East Bay diners can slurp Taiwanese herbal hotpots in Fremont or singe their lips on Sichuan water-boiled beef in Albany because immigration reform, high-tech jobs, and better relations with mainland China have dispersed Chinese-speaking restaurateurs all across the greater Bay Area. But finding such restaurants, and knowing what to order at them, can be a daunting prospect for Chinese-American and non-Chinese foodies alike. Author Carl Chu’s just-published Chinese Food Finder: The Bay Area and San Francisco is aimed at helping diners enter into the fast-growing, ever-diversifying world of Chinese cuisine in urban America.
Born in Taiwan and raised in Los Angeles, Chu began cataloguing the unfamiliar dishes and styles of regional Chinese cuisine cooking he encountered while eating out with his family. “Chinese food has been looked down on for so long as takeout food, as opposed to something completely mysterious, even to the Chinese themselves,” he said. “If you ask your Chinese-American friends about a dish, if it’s not from their region they won’t know anything about it.”
Chasing after that mystery took Chu all over Los Angeles, then to Taipei to the library of the Foundation of Chinese Dietary Culture. These efforts to trace the origins of various regional styles of cooking, from the well-known (Cantonese) to the obscure (Hakka), resulted in a unique approach: Each chapter tells a little about the cuisine of a particular region, and describes several typical dishes, giving the Chinese characters for each. Then the guide identifies specific restaurants that serve the regional style.
This approach works. In my own exploration of Chinese regional food, knowing a few dishes often has been the key to unlocking a restaurant’s menu. At, say, a Shanghainese restaurant, I order red-cooked pork with tofu-skin knots and eel with yellow chives — then ask the waiters what else they’d recommend.
The Los Angeles version of his culinary guidebook appeared in 2003. Word of it quickly spread from online bulletin boards to daily newspapers. Chu quickly capitalized on its success by writing Bay Area and New York editions, which both came out this year. Until your local independent bookstore orders copies, you can buy his Chinese Food Finders online at Amazon.com or at Borders.
For the Bay Area guide, Chu largely reproduced the Los Angeles guide’s descriptions of regional cuisines. He then flew up every weekend for several months to drive, eat, and talk. More often than not, he ended up in Milpitas, which has become Northern California’s Monterey Park, a hotspot for Chinese foodies. Oakland Chinatown’s Cantonese and Chaozhou (Chinese Vietnamese) restaurants also earn a number of mentions in the guide. But Chu is more excited by the ever-expanding, diverse Asian food malls in Richmond, Fremont, Newark, and Union City.
No matter where you go, he says, one thing’s for sure: “If you see the words ‘Mandarin cuisine’ on the menu, turn around and walk out. There’s no such thing.”