I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
David Chan's Goal
Some people set themselves goals such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or reading Tolstoy's War and Peace. David Chan's challenge was to eat in every Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area. Then, he went farther—much farther.
Chinese Food in America
The first Chinese immigrants to America were drawn by the possibility of work building railroads and by the California Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century. Small restaurants opened up to give the newcomers a taste of home but their menus had to be adapted to whatever ingredients they could source locally.
Slowly, non-Chinese diners began trying out the Chinese cuisine and, mostly, they liked what they tasted. There was the added benefit that the food in Chinese restaurants was really cheap.
Time Magazine tells us that “The turn of the 20th century saw the emergence of chop suey joints as hip and affordable places for young urbanites to spend a night out.” But, it wasn't Chinese food, it was Chinese-American food, a distinctly new kind of cooking adapted to the American palate. For example, nobody in China had ever heard of chop suey, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.
This kind of Chinese-American food spread across the continent. It wasn't very adventurous or good—noodles, rice, beansprouts, onions, mushrooms, and tiny bits of chicken deep-fried in a ball of dough and smothered in a sticky, sweet, red goo. But, it was still cheap.
However, in the 1960s and '70s authentic Chinese food started to appear in America. And, this is where we meet David Chan.
The Chinese Food Search Begins
David Chan's grandparents came to California from Guangdong province in 1900. However, his parents were completely Americanized and did not serve Chinese food at home. He said they occasionally went to banquets but all he found edible was rice with soy sauce sloshed on it.
He never learned to speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese dialect, and he finds chopsticks difficult to handle.
In the 1960s, laws restricting Chinese immigrants were lifted and people from Sichuan, Fujian, Shandong, and other regions arrived in the United States, bringing their regional cuisine with them. This piqued Mr. Chan's interest. He thought that by exploring Chinese food he could also learn something about his ethnic heritage.
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He started out with the plan to visit every Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area, however he's expanded his mission. As a tax lawyer, he methodically charted his odyssey on a spreadsheet and collected an enormous pile of menus.
LA Weekly caught up with Mr. Chan in June 2012 when he had eaten in 6,090 Chinese restaurants all over the U.S. and Canada. You can't rack up that number of eateries on a casual basis; true dedication is required. He told Clarissa Wei, “I went to six dim sum places one morning in Toronto.”
Nine years later, Mr. Chan was discovered by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) still on his Chinese food quest. By late in 2021, he had visited 7,812 restaurants.
What Has David Chan Learned?
Interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Chan says the highlights in his quest were in Hong Kong. This shouldn't be a surprise, he says, because restaurants such as T’ang Court at The Langham Hotel and Tin Lung Heen in The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong get Michelin three-star ratings.
He adds, “For a period from the late 1980s until maybe ten years ago Vancouver's Chinese food was so far ahead of anything else in the United States that people in the United States who took their Chinese food seriously would talk about going to Vancouver to eat.” Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have caught up to their Canadian counterparts.
On the other hand, he's had many bad experiences and one of the worst was in Fargo, North Dakota where the Chinese food came out of a can; “It was like going to a restaurant and getting Campbell's soup . . . fried rice was just steamed rice with soy sauce poured on it.”
Mr. Chan says he is not a foodie and his wife tends to agree. Chan says she is skeptical about his expertise and she does all the cooking in their household.
- In 1937, Carl Crow wrote in Harper's Magazine that chop suey originated in a restaurant in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. A bunch of rough miners entered the restaurant that was about to close and demanded to be fed. The owner, miffed at being harassed, went into the kitchen and dumped all the food left by previous diners into a wok, added some sauce, and served it to his unwanted customers. Crow wrote that as the miners “didn’t understand Cantonese slang they didn’t know what he meant when he told them that they were eating chop suey, or 'beggar hash.' At any rate, they liked it so well that they came back for more and in that chance way the great chop suey industry was established.” Who knows, that story might even be true?
- According to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are 45,000 Chinese restaurants in America; that's more than Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King outlets combined.
- An old Cantonese proverb says, “Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.”
- A word of advice from the writer; do not, under any circumstances, eat "Chinese" food in a mall food court.
- “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America.” Emelyn Rude, Time, February 8, 2016.
- “Meet David R. Chan: The Man Who Has Eaten at over 6,000 Chinese Restaurants.” Clarissa Wei, LA Weekly, June 4, 2012.
- “This Man Has Eaten at Nearly 8,000 Chinese Restaurants.” As it Happens, CBC, December 15, 2021.
- “What I Learned Eating at 8,000 Chinese Restaurants.” Zhaoyin Feng, BBC News, November 24, 2021.
- “Was Chop Suey the Greatest Culinary Joke Ever Played?” Peter Smith, Smithsonian, March 12, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor