More than “just takeout” – The Denver Post

By Cathy Erway, The New York Times

In 1983, Tim Ma’s parents opened Bamboo Garden in Conway, Arkansas. It was a side hustle — his mother was in graduate school, and his father worked full time as a medical technician. As owners of the only Chinese restaurant in their small town, the Mas made good money in their first year. But it wasn’t without setbacks. There was the brick hurled into their family’s home, the drunken driver who crashed into the restaurant’s dining room and the eventual arrival of competition, when their talented chef opened his own restaurant across the street.

The struggles the Mas endured informed their son’s future career in food, and his new restaurant, Lucky Danger. The Washington, D.C., takeout spot, which he opened with Andrew Chiou in November, is a reflection of the Asian American experience, he said.

“It is a kind of respect for our elders,” Ma said of Lucky Danger. “That’s a little bit of the mission here.”

Shuran Huang, The New York Times

Tim Ma, right, and Andrew Chiou, the owners of the Lucky Danger takeout restaurant in Washington, May 8, 2021. A new generation of Chinese American chefs is celebrating the inventiveness, resourcefulness and deliciousness of American Chinese food with menus dedicated to the classics.

Billed as “American Chinese by a Chinese American,” Lucky Danger serves many of the American Chinese classics that Bamboo Garden once did — lo mein and fried rice dishes, orange beef, cashew chicken — as well as less conventional offerings inspired by the chef’s personal tastes and experiences, including a Taiwanese-style omelet with dried radish and a whole branzino dish.

Lucky Danger joins a new generation of American Chinese takeout restaurants redefining how this food is regarded. Historically, “most Chinese eaters have really disdained Americanized Chinese food,” said David R. Chan, a historian and archivist of Chinese food in America. Intimately aware of Chinese food’s long and complicated history in the United States, the owners and chefs behind this new crop of restaurants are proud of their Americanized offerings. With a more modern emphasis on branding, marketing and operations, they’re transforming what Chinese takeout can be.

“American Chinese food is a really great case study in how cultures come together,” said Lucas Sin, the executive chef and co-owner of Nice Day Chinese Takeout, which opened in New York City’s West Village last summer. Having grown up in Hong Kong and attended college in the United States, Sin is fascinated by the cuisine’s ability to absorb influences from all over. Nice Day’s website describes American Chinese food as “a wonderfully inventive and flavorful regional Chinese cuisine.”

The notion of American Chinese food as a legitimate subcategory of Chinese cooking is a fairly recent and radical idea, according to Chan. That sensibility is on full display at Lucky Danger and Nice Day, as well as at San Francisco takeout shops Mamahuhu and Lazy Susan, where the owners are committed to the classics — at least from a culinary standpoint.

“People chalk it up to ‘just takeout,’ but what I see is a lot of ingenuity, observation and a lot of skill,” said Brandon Jew, the chef-owner at San Francisco’s lauded Mister Jiu’s and the owner of Mamahuhu, a casual American Chinese restaurant that opened in January 2020. “No question, that is why people love it so much — because there was so much thoughtfulness in how it was done.”

Traditionally, meat is used sparingly to stretch across vegetables and rice, a resourceful hallmark of the cuisine. Even the precise way the chicken is cut for a sweet-and-sour dish contributes to the overall experience of eating it, Jew said. Inspired by historical recipes, the sweet-and-sour sauce at Mamahuhu is made with pineapple juice, honey and hawthorn berries, which impart an earthy flavor and reddish tint.

Hanson Li, left, and Tiffany Yam, ...

Aaron Wojack, The New York Times

Hanson Li, left, and Tiffany Yam, center, the co-owners of the Lazy Susan takeout-only restaurant in San Francisco, June 8, 2021. A new generation of Chinese American chefs is celebrating the inventiveness, resourcefulness and deliciousness of American Chinese food with menus dedicated to the classics.

“As much as I am interested in Chinese food on the mainland, because I’m cooking for an American audience, I’m interested in what Chinese chefs have done here, too,” he said.

Chinese food’s evolution in America goes back more than 150 years, and can be traced to the first wave of immigration in the 19th century, when mostly Taishan men found work in the United States as laborers. After taxes aimed at foreign workers and violent attacks effectively barred many immigrants from holding jobs, some of them opened restaurants, offering humble stir-fries with no direct parallels in China, said Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” a history of Chinese food in America. The cooking was improvisational, a means of survival rather than a point of pride. Dishes like moo goo gai pan and chop suey — which roughly translates to “odds and ends” — were the beginnings of a culinary tradition.

“The recipes that are American Chinese were created by people who were forced to cook for a living,” Lee said, “and they developed a series of dishes that served the American palate.” Many of the dishes followed a formula: a protein that was familiar to American eaters with quickly stir-fried vegetables, covered in a thick sauce and served with rice. The addition of bean sprouts, water chestnuts and baby corn provided texture, and was seen as an exciting novelty for non-Chinese eaters, Lee said.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 largely limited mainland China’s influence on the cuisine. But it did not stymie the expansion of Chinese restaurants in America, which continued to proliferate in cities and suburbs. Chinese chefs adopted ingredients that had become fashionable in the United States, such as broccoli. The Tiki-bar craze of the mid-20th century, which fetishized an imagined South Pacific landscape, trickled into American Chinese restaurants by way of appetizers like crab Rangoon.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ushered in a new wave of immigrants from China and Taiwan, including trained cooks who introduced American diners to a broader variety of regional cuisines, and expanded the repertoire of Chinese food enjoyed in the United States.

“All the sudden you’re getting what you might call authentic Cantonese food from Hong Kong,” Chan said. Yet even as they introduced dishes from provinces like Hunan and Sichuan (and opened restaurants bearing those names), catering to local palates often meant adapting them beyond recognition — a kung pao chicken that’s more sweet than spicy, or a deep-fried cashew chicken born out of a Springfield, Missouri, restaurateur’s failure to tempt residents with Cantonese seafood dishes.

“Chinese restaurant owners are very resourceful,” said Chan. “They were able to find their niche quickly and roll with the times.”

The emphasis on takeout and delivery was just another way these restaurateurs’ tried to “meet Americans where they were,” Lee said. In the 1970s and ’80s, the American family increasingly consisted of two working parents who sought convenient meals. While takeout options were largely limited to pizza and fast food, Chinese restaurants offered families more variety and healthier options, like shrimp with snow peas and beef with broccoli, Lee said.

With the cuisine’s growth came backlash. The “Chinese-restaurant syndrome” hoax has long fueled stigma regarding the consumption of Chinese food and monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a flavor enhancer used in most processed foods. While some Chinese American restaurateurs have struggled to shake off assumptions of American Chinese food as cheap and inauthentic, and others have chosen to break from the takeout model and go upscale, the owners and chefs at Lazy Susan, Lucky Danger, Mamahuhu and Nice Day are proud of the cuisine’s affordable and accessible legacy.