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Why is Chinese food so cheap?

A meal at Northeastern Taste in Flushing

A meal at Northeastern Taste in Flushing

Over a very nice meal at a Sichuanese restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown, an interesting dining question came up.

I was there as an additional stomach for a Serious Eats review. We were digging into platters of stir fried greens, silken fried tofu clouds dropped in thick, sweet bath, offal slicked in chile oil redolent of numbing-hot peppercorns, and spicy diced rabbit with salty black beans.

The price for these “chef specialities”: about $13-20. A notch higher than the beef with broccoli, sure, but reasonable.

But would people be willing to pay higher for fine dining flourishes?

While in the case of Japanese cuisine, there’s Costco sushi and $500-a-head sushi, Chinese food hasn’t achieved the same price spread. For some reason, American consumers just aren’t enamored with the idea of high-end Chinese food. There’s some restaurants, sure, that provide a more elegant experience with prices to match, but Boston – and just about anywhere else – doesn’t have French Laundry-esque aspirations for Chinese cuisine.

Our table at lunch came up with a few theories. Familiar Chinese-American dishes can mask inferior ingredients with deep frying and plenty of sauce. In this case, even mediocre Chinese food tastes decent, with marginal gains not swaying less savvy diners. Chinese food also may have an image issue, being commonly encountered in cheap takeout form.

Why do you think there are so few expensive, ambitious Chinese restaurants?


22 Responses to “Why is Chinese food so cheap?”

  1. Marketing. If you can have olive garden and super expensive italian restaurants at the same time, no reason you can’t do the same for Chinese food.

    To be fair… a lot of $$$ ‘fusion’ places can have strong Chinese influences. It’s just a branding issue, IMO.

    Posted by Sam Jackson | June 7, 2010, 3:03 pm
  2. I think it’s because, as I understand it, gourmet food in China traditionally stems from the food domestic cooks prepare for wealthy employers. It’s not a restaurant culture.

    Of course, never having been to China, I could be totally wrong.

    Posted by Aaron Mattis | June 7, 2010, 3:07 pm
  3. But do you think that the cheap Chinese food image has been irrevocably burnt into the minds of the public? Or is there still enough wiggle room for a chef turn it around, without a “fusion” categorization? Plenty of high end restaurants have “Asian influences” after all…

    Posted by Lingbo Li | June 7, 2010, 3:08 pm
  4. I’ve frequently heard the explanation in the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan that a restaurant that has a beautiful front of the house and an emphasis on service must be trying to hide the fact that their chef is inferior. I routinely got served amazing, extravagant meals over there in dining rooms that could politely be described as shabby. If generally true, this might explain the reluctance to invest in fine-dining flourishes in restaurants catering to Chinese ex-pats here. I otherwise think your explanation about US diners is correct: there’s an idiotic preconception among Americans whose only experience of Chinese food is cheap, awful Westernized Chinese (chow mein and magenta sparerib joints) or P.F. Chang’s that traditional Chinese food could never merit the fine-dining treatment. It’s criminally stupid and frustrating. Manhattan has some places that dress it up a bit, but the authenticity often suffers.

    Posted by MC Slim JB | June 7, 2010, 4:28 pm
  5. It’s very likely just a public image problem. I’ve eaten at many fancy-schmancy restaurants in China (whose proportional cost to the average Chinese meal is perhaps higher than that of the French Laundry to the average American meal), so I don’t think that the problem here is intrinsic to the food. We just need some adventurous, debonair Chinese chef to set the trend in motion.

    Posted by Jimmy | June 8, 2010, 7:43 am
  6. It’d just have to start small, in places where people who were discerning would know enough to make it worthwhile to go somewhere high-end; eventually you could see trickle down, I think, and educate consumers in that way.

    Posted by Sam Jackson | June 9, 2010, 8:14 am
  7. Part of the reason for the difference between the pricey Japanese cuisine and cheaper Chinese food is that the initial introduction that Americans had to Japanese food was when Japan starting becoming an international trading and service power, and started sending businessmen to the States to have meetings. These businessmen were generally of the higher Japanese class and expected a certain style of eating and food preparation that they were used to in their country. Also, these business dealings were high-end and perceived as such by both Japanese and Americans. Hence the development of a culture of Japanese cuisine being more expensive and refined than Chinese food.

    The first Chinese immigrants were less likely to be businesspeople and more likely to be laborers who often started restaurants as their one means of entrance into a hostile American economy and culture. They aimed to please, making food that was at once inexpensive and not too offensively spicy or oddly flavored. Hence the development of a somewhat bastardized version of Chinese food that is now standard across the country.

    At least, that’s what I remember from my ethnic foods class last semester! :D

    Posted by Leah Douglas | June 9, 2010, 9:20 am
  8. Nice summary, Leah!

    I think I’m going to have to do a series of follow up posts for all these great answers I’m getting.

    Posted by Lingbo Li | June 9, 2010, 10:43 am
  9. I’ve noticed that groceries in Chinatown costs a fraction of the price anywhere else in the city–and I’m paying retail. Wholesale buyers must get even better rates. So, maybe Chinese restaurants have a good line on raw materials.

    A lot of Chinese restaurants are family businesses that are actually run by the immediate family, which probably helps keeps labor costs down.

    Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein | June 11, 2010, 7:24 am
  10. Prices are determine partly by the cost structure and partly by supply and demand.

    Food costs are low because so much of Chinese food is made from bulky raw vegetables requiring little preparation. American Chinese restaurants typically do not use large amounts of greens, which require intensive cleaning and cook down to a much smaller amount. Instead, they use large amounts of bell peppers, onions, and broccoli, which is not Chinese but which is cheap, bulky, and acceptable to American customers. Meat is used in small bits rather than large steaks or chops.

    Rent is low because restaurant owners typically seek out small spaces in low-end strip malls and do only modest redecorating. Labor is cheap since restaurants are often run by families and little or no additional payroll.

    There are large numbers of Chinese restaurants because of immigration from poorer families, often from depressed areas like Fujian. Restaurants are typically founded out of a need to survive and a desire for economic security, and usually offer the same cookie-cutter menu as other Chinese establishments.

    As a result, there is oversaturation in most areas of the country and tremendous price competition. Americans view Chinese as easily available fast food and are usually price-sensitive. Chinese take-out competes with Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and McDonalds rather than higher-end sit-down restaurants. As a result, Chinese restaurants are unable to raise prices very much, but even a modest income may still offer a better life for the owners than their previous one.

    Attempts to create a higher-end segment of Chinese restaurants are hamstrung by price expectations set by downscale places that rely heavily on takeout. Even worse, Americans tend to dislike many authentic Chinese dishes and are unwilling to pay more for them.

    Strangely enough, one of the few places to have solved this condundrum is PF Chang’s. While not authentically Chinese, they serve versions of American Chinese dishes along with cocktails in a much nicer atmosphere. PF Chang’s competes with places like The Cheesecake Factory and TGI Friday’s and the average bill per customer is much higher as a result.

    While there are a few authentic Chinese establishments in large cities (eg Joe’s Noodle House near Washington, DC and dim sum places in Chinatown, Mahattan), the atmosphere is closer to the traditional downscale American Chinese places. Americans offered high-end Chinese cusine in an upscale atmosphere might be willing to pay higher prices if someone could create a menu that was both authentic, refined, and appealed to American palates. So far it hasn’t worked, but with greater cross-pollination between the cultures, someone may eventually find a niche.

    Posted by Jack Neefus | June 26, 2010, 1:32 pm
  11. Wow Jack! Another stellar contribution to the discussion – would you mind if I also pulled it out as a blog post proper? (With credit of course, let me know if you have a short bio/website you want me to include)

    Posted by Lingbo Li | June 26, 2010, 3:24 pm
  12. I’m thinking it’s because Chinese restaurants cannibalize each other and try to out-compete each other by making the prices lower. There’s no cooperation, so the prices stay low and consumers therefore have a concept of what the price range of Chinese food “should be.” Even if some restaurants try to charge a higher price, diners feel that they are entitled to the lower prices, refuse to go to those restaurants, and this weeds out those who want to branch out from the price norms. I think it can be attributed to a lack of unity amongst the Chinese restaurant owners, because restaurant operation costs are usually similar to other restaurants in the city, so there’s no real reason for charging a lower price.

    Posted by Jenny | July 1, 2010, 8:11 am
  13. Have you folks been to a real chinese restaurast in flushing queens? The big ones like jade palace. I guess only real chinese people go to the real chinese restaurants. The food in these big restaurants are NOT CHEAP. We ordered shrimp with white sauce and brocolli and it’s like $16 for one person. The whole steam fish is like $40 dollars. My family of four usually pay $120 for food without wine tax not included. That is very common for the chinese people during weekend dinner.

    You have to go to the real chinese palace ordering real chinese dish. and not just chicken with brocolli.

    Posted by mina | October 17, 2010, 11:11 pm
  14. I have a few ideas as to why Chinese food is so cheap. What really baffles me is why, considering rice is eaten at most meals, why can’t Chinese cook rice properly? Actually, it was seeing the photo of beautiful Persian rice on another of your posts that made me think of this. Any theories?

    Posted by Maisie | November 18, 2010, 11:23 am
  15. As Leah said before, the chinese imigrants who came to America start their first restaurants for their people, another imigrants like them. I think they wanted to bring the traditions, the food with them at the beginning, but then that came up to a business. As far as i know all chinese imigrants were poor, unlike the japanese people and the americans of course.

    Posted by mancare chinezeasca | October 5, 2011, 9:52 am
  16. I also think it is a branding issue since there is expensive Chinese restaurant in China now.

    Posted by elaine | August 14, 2012, 12:58 am
  17. CHINA: RESTAURANT HANGS DOG OUTSIDE: a freshly hanged dog to liven up the customers appetite, hangs in the entrance of this dog meat restaurant in China. Take a magnifying glass and you’ll see CAGES OF LIVE DOGS NEXT TO THE MOTORBIKE.


    Posted by Juan Carlos | February 4, 2014, 9:21 am
  18. It’s all about the marketing and preconceptions, think about it…. The amount of effort and ingredients that go into making a dumpling vs an italian ravioli is the same if not more time consuming as you need to have a certain amount of folds in some Chinese dumplings (more exquisite) and yet I bet your bottom dollar that on average it costs 1/4 more to eat out Italian food than it does Chinese…. Point proven, that in combination with the LOW CASH IN HAND WAGES the majority of mid/low end Chinese restaurants pay their staff, also means they don’t carry as much overheads.

    Posted by Clint | September 18, 2014, 3:36 pm


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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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