Authentic Chinese food is gaining fans all over the world. But in New York City, the taste for real Chinese food is growing at lightning speed.
New Chinese restaurants are specializing in food from very specific provinces. And, it’s very different from the type of food Americans typically get at a Chinese restaurant.
CGTN’s Liling Tan reports on the secrets to their success.
I’m in New York City’s East Village, and my first stop for this very serious food study is Le Sia. The restaurant opened in January, specializing in crawfish dishes done in the styles of Beijing’s famous food street. Owner Tina Chen guides me through my “research.” This dish boasts 13 herbal spices. We eat the crawfish first, then soak up the sauce with baked bread called ntou. It’s delicious, but I asked her why she decided to open the restaurant in the East Village
“Because East Village is very close to New York University and there are a lot of Chinese students in New York University so I think it’s a good place to start,” she said. “We can attract some Chinese people as well as Americans. American people love crawfish, Chinese flavored crawfish.”
And it’s not just crawfish. There’s been a lot of buzz about Clay Pot NYC just five minutes away. It specializes in the traditional Hong Kong style of cooking rice in a clay pot over an open flame. I ordered mine with pork belly and Chinese sausage. The heat from the clay pot seals in the flavors as it cooks the rice to a crispy finish. The fan jiao –the crispy bits at the bottom of the bowl—are the best part of Clay Pot Rice.
When the eatery opened in February, owner Alexander Yip said he wanted to “bridge generations and cultures.” That’s a shared goal among new restaurants popping up in the East Village, but the popularity has also been fed by features in food guides and rave reviews by food critics. But the trend didn’t emerge out of the blue. The restaurant that has perhaps pioneered and perfected the concept of bringing old flavors to new palates is Sichuan restaurant Cafe China, the only Chinese restaurant in the city awarded a Michelin star six years in a row. And the midtown restaurant is always crowded.
“I’m actually from Chicago, and whenever I come in for business it’s a kind of a must-stop when I’m here,” said diner Matthew Stoker. “I really enjoyed it,” said customer Emily Calkins. “I feel like the flavors balance really well, especially this dish with the peanuts and a little bit of the sweetish pepper.
Over Kung Fu Shrimp, vegetarian Ma Po Tofu, and baby cucumber in garlic sauce, owners Zhang Zian and Wang Yiming say the Michelin star came as a surprise after they opened in 2011.
“Initially our restaurant was small, like a mom and pop shop, me being the mom, him being the pop,” said Wang Yiming, co-owner of Café China. “Obviously we got a lot busier because of the Michelin star, but at the same time we’ve felt there’s certainly pressure to represent Chinese restaurants in the Michelin space,” added her partner, Zhang Zian.
What about all the other Chinese restaurants opening up Will there be a saturation point? Wang Yiming doesn’t think so. “I think the more the better,” she said. An opinion seconded by the restaurant’s co-owner. “I think Chinese cuisine is so varied, the flavor profile so different, that if you look at new Chinese restaurants coming up, they’re all doing different things and they all put their own spin on it,” said Zhang Zian.
Which brings us to Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village, where Executive Chef Simone Tong puts a modern spin on the traditional mixian–rice noodles from Yunnan province in southwest China.
“New York is the best place to succeed, to fail and to experiment, and build memories,” said owner Simone Tong.
Tong is a familiar face in the New York food circuit. She fed me too, with her standout Grandma Chicken Mixian in chicken broth, roasted sesame and garlic, a complex marriage of flavors that brings your palette from Yunnan over the border into Southeast Asia.
“This kind of food, whether it’s authentic or modernized Chinese food that are inspired in China or brought over from China, was an old thing for us but now is a new thing for the American people,” Tong said. “I love it. It’s like fashion. It’s never too old to be trendy, it’s never too new to be comfortable.”
And there you have it… the not-so-secret ingredient to why so many Chinese restaurants are making their mark in New York–by taking ageless tradition into new territory.
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