Chinese Food Outside the Takeout Box

From left to right: © Barnard & Meyer; © Bob Martus; © Barnard & Meyer

By Chelsea Morse Posted November 20, 2015

Chefs and other tastemakers are creating a new kind of Chinese-American cooking.

Cheap Chinese takeout is an American icon, which may explain why chefs in the United States have been both reticent to mess with it and blind to its potential. But as more chefs visit Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and beyond, they’re learning that the true story of Chinese food is largely untold in the US: At its core, this cooking reflects a farm-to-table tradition, driven by vegetables (many of them region-specific) and seasonality. “Ironically, authentic Chinese food doesn’t travel well in a takeout container,” says chef Josh Grinker of the new Kings County Imperial in Brooklyn. “It has an immediacy to it. It isn’t meant to sit.” Here’s a look at the chefs, market impresarios and cookbook authors who are exploring regional cuisine with local ingredients, changing the way Americans think about Chinese food with recipes that are fresh, bright and modern.

NEW RESTAURANTS

Brooklyn: Kings County Imperial

Growing up in New York City, Josh Grinker ate Chinese food once a week with his grandfather. But he didn’t become obsessed with the cuisine until he began working at A Single Pebble restaurant in Burlington, Vermont—fermenting sauces in clay pots, inflating poultry with air to crisp its skin for Peking duck. Traveling to China soon afterward with his business partner, Tracy Jane Young, inspired him to open Kings County Imperial. The backyard garden supplies the kitchen with Chinese red mustard greens, purple yard-long beans, four types of cucumbers and a host of edible flowers. Grinker also uses small-batch soy sauce, produced exclusively for the restaurant by a family in southern China and dispensed by tap at the bar to keep it fresh. 20 Skillman Ave.; kingscoimperial.com.

San Francisco: (Preview) China Live

Cecilia Chang, the grande dame of Chinese cuisine in America, advised on San Francisco’s newest food hall, due to open in early 2016. It will have a rare tea shop, a market selling fresh Chinese produce, a craft-cocktail bar inspired by 1920s Shanghai gangster hangouts and three dining spaces. Dishes like wok-seared cubed steak “majong” with shishito peppers will appear on the tasting menu at Marketplace Restaurant, accessible via a semi-secret alleyway and freight elevator. Says Chen, “When people from China come here, they’ll say, ‘This is real Chinese food.’ ” 644 Broadway; chinalivesf.com.

Seattle: Lionhead

Chef Jerry Traunfeld is known for his Indian-inflected flagship Poppy, but he’s been cooking Chinese dishes like mapo tofu and kung pao chicken as a hobby at home for decades. Now, at his new restaurant, Lionhead, he’s using Sichuan ingredients like chiles and peppercorns in spicy dishes such as wok-fried crispy chicken. He carefully avoids debates about authenticity. “I stay away from that word,” he says. “I’m putting my own spin on many of the dishes. In traveling, I discovered that chefs in China incorporate influences from the West into their food, too. It’s an evolving cuisine just like any other.” 618 Broadway Ave. E.; lionheadseattle.com.

More Previews and Openings

Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco
When his Chinatown restaurant opens in spring 2016, Brandon Jew (ex– Bar Agricole) will revamp old-school Chinese-American dishes like egg foo yung. 28 Waverly Place; misterjius.com

Big Boss Chinese, Decatur, GA
Guy Wong grew up taking orders at his parents’ Atlanta-area Chinese restaurant; he’ll reprise their traditional Cantonese recipes when he launches his new spot in spring 2016. 312 Church St.; bigbosschinese.com.

Duck Duck Goat, Chicago
Inspired by a trip to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Hangzhou, chef Stephanie Izard honed her noodle-making skills for over a year to prepare for her first Chinese restaurant, slated for early 2016. 857 West Fulton Market; duckduckgoatchicago.com
      
Peter Chang, Arlington, VA
Devotees of the brilliant chef, who’s known for popping up in restaurants and disappearing just as quickly, can now find his Sichuan cooking in the Washington, DC, area. 2503-E N. Harrison St.; peterchangarlington.com.
      
Wu Chow, Austin
At this new spot from C.K. Chin of Swift’s Attic, dishes like kung pao quail have a Texas twist. Chin also honors classics such as Peking duck. 500 W. 5th St.; wuchowaustin.com.

NEW COOKBOOKS

101 Easy Asian Recipes By Peter Meehan and the Editors of Lucky Peach 

Meehan and the team behind indie magazine Lucky Peach create great versions of Asian takeout favorites, many adapted from recipes by chefs—the hot-and-sour soup was inspired by a dish from Joanne Chang. “We’re reclaiming the goopy, satisfying stuff we eat from takeout cartons at home on the couch watching John Cusack movies,” Meehan says. 

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees By Kian Lam Kho

Red Cook blogger Kian Lam Kho focuses on basic techniques—flash-poaching, deep-frying, hang-roasting—in his first cookbook, a compendium of specialties from throughout China. Organizing recipes by technique, he shows how to master dishes from the simple (cucumber salad) to the complex (yin-yang fried tofu-skin rolls).

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Danny Bowien

F&W Best New Chef 2013 Danny Bowien—inventor of kung pao pastrami, salt cod fried rice and other genius dishes—is one of the key reasons for American chefs’ new obsession with Chinese food. His first cookbook tracks his restaurant’s amazing rise from San Francisco pop-up to New York City star.

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