Dining

Wok This Way

These restaurants are redefining American Chinese food
Why These New American Chinese Restaurants Are Breaking All the Rules
Photo: Krescent Carasso

Brandon Jew, the chef and owner of Mister Jiu's in San Francisco's Chinatown, has one mission: to "define San Francisco Chinese food." And he's doing that with a new approach to a cuisine most associated with takeout. "All the dishes [at my restaurant] have a story of a farm or a place within the Bay Area that I think is exceptional, and then we mix that with something that is steeped in Chinese tradition," often from the local Chinese American immigrant community he grew up in.

From this intersection come dishes like scallion pancakes reimagined with San Francisco sourdough and local scallions and quails from Wolfe Ranch, a Bay Area purveyor popular with fellow chefs, like the team from State Bird Provisions. For Chinese New Year, Jew stuffs the boutique birds with a blend of sticky and jasmine rices, dried shrimp, and mushrooms, then lacquers the skin with sugar and ginger (see the recipe), a play on a dish his family used to eat for Thanksgiving.

"Just how American chefs have been putting a lot into defining American food, I think the next generation of Chinese American chefs will start to express their region as well," he says. And he's not talking about regions of China, but rather, regions of the U.S. Jew isn't alone here. Following in the footsteps of places like Mission Chinese Food and Red Farm, a select group of chefs and restaurant owners (both of Chinese descent and otherwise) are opening restaurants across the country that reflect their neighborhoods, regional food traditions and what's being grown nearby.

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Down in Austin, at Old Thousand, Uchi alum chef David Baek and James Dumapit, who worked at the critical favorite's little sister, Uchiko, are working to define Austin Chinese food. "We don't look out to Tex-ify," Dumapit says about their food. Rather they work touches of the city into their menu via dishes like a fried rice made with smoked brisket from nearby barbecue spot Micklethwait. Dumapit says the approach is a natural fit. "We don't want to hang on to the idea of 'authentic' Chinese food, because that would be disingenuous," he explains, while noting that neither he nor Baek are of Chinese descent. "But both of us came up cooking in Austin, and we didn't seek out to be authentic to anybody but ourselves."

A smile welcomes guests to the bar at Mister Jiu's. | Photo: Krescent Carasso

You'll find a similar sentiment in Milwaukee at DanDan, a restaurant that Dan Van Rite and his business partner, Dan Jacobs, describe as having "a Chinese soul with a Midwestern sensibility." For Van Rite, that means dishes like char siu on a pancake made with potatoes and scallions—which he likens to a latke—topped with pickles and fermented mustard greens, ingredients that can be sourced locally despite long winters. "[The dish] is super homey, and it reminds me of something you would see in Wisconsin," he says.  

Across Lake Michigan, Detroit newcomer The Peterboro is serving a more modern take on almond chicken, a city favorite that was, according to local lore, first served at Detroit's iconic, now-shuttered Chung's. Here, chef Brion Wong prepares shredded chicken that's dunked in a batter made with a local IPA then served with Marcona almonds.

Detroit's signature almond chicken gets updated by chef Brion Wong at The Peterboro. | Photo: Jason Leinart

For the team here—and for Mister Jiu's, as well as Chinese Tuxedo in NYC—this idea of a new generation of American Chinese restaurants is about more than what's on the plate: It's about helping to give new life to local Chinatowns. Diners regularly tell the staff at The Peterboro they are unaware their city even has a Chinatown, managing partner Charles Inchaustegui says. In Manhattan, where Chinatown is bustling and unmissable, Aussie Eddy Buckingham and Jeff Lam, who immigrated to the neighborhood in 1978 from the Fujian province, are using Chinese Tuxedo to bring out an element of the neighborhood mostly lost up until now: high-end contemporary Chinese cuisine. Their restaurant, which serves "pan-Chinese" food, is located in what was once the Chinatown Opera House and is named for a spot that used to exist across the street. "It was the best restaurant in Chinatown in 1897," Lam says. The pair wants to create "that kind of contemporary environment" again.  

The team at Chinese Tuxedo unearthed the original walls from the Chinatown Opera House. | Photo: Oleg March

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Jew knew early on which neighborhood he would be setting up shop in. "I didn't want Chinatown to feel like a museum or like a dinosaur. I wanted to make sure it was still active and thriving" well into the future, he says.

These chefs and restaurant owners are ushering in a new generation of American Chinese cooking and even more so giving a new meaning to regional cuisine—one that speaks not only to where they come from but also where they're going.

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