This went out in August on the OMVNAtalk downtown-area email list in response to a recent resident asking me for Chinese-restaurant tips. I post it here in case of wider interest. Part II will follow as a separate posting.
Individual preferences vary, obviously; this message is more about descriptive information on our Chinese restaurant scene, information possibly unfamiliar to some residents. Part I is backround info, and a start on local restaurant suggestions.
1. Some local history
My own experience of Bay Area Chinese restaurant food started in early 1960s, when it usually meant egg rolls, won ton soup, shrimp fritters, chow mein, or chop suey (a US adaptation, unfamiliar in China.)
About 45 years ago, immigrant Chinese entrepreneurs and cooks from agriculturally rich provinces (Sichuan, Hunan, Canton), and Hong Kong, began opening restaurants with more diverse and “Chinese” offerings. The famous linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892-1982), who taught at Berkeley, had introduced now-familiar Chinese cooking terms into English (pot sticker, stir-fry). Soon, all of SF seemed to crave dim sum, while bold dishes with ginger, garlic, scallions, hot peppers, and just-cooked fresh vegetables became mainstream. Even Chinese cookbooks for US audiences changed greatly after 1970.
2. Bay-Area Chinese-restaurant CUSTOMERS
These form two main groups, plus a smaller third. The first group, often immigrant or ethnic Chinese, knows Chinese cooking as practiced in China, and seeks diverse, regional, or expert kitchens. Our ethnically diverse region includes many such customers, who sustain a range of Chinese restaurants that wouldn’t (and don’t) survive in many other US, or even California, regions where I’ve been.
Another customer population, the biggest, orders a small group of famous Chinese dishes (sometimes called the American Chinese menu: pot stickers, mu shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, etc.). One of our first-wave local restaurateurs from Sichuan, Lawrence C. C. Chu, decided in 1970 that the key to business success was to observe and specialize in the few dishes most often ordered by non-Chinese customers, since those customers were the largest market. Chef Chu’s in Los Altos resulted, and along with other famous examples like Ming’s (Palo Alto), made a successful business by addressing that market. I’ve found Chu’s very reliable for those dishes, and have gone there periodically, and traded quips with Chu himself, for most of his restaurant’s history. It must be said, most other Chinese restaurants also make the Americanized menu, sometimes very well — because it’s all some patrons ever order.
A minority of customers (yo!) have no Chinese background personally, yet seek variety or authenticity, like the first group. Some of these customers complain (vocally, online) because they’re below the radar of Chinese restaurateurs. They resent Chinese restaurants translating just fractions of their menus to English; and as usual in human nature, they project their own explanations for it. Off their own radar, in turn, is just how tiny a market these customers make up. That’s what I learned from talking to countless Chinese restaurateurs — who usually delight to explain their kitchen’s strengths, and any untranslated menu items. They delight exactly because such inquiries are rare, from non-Chinese and even many Chinese customers. Upshot: Ask questions! It pays at many restaurants, not just Chinese.
3. Chinese restaurants _near_ Old Mountain View
With the passing of two much-loved ones (Cafe Yulong, Hunan Chili), Old MV still has SEVEN established, sit-down Chinese restaurants around the official neighborhood, and some very notable ones nearby, which I’ll start with here. Part II will complete the list of Old MV’s Chinese restaurants.
The two below, slightly outside OMV boundaries, are among the most respected nearby Chinese restaurants, bringing connoisseurs from around the Bay Area.
Bamboo Garden (Central at Rengstorff). Plain-looking, comforting, inexpensive, expert-esteemed 3-year-old restaurant specializing in Shanghai cuisine (locally rare). Even the Michelin Guide took notice; its cuisine-knowledgeable reviewer recommended some fine dishes. MANY Chinese filled dumplings, including uncommon types. And the “XLB” dumplings (enclosing soup broth over pork), Bamboo Garden’s #1 seller, are praised by some connoisseurs. (Pick them up by your fingers from the top, or the delicate noodle wraps may break. DO NOT get them to go: XLB must be consumed fresh.)
Chef Zhao Bistro (400 Moffett — Castro’s extension — 3 blocks past Central Expwy). Slightly less approachable than Bamboo Garden, in that a few exploratory visits are helpful for understanding the style and strengths, Zhao is another newish restaurant (one year), and has a master Sichuanese chef. Packed with Chinese customers some days. If you like Sichuanese food and its unique hua jiao citrus spice (often miscalled Sichuan pepper — it isn’t pepper, isn’t hot, and the peppercorn-shaped kernel isn’t its flavored part), try Zhao’s ma po tofu ($8) which is very spicy; or (unusual, because authentic and light) tan tan noodles, $6. (But not simultaneously: both use hua jiao, which numbs the tongue.) One neighbor wrecked his low-carb regimen after I recommended Zhao’s large exquisite vegetarian “pan-fried chive pancake” (2 to an order, $5), and so would you.
TO BE CONTINUED: Part II will summarize all the Chinese restaurants in Old MV proper.