The New Chinese-American Restaurant

By Emma Orlow


Emma Orlow

For many Chinese immigrants and their descendants, success in the hospitality industry has come with a built-in glass ceiling. But in the New York City of 2019, the Chinese restaurant has been reborn, driven by young Chinese and Chinese-American chefs. The regional variety of Chinese cuisine is finally being expressed and explored in fun, inventive, and refined ways—ways in which French, Italian, and Spanish cuisines have been celebrated and scrutinized for years.

It was during the Gold Rush of the 1850s that the first Chinese restaurants emerged in San Francisco. The cuisine that consequently evolved was distinct from traditional Chinese cuisine, often catering to white, Western palates. One cannot extract the legacy of Chinese food in America without looking at the way racism informed its success. At the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, an exhibit called “Chow: Making The Chinese American Restaurant” charts how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Yet, a loophole allowed restaurant owners to return to China to bring back employees. Still, there was a notion that Chinese food, the way it was actually eaten in China, was “too weird” for the West.

Fast forward many, many years to Chinatown in Queens and the incredible success of the fast-casual Xi’an Famous Foods. As a business it has proved to the immigrant community that hospitality, restaurant ownership, and cooking Chinese food is a viable and respectable career choice. Founded in 2005, Xi’an Famous Foods quickly became a New York favorite for its affordability, Anthony Bourdain-endorsement, and casual home-style food.

Jason Wang, co-owner of Xi’an Famous Foods, says its success has to do with shifting perceptions of mainland China. “Since 1949, [China] has been seen as the enemy. People enjoy Chinese food, but politically, [Chinese people] are on the opposite side of the world and the food became seen as foreign,” says Wang. “During the last 20 years, China has changed. It’s wealthier, international, and globalized. It has a more open economy. That means better international relations, better communication, and recognition. The perception of China has changed, and so has the way Americans see its food.”

Wang sees himself as a culinary ambassador. When he started the business with his father in the basement of Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall—before he ever stepped foot in business school—there was no new wave of Chinese restaurants to embolden them. (Wilson Tang’s relaunch of Nom Wah Tea Parlor wouldn’t come until six years after the fi rst Xi’an.) Wang says his father is a risk-taker who preferred hospitality over other industries that many Chinese Americans may find more legitimate or prestigious.

StarChefs Rising Star Chef Lucas Sin, who opened Junzi Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut, before bringing it to New York, was inspired by Wang. “Xi’an Famous Foods changed it for Chinese kids everywhere. The rebirth of Chinese food started with white people cooking it, then non-Chinese Asians, then Chinese-Americans, now Chinese Chinese people.”

Sin opened his first restaurant, Bozai in Hong Kong, when he was just 16. He later moved to the United States to study science at Yale University, where he continued his culinary growth with dorm room “instant noodle pop-ups.” Sin went on to work in elite Kyoto kitchens and was part of Francisco Migoya and Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Bread team. With Junzi, he’s serving northern Chinese comfort staples, and he wants to become the Sweetgreen of noodles.

Amelie Kang was a customer of Xi’an Famous Foods back when it first opened. Today, Kang owns two locations of dry-pot restaurant MáLà Project, along with fast-casual Tomorrow, which opened in the Financial District in 2017.

Kang graduated from The Culinary Institute of America as the only woman from mainland China in her class. She cooked at Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud and worked as manager at China Blue before launching MáLà. This year, the 26 year-old restaurateur plans to open four more locations of the concept across Manhattan.
The genius of MáLà Project and dry-pot cooking, in general, is that it customizes and condenses the hot pot experience for a young, urban population. “With hot pot, you have to sit for two hours with a big group. Your clothes get that smell. It’s a big mission to eat it,” says Kang. Dry-pot originated as an alternative in the 70s in Chongqing, and Kang experienced it for the first time in Beijing. With 70 ingredients to choose from and varying spice levels, it fits into a growing industry focus on accommodating dietary restrictions and eating well fast.
Rising Star Chef Simone Tong, owner of Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village and Midtown, was born in Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan province. She later lived in Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia before coming to the States. She studied economics and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and when she finally allowed herself to become a cook, Tong attended the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. She fulfilled a dream by landing a job at wd~50, where she worked for four years. “I have a Chinese mom that says I shouldn’t work so hard, and I should be more elegant and beautiful and get a rich husband,” says Tong. But at the 2017 opening of Little Tong, her mother joked, “How did you get even more successful than me?”
Tong serves “crossing bridge noodles,” or mixian, a long, round rice noodle that’s a Yunnan province specialty influenced by its neighbors of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. She had researched the noodles during a lengthy, post wd~50 excursion to China. In 2019, a third location of Little Tong will open in the West Village.
The most recent of these new-wave Chinese-American restaurants is 886 run by Eric Sze. The Taiwanese spot on St. Marks intentionally caters to millennials through its neon, Instagrammable interior. Its stir fry menu has dishes called “sausage party,” and there are riffs on the Taiwanese McChicken Sandwich.
To Sze, these new hybrid restaurants are run by people with “emotions invested,” spurred by spending significant time in Asia and wanting to bring back the best of the culture to New York. “The previous American generation got Chinese food tailored for America, but now we are all trying to bring Chinese food for the next American generation. Whether it’s updated takes on street food or authentic dim sum, Chinese food has seen a lot of inequality in this country, and it’s time we change that,” says Sze.
As for the future of Xi’an Famous Foods, “I know people don’t believe me, but I don’t have ambition to make billions. I don’t have an exit strategy. I want to keep the brand strong. A 100-year brand is a mark of success,” says Wang. “My benchmark isn’t about what other people are doing to reach the existing ‘American palate.’ There is no defined American palate. It’s changing, especially in cities. When your brand has been around 100 years, that’s success.”  
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