My mother is the oldest of five siblings, most of whom grew up in New York’s Chinatown. They are voracious eaters and bargain hunters, and lifelong visitors to Chinese neighborhoods everywhere. When we talk about a good Chinatown, we point to certain signs: live fish for sale, dragon eyes in sidewalk produce displays, smokers, crowds.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about American Chinatowns and my family’s history in them. People often ask, “What’s your favorite Chinatown?” or “What do you look for?” I wondered if there was a shorthand I could offer, to sum up the best of the best. And so: fish, dragons, smoke, crowds.
Live fish mean that there are enough people buying to make the trouble of caring for the seafood worthwhile. The dragon eye — longan in Cantonese — is a strange fruit, a sweet, subtly fragrant exotic with coarse, sandpapery skin. Shaped like, well, an eyeball, it slips out of its brown covering to reveal translucent white flesh, with a hard mahogany seed inside. You have to know how to eat it, by cracking the whole thing open like a peanut. Chinese people are crazy for longan. Like the aforementioned fish, its presence indicates a recently arrived populace desiring a range of fresh food — some of it still swimming — not usually seen in the corner grocery.
The smokers? In the United States the smoking rate is at a new low. Not so in China; it’s the world’s biggest consumer of cigarettes. As strange as it may seem, smoking is a strong cultural indicator that a Chinatown continues to serve a vibrant population of immigrants. A Chinese restaurant with a bunch of cooks smoking out back, or customers puffing while waiting for a table? Worth a try! It’s one that’s less likely to be Americanized.
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New immigrants mean a certain density and that prices aren’t too high. The more people, the better.
These are signs to look for in a good Chinatown, especially as Lunar New Year celebrations on Jan. 31 bring a crush of visitors. Of course, Chinatowns in this country come in markedly different incarnations these days.
Years ago, they were dense neighborhoods in big cities like San Francisco and New York, serving as refuges from racism, entry points to America, residential and cultural epicenters of Chinese-American life. This is the rule no longer. Many of the historic Chinatowns, like those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., have faded. New patterns of Chinese migration send upwardly mobile populations straight to big houses in the suburbs and job opportunities in cities far from the coasts.
That’s all fine and good, you say, but what’s the best? To me, the differences between Chinatowns are to be celebrated; the good ones reflect life in all its rhythms. To that end, I recently revisited the question of my favorites with a “best in class” approach. I went in search of fish and dragons. Here’s what I found.
New York City for its milieu, markets and history
Manhattan’s longstanding Chinatown has a centrality and a feeling of constant renewal, a vibrant depth, that beats out other historic Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and Chicago.
The New York chef Wylie Dufresne, of the restaurants WD-50 and Alder, regularly walks around Chinatown sniffing out weird, beautiful, bright ingredients in places like Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester Street.
“By going there, you can pick it out yourself,” he said. “You can hold it in your hand. And there is always the opportunity you’ll come across not just one or two, but 20 things you’ve never encountered before.”
Suburban: Monterey Park, Calif., “the Chinese Beverly Hills,” for its variety of food and epic concentration of Chinese.
Ten miles east of downtown Los Angeles, Monterey Park is the first American city with a majority population of Asians; nearly 50 percent are of Chinese descent (in 2010, the city’s total population was 60,269). A trip here is a special experience, different from traveling abroad, because in many ways it is just like any American suburb, except that everyone is Asian and businesses have Chinese signage and are housed in mini-mall complexes with names like Jade Plaza.
David Chan, a third-generation Chinese-American and LA accountant who writes a food blog and is famous for eating at and documenting 6,000-plus Chinese restaurants around the world, has said that what qualifies as “authentic” Chinese cuisine is whether a Chinese person living in Monterey Park would deign to dine there. Right in town, you can eat your way across China. But he also told me that Monterey Park has grown into a bigger metaphor, representing the whole of what the San Gabriel Valley has become.
Monterey Park is packed with places? like Kam Hong Garden, a specialist in knife-cut Shanxi noodles and hot, gamey broths, and Elite Restaurant, a tidy, upscale dim sum establishment that eschews the traditional rolling trolleys for a more civilized made-to-order experience. The glazed roast pork buns are soft and chewy, the wok-tossed Chinese broccoli crunchy and fresh. Wherever I went, I spent little, and departed with leftovers.
Las Vegas, for pioneering an invented Chinatown mall experience that has come to be its own authentic creation.
Las Vegas is known for all things man-made. In 1995, inspired by his experience in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in the 1970s, a Taiwanese developer named James Chen opened a shopping complex, Chinatown Plaza, just west of the neon lights of the Vegas Strip. Since then, a bona fide Chinatown has unexpectedly bloomed in the desert, with the area’s fast-growing community turning Spring Mountain Road into a busy three-mile stretch of Asian businesses. A sign this Chinatown is legit? A stop here is now de rigueur for tourists from China, who come to eat, take photos and check the attraction off their lists.
A cluster of cities like Houston, Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., have tried to market their Chinese-themed malls to tourists, as if having a Chinatown lends cachet. Worth noting for a fledgling Chinatown in this manufactured, pan-Asian category is Austin, a laid-back city, home to the University of Texas, that in recent years has seen its tech industry and South by Southwest festival take off.