which I have visited before. Instead of embracing innovation and creativity, HK Harbour tends to match a set of ingredients with a set of sauces. Therefore, many dishes have the same taste. To sum up, HK Harbour is an average Cantonese restaurant. Nevertheless, there is something worth pointing out – they offer delivery to Emory campus!

Delivery: (404) 325-7630

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https://www.yelp.com/biz/hong-kong-harbour-atlanta

Overall Rating: ★★☆☆☆   Recommended for delivery only.

 

BOBO GARDEN     $$

Located at Buford Highway, 20 minutes’ drive from Emory, Bo Bo Garden offers tasty and authentic Chinese cuisine with very reasonable price. It is not easy to find this restaurant as it is situated at a corner of a plaza. However, after passing through its small entrance into the restaurant, you will find that it is a very big restaurant full with both Asian and non-Asian eaters. This restaurant serves an extremely broad range of food representing different regional cuisines in China. The options on the menu are diverse but may appear difficult for non-Chinese speaking customers to understand. The serving speed is quick, and the food tastes very good. Many of the dishes in Bo Bo Garden are rarely seen in other Chinese restaurants in Atlanta. The high quality of the food and diverse options earn it an above average rating.

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https://goo.gl/maps/19ojSU2jMhu
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https://goo.gl/maps/VxDv2G7NxeM2

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆   Strongly recommended.

 

BEIJING KABOBS     $$

Beijing Kabobs is located at Buford Highway and owned by a couple originally from Beijing, China. This restaurant serves typical northeastern Chinese food such as kabob and “Mala Tang”, a spicy hot-pot dish originated from Sichuan, China. The price is pretty flexible and totally depends on how much food you would like to order. The foods served are very authentic but may not fit westerners’ taste. In addition, this restaurant is very small and kind of old.

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https://www.zomato.com/atlanta/bei-jing-kabobs-te-wei-chamblee

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆   Neutral.

 

ROYAL CHINA SEAFOOD RESTAURANT     $$$

Located at Chamblee and 20 minutes’ drive from Emory, Royal China Seafood Restaurant is a great dining option for seafood lovers. It offers a wide range of Chinese food with a majority of the dishes cooked in a Cantonese style. It is famous for serving fresh and delicious seafood. When you enter the restaurant you will see huge fish tanks with different lively sea creatures, like an aquarium. The waiters/waitresses are polite and quick, and the dishes are priced reasonably. The quality of the food is excellent. The seafood is fresh and well-seasoned. Overall, it is a great place to dine at if you prefer seafood.

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https://goo.gl/maps/euYavLfwvaF2

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Overall Rating: ★★★★☆   Strongly recommended.