no sooner had i buzzed in the delivery guy from sura thai kitchen than my children were circling like sharks for the kill. releasing the fragrance of thai basil and peanut oil from plastic containers of pad thai and pad se ew, i suddenly realized i was part of the trend sited by village voice food critic and blogger robert seitsema in his end-of-decade round-up. seitsema wrote, "old-fashioned neighborhood cantonese restaurants are on the wane, and they're fast being replaced by neighborhood thais." never mind cantonese, i'd add. it's become almost impossible to find a szechuan or hunan restaurant worth its general tso's chicken.
these eateries used to dot broadway like the bright red "hot and spicy" stars on the long paper menus once slipped under every apartment door. long gone are the large festive cantonese restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s, and the szechuan and hunan proliferation of the 1980s and 1990s. the upper west side currently supports only a few good-not great-old reliables among the small storefront take-outs with their lurid pictures of greasy food behind plexiglas. but what are the culinary, business and other forces that caused the rise and fall of the good old chinese restaurant on the upper west side?
gael greene, the former new york magazine food critic who co-founded city meals on wheels and now blogs at insatiablecritic.com, was happy to have an email dialogue about the days when chinese restaurants first came to upper broadway.
"no chinese restaurant on the upper west side ever replaced the great shanghai on broadway (where my then husband and i went twice a week) at 102nd st., or harbin inn at 100th street or chun cha fu, 2451 broadway, where i brought friends for my first authentic chinese banquet in its bawdy brocaded splendor," she wrote.
a frequent contributor to national public radio's "kitchen window" series, t. susan chang also remembered chun cha fu, and spoke about it on the radio: "my family went there whenever we could, and i loved it as if it, too, were my family: the booths with their torn red leather, the smiling waiters in their ill-fitting tan jackets, the starched napkins that looked and smelled like fortune cookies."
and there was the evocative moon palace, on broadway and west 112th street, memorialized by the title of paul auster's novel, and frequented by columbia students and faculty. even my husband, a young grad student at the time, remembers the shabby interior and the cantonese menu in the "choose one from column a and one from column b" mode. patrons who were skittish about trying "jelly fish's skin" or "ginkgo nuts with chicken" could order from a small menu of american dishes, such as "broiled hamburger steak."
nixon's 1972 visit to china and the thawing of relations with the united states brought a new wave of immigrants, mainly from taiwan. it was these immigrants who ushered in the szechuan/hunan era on the upper west side. one in particular was petite misa chang, who started empire szechuan gourmet and grew it from a four-table eatery on broadway and west 97th street into a restaurant kingdom, with branches as far flung as long island and miami-and then had to watch the flagship shrink to a small delivery operation. a foodie acquaintance of mine, tv producer michael ogara, remembers crying out for water from the fiery red peppers.
"the 'lamb hunan' was the thing to come back for: chunks of sliced lamb, beautifully done with brown rice, broccoli and snow peas. and lots of onion, garlic and red pepper," he said.
ogara said he'd return for a glimpse of a young "classically beautiful" chinese waitress with straight chestnut hair.
"i would eat there four times a week, sometimes five," he said wistfully.
having female waitstaff is just one of the innovations for which empire szechuan was famous, according to the fortune cookie chronicles: adventures in the world of chinese food, by "abc" (american born chinese) jennifer 8. lee. lee, a former new york times reporter, wrote that while empire szechuan was not the first restaurant to deliver food door-to-door, it "catalyzed the food delivery frenzy." the restaurant papered upper west side apartment lobbies with menus, slipping them under doors-often using their demure, pretty waitresses to cause less of a stir-eventually
causing widely publicized "menu wars," and sparking legal action and fees against the restaurant.
i spoke to harley spiller, associate editor of, and frequent contributor to, the chinese food magazine flavor and fortune. his collection of chinese restaurant menus dates back to 1879, totaling 40 linear feet and 10,000 items. it was exhibited in 2004 at the museum of the chinese in america. spiller remembers the exact moment chinese food came to his door: "i was living on 94th and columbus with friends. i was alone the first time ever. i heard a noise. i thought, 'i'm getting robbed.' the noise was a chinese menu sliding under the door. this was the summer of 1981. i looked at it, and it was interesting. i was steak and potatoes at the time. now comes squid. in addition to the new food stuffs were typos: 'human beef,' 'shrimp cooked in special chef,' so the english major in me found it amusing."
free delivery not only propelled empire szechuan's success, but it also spurred the opening of copycat restaurants up and down broadway-szechuan west, peppers, hunan 94, hunan gourmet and szechuan broadway, to name a few. empire szechuan added ever new variations to stay on top, from a sushi bar-now standard in many american-chinese restaurants-to weekend taiwanese dim sum carts, low carb menus and a bubble tea café. from the time i moved to west 97th street and riverside drive in 1983 as a 24-year-old "yuppie," empire szechuan became my go-to chinese and remained my favorite, even after my hiatus on the upper east side and in seattle. two decades later, my husband and i let our son toddle over to the large lobster tank in the spacious neon lit restaurant, introduced him to scallion pancakes and creaky chicken, and propped our picky daughter in a plastic booster seat while she attacked what we called her "chinese prison diet"-a bowl of plain rice-with the wooden chopsticks.
each of the szechuan/hunan clones offered dishes that were to become american chinese food standards, such as general tso's chicken, happy family and beef with broccoli. diners became intensely loyal to their neighborhood chinese spot. ultimately, however, these restaurants were victims of their own success-and that of their upwardly mobile, increasingly sophisticated patrons.
when i emailed greene about the forces shuttering so many szechuan and hunan restaurants up and down broadway, she wrote back, "first, the mania for fiercely spicy chinese food provoked the proliferation of szechuan restaurants. for a time, there was one or two on every block, most of them awful, many with totally unskilled chefs who believed that chili heat was all that mattered, never mind that it masked any other flavor. in a word, bad food."
chowhound founder jim leff was harsher: "it's simple, really. those places were not very good, or authentic. they made up for it with convenience and low price, but as they grew crowded and expensive they lost those," he wrote.
leff also pointed out a positive counterbalancing effect that weaned diners away from the local restaurants, which was the opening of so many good, authentic szechuan places north of chinatown, like grand sichuan in chelsea and wa jeal on the upper east side. slightly more convenient than chinatown, these places opened just as more demanding upper west side diners were willing to travel to them.
"as the old neighborhood places declined to step up their game to win back patronage, and charged high prices for crap, they couldn't survive," leff said.
when i asked jenny 8. lee what her favorite upper west side chinese restaurant is now, lee said, with perhaps a touch of irony, "saigon grill." "well, the founders were ethnic chinese," she explained, when i expressed surprise.
vietnamese were among the immigrants edging out chinese venues by bringing modest and inexpensive fare to the upper west side, greene wrote, adding that the food is particularly appealing due to its fresh taste and seemingly less fatty ingredients. thai food has certainly made inroads, with five restaurants on upper broadway and amsterdam avenue. as for what will come next, lee guessed korean barbecue, citing the popularity of korean/mexican fusion (i.e., kim chee burritos) at l.a.'s kogi bbq cart.
just the idea of patrons flocking to eat new cuisines along upper broadway was unheard of in the days when misa chang started empire szechuan. back then, west 97th street was seen as scruffy and dangerous. according to the fortune cookie chronicles, chang used to hand out noodles and fried rice to bribe the homeless to stay away from her doors. as more apartment buildings went up, like the columbia on west 97th, and people other than columbia students ventured north, the rents went up. peter arndtsen, district manager of the columbus/amsterdam business improvement district, has seen rents going "up and up" with mom-and-pops giving way to duane reades, cvss and banks in the past eight years.
in 2004, when empire szechuan closed down its 97th street flagship without fanfare, my family wondered what had happened our beloved restaurant, which seemed at the height of its popularity. then a bank of america took its place. i asked jassicca zulueta, granddaughter of misa chang and daughter of current manager eric ma, about empire szechuan's closing, and she wrote back, "obviously a business like bank of america can afford a sky rocket rent, as opposed to our business, which is essentially minute in comparison. i would say they are a mogul, and we are closer to a mom-and-pop shop." certainly, the small empire szechuan currently operating on broadway near west 100th street is only a quarter of the size of its predecessor, and clearly a take-out operation, even with its voluminous menu (though the business still has three other new york city locations: 193 columbus ave. at west 68th street, 4041 broadway at west 170th street and 173 seventh ave. south at perry street).
but the large percentage of delivery-usually 50 percent or higher-at the typical upper west side chinese restaurant shows that locals don't necessarily want to travel to real deal venues. "in the last few years-mostly thanks to chowhound-i've been exposed to a lot of 'authentic' chinese food, both gourmet and in little holes in the wall in chinatown and other chinese enclaves," wrote chowhounder ruth lafler in a 2005 thread, "why chinese food in nyc was horrible until recently." "but that doesn't mean i still don't occasionally call my local chinese-american delivery place," she said. "it's comfort food to eat in my jammies when i'm too tired to shop or cook or even deal with a restaurant. in fact, there's some beef with snow peas, bbq pork fried rice and garlic shrimp in the fridge right now."
when you're mainly offering comfort food, you can only innovate and charge so much. there's only one shun lee palace in new york city, a haute chinese cuisine restaurant that can get away with charging $26.95 for moo shu pork and $8.50 for scallion pancakes, along with more inventive fare. michael tong's ornate restaurant, which opened in 1971 on east 55th street, was the first chinese restaurant to get a four star review in the new york times (shun lee west opened in the early 1980s on west 65th street). for everyone else, running a chinese restaurant means low profit margins, long days and backbreaking work.
i asked david chan, the weary-looking 62-year-old owner of hunan balcony, how he'd managed to survive in such a harsh commercial environment. he simply said, "lucky." when pressed, he went on to say, "we are a traditional chinese-american. we keep the same chef for 20 years. the same standards. quality."
yet he admitted the 37-year-old restaurant is struggling.
"business is slow. we used to be full of delivery orders for the super bowl. now people want hamburgers, fries, taco bell. i retire soon," chan said.
when i asked whether a family member would take over, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders, saying his children are "lawyers." indeed, his daughter was a childhood friend of jenny 8. lee's and the two attended harvard at the same time.
as for family members taking over the waning empire szechuan "empire," jassicca ma zulueta also readily admits that she is not up to the task of running the restaurant. as assistant manager, she does everything from answering the phone, organizing delivery orders and filling in wherever it's needed. of whether she could follow in her grandmother, misa chang's footsteps, zulueta said, in an email, "she [misa chang] is the true image of the american dream, she came with nothing and built it into a multi million/billion dollar business? i'm proud of her, i don't think i could do that, i majored in early childhood education, i just don't have that killer instinct."
albert wu is the owner of china fun, which now has three new york city outposts, one of which is on columbus avenue and west 71st street. he is a rarity on the upper west side in that he did take over the family restaurant. his taiwanese mother, dorothea wu, the great-grand-niece of general chiang-kai-shek, started china fun in 1991, and his father, felix, abandoned his career as an atomic researcher to become its chef. son albert took over the business after training at the culinary institute of america and doing stints at bouley and lespinasse. an attractive, genial man in a starched pink oxford shirt, wu agreed that his taking over the family business is unusual.
"the older generation who started the businesses never planned to pass on the responsibilities to their children like we did in our family," he said. "a lot of people came into the chinese restaurant business not by choice but out of necessity. so i think they did everything they could to make the most money that they could and never gave thought to any exit plans until they were hit over the head with the changing paradigm."
wu may not have chang's "killer instinct," but he has an instinct for what works, hiring four chefs-two for dim sum, one for cantonese barbecue and another for wok dishes.
"we don't just have one chef who does everything and toss them in the freezer, but specialists who make their products fresh everyday," he said.
china fun has capitalized on the shifting paradigm. its menu satisfies the needs of people who want to order beef and broccoli in their "jammies," and those who don't want to trek below 70th street for items like northern chinese roasted pork bun, congee, or pork and crabmeat bao (soup dumplings).
i spoke to wu because china fun's name came up repeatedly when i began canvassing yelp, menupages, chowhound and foodie friends to find the remaining "good old reliable" upper west side chinese restaurants. the other names that came up-
notably on amsterdam and columbus, rather than higher-rent broadway-were pearls (99th and amsterdam), silk road palace (81st and amsterdam) and the cottage (77th and columbus). when i walked by silk road at lunchtime, i saw eight lone diners sitting at eight separate tables in a drab boxy room-anything but a palace.
jennifer prost, a friend and former upper west sider, outlined the cottage's basic appeal in an email: "the fried dumplings are great and the hot and sour soup is pretty darn good. the price is right, plus they give you free wine (the wine isn't that great, but after the first half a glass, i stop noticing)."
whatever the reasons-a free buzz, comfort, proustian taste memories, value-these restaurants are certainly the last of a dying breed. of the 114 restaurants listed by menupages as opening in 2008 and 2009, there are a number of southeast asian and asian fusion newcomers-noi du cafe, fatty crab, sura thai, wondee siam, bar bao, fusha, sookk, ozen, gan asia, penang-but no chinese. among the closed, however, were ruby foo's, cheung ching, zhong hua, 88 noodle and ollie's west 84th street location. the closing of ollie's, where the owner was embroiled in a lengthy labor battle, points to another force that may have contributed to the demise of the old guard chinese restaurant [see sidebar].
but wait, what's that i hear? there's a subtle shooshing sound as i sit here typing. i get up to investigate. a slip of paper is half in and half out of our front door on the eighth floor of our morningside heights apartment. it's a menu for new kam lai, advertising "delicious chinese food to take out and eat in." it's cold outside. i might just call.
justice will be served?with an egg roll and wonton soup
last march, tsu yue wang, owner of the ollie's noodle shop and grille chain, was forced to pay a record $2.3 million to more than 800 workers at his eight ollie's locations, most of which are on the upper west side. of the judgment against the man known as "crazy wang," state labor department commissioner m. patricia smith said in a statement, "these restaurants are known throughout the city for supplying asian food for families at reasonable prices. but as families enjoyed quality food at a price they could afford, workers toiled under the weight of below-minimum wages, late paychecks and lack of overtime payments."
the judgment against ollie's was also a victory for justice will be served, the labor-organizing group that helped bring about a federal judgment against saigon grill's former owners, simon and michelle nget. the ngets were forced to pay $4.6 million in back pay and damages to 36 mainly chinese delivery workers.
josephine lee, who has coordinated many of the group's campaigns, said that the "race to the bottom" was a key force leading to the closure of all the szechuan/hunan restaurants that ruled broadway. in other words, cutthroat competition between businesses lead to ever-downward spiraling prices, with any profits coming at the expense of workers' ever-downward spiraling wages.
"the bosses undercut each other, so much that they wipe each other out," lee said. "there's a misconception that employers are closing because the workers are organizing. this is inaccurate. in chinatown the workers are very much organized, the standards of food and work conditions have been raised."
lee, like me (who boycotted saigon grill, on amsterdam avenue and west 90th street, during the dispute), is pleased that the new owners are willing to abide by state and federal labor laws. she added that flor de mayo, a mainstay chino-latino restaurant with locations on broadway and amsterdam avenue, has settled with its workers.
"they have a new owner who is willing to work with us and to hire the workers that were illegally fired back," lee said.