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Why Chinese Restaurateurs Get Stuck Selling Cheap

Egg drop soup, courtesy of Serious Eats’ Robyn Lee

I got an interesting comment on my post about why Chinese restaurants are so cheap about a month ago. (And my friend Sam sent in an excellent post about the culinary fundamentals that work against Chinese chefs.) The reader was Jack Neefus, a Baltimore resident who works in finance and dabbles in cooking and travel. He’s been to China few times, including my dad’s hometown of Heilong Jiang.

I asked if I could repost his comment, so he took an extra step beyond to rewrite it into a thoughtful essay. For space purposes, I’ll recap the beginning and excerpt my favorite parts. (I’m so high on my editorial power. You have no idea.)

Jack makes an economically-driven argument for Chinese restaurant owners’ motives. Chinese restaurants, he contends, are frequently owned by immigrants who view their businesses as a relatively stable form of income, compared to the restaurateur driven by love of cuisine and hospitality.

In his writeup, oversupply and price competition are major issues. One interesting point he raises is that American Chinese food tends to favor cheap, bulky vegetables that don’t require a lot of cleaning or cooking, and maintain volume. Ex. broccoli and onion. He also touches on the commodification of Chinese food, and how it’s now viewed as another fast food category with a factory-issued menu.

I found that his personal experiences (let’s call them abbreviated case studies) added the most value to his argument. He draws on his connections in China as well as Baltimore to make some pretty provocative statements.

Jack also breaks down the variety of niche, higher-priced Chinese foods, ranging from jacking up the decor to regional dish specialization.

If you’re nerdy about food (as I am), this is a fun read. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his logic or assertions, but that’s part of the fun.

Please chime in with your own experiences, thoughts, or rebuttals.


Why is Chinese food so cheap? Guest blog by Chinese food expert Sam Lipoff

The famous chicken at Boston's Hamersley's Bistro

The famous chicken at Boston's Hamersley's Bistro

In response to my post asking for reader opinions on why Chinese food in the US is so cheap, I got some amazing, intelligent responses.

They ranged from Big Think’s Lindsay Beyerstein‘s hypothesis that it was cheap overhead and ingredients, to Boston food writer’s MC Slim JB‘s observation on different cultural perceptions of what makes a good restaurant. Friend Sam Jackson and Jimmy Li thinks it’s a marketing/image issue. Serious Eats intern Leah Douglas cites her history class and the economic class of immigrant foodways.  Another SE intern, Aaron Mattis postulates it might be lack of restaurant culture.

But no one quite tackled the issue quite as thoroughly as my friend and Chowhounder/Chinese food expert Sam Lipoff who emailed me a 1,000 word treatise on the topic.

I’m posting  it here, with some minor editing for conciseness and flow. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the topic.

Why is Chinese food so cheap?

By Sam Lipoff

In the modern world, how does food become haute?

Typically by applying French technique to the traditional ingredients.

Conceptually, Chinese food doesn’t follow this rule, one possible reason why the American-Chinese version is inexpensive. The other line of thinking is sociological.

The sociological reasoning would say that since the first Chinese restaurants in the United States were started by very poor people, and served inexpensive food, this “register” for Chinese food is what the American public became accustomed to.  By contrast, by the time Japanese immigrants came to the United States, post-Meiji restoration Japan was a wealthy and powerful country.

I’m sure there is some truth to this, but I don’t buy this explanation.

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?

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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