When Amelie Ning Kang opened her restaurant MáLà Project in New York's East Village at the tail-end of 2015, she had only a few rules: She refused to have dragons decking its walls, and there would be no dumbing down of her eatery's signature dish, the Sichuan specialty mala xiangguo, a stir fry heavy on the numbing spice that gives Sichuanese food its bite.
Kang moved to New York from Beijing in 2010 to study at the Culinary Institute of America. She quickly realized that Chinese food in the States was relegated to second-class status, ranking far below other putatively "ethnic cuisines" like Italian and Japanese in how it is valued — in term of both the respect it commands and the price it fetches.
"When people think of Chinese food, they mostly think of American Chinese food or takeout," she points out.
But a new generation of immigrant restaurateurs like Kang — with deeper pockets than many previous Chinese immigrants who have entered the restaurant business — is aiming to offer an updated spin on the Chinese restaurant, with prices to match the decor. They're catering not just to American palates interested in higher-end Chinese cuisine, but also to the growing number of monied immigrants.
Take, for example, MáLà Project. It doesn't look like your typical Chinese eatery. It's got brick floors, whitewashed walls, and Edison lightbulbs (what food critic Robert Sietsema called "tenement chic" and Kang described as reminiscent of China when she was growing up in the '90s).
Nor has the menu been watered down to suit a non-Chinese palate. Kang and her co-owner, a childhood friend from Beijing, wanted to faithfully recreate the dishes they loved while offering an atmospheric twist on the Chinese dining experience.
"People always think we're Thai or Korean," Kang says, a hint of outrage in her voice. "I want to educate people that this is what a Chinese restaurant can be," she says, one with good "service, ambiance and design."
Those descriptors have not traditionally been associated with the American Chinese restaurant. Chinese food in the popular imagination has long been linked more with cheap eats and nondescript interiors. Think five-for-a-dollar dumplings, orange chicken from Panda Express, or the buffets that dot almost every town in America, rather than stylish decor coupled with a check upwards of $30 per person.
An Image Mired In 'Ethnic' And Cheap
As historian Haiming Liu wrote in his book From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, chronicling the history of Chinese restaurants in the United States, "The niche in the mainstream American restaurant market for Chinese food was not fine dining but cheap ethnic meals," popularly embodied in the iconic chop suey restaurant common in cities up until the 1960s.
While the Immigration Act of 1965 brought a new wave of Chinese immigrants and with them, restaurants serving up a variety of regional cuisines, the stereotype of Chinese food as cheap has remained.
MáLà Project is hardly alone in challenging these stereotypes. In New York City alone, to name but a few examples, there's also The Tang, a contemporary Chinese noodle bar opened by two natives of China and Taiwan. A spate of sleek restaurants specializing in xiaolongbao, or Shanghai soup dumplings, like The Bao and Yaso Tangbao, have also opened.
Then there's Cafe China and China Blue, run by a husband-and-wife team from Shanghai and Harbin, and the upscale Hao Noodle and Tea by Madame Zhu's Kitchen, whose owner, Zhu Rong, owns a chain of restaurants in China. (She decided to open her first stateside outpost after visiting her son in the U.S. and finding the Chinese food available decidedly lacking.)
Dine at these eateries, located in neighborhoods far from the traditional immigrant enclaves of Chinatown, Flushing, or Sunset Park, and you're more likely to encounter exposed brick and reclaimed wood than you are dingy vinyl floors and fluorescent lighting.
Eric Sze, one of the co-owners of The Tang, sees his restaurant as part of this new wave of Chinese restaurants. "Chinese food shouldn't only be cheap anymore," he says.
At his noodle bar, dishes like ZJM – his take on the classic dish of noodles with soybean paste zhajiangmian — run about $12 per order. It's not exorbitant, but significantly more expensive than the same dish at any number of places in Flushing.
Sze grew up in Taiwan, and came to the United States as a teenager. As he put it, "Coming to America and seeing Chinese food being so low in the hierarchy, it just didn't make sense to me."
'This Is Culture Backed By Capital'
In his book The Ethnic Restaurateur, the food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray writes that economic and cultural reasons, largely revolving around class and race, play a crucial role in determining why certain cuisines are ranked higher in what he calls the "hierarchy of taste." In other words, the richer the immigrants from a country, or the more economically developed the country, the more prestigious — and expensive — the cuisine.
Take the case of Italian food, which Ray notes only became high-end once it lost its association with poor immigrants, or Japanese cuisine, which was able to command exorbitant prices only after Japan became an economic powerhouse.
He sees this process now beginning to happen with Chinese cuisine. According to Ray, as China continues its rise as a global superpower, and as wealthier and more educated immigrants move to the United States, one side effect is the nascent rise in the cultural prestige of Chinese food.
"This is culture backed with capital," Ray says, referring to eateries like MáLà Project and Hao Noodles and Tea. "It's Chinese from China with money."
He predicts that 20 years from now, the perception of Chinese cuisine in America will have undergone a shift, much like Japanese cuisine. "In the long run, I do see Chinese food upscaling in a dramatic way in the American imagination," Ray says.
New Demand From New Immigrants
Amelie Kang agrees. "It's expected that more and more Chinese restaurants like this will be coming up," she says, adding that as "more and more Chinese natives are coming here to study and stay here," the market for restaurants like hers will grow.
If the future of Chinese food in America will increasingly include restaurants like MáLà Project, it will also be driven in large part by the tastes of the new class of Chinese immigrants that Kang identified, who care as much about atmosphere as they do about the food. On a recent cold and windy Saturday afternoon, MáLà Project was bustling, its seats overwhelming filled by young Chinese Americans speaking Mandarin more often than English.
At one of them was Qi Tong, who was eating alone while engrossed in his cell phone. A 29-year-old originally from China's Hunan Province, he came to the U.S. for a PhD program. Tong had moved to New York City a few months ago, and MáLà Project had quickly become one of his favorite haunts. When I asked him why, he told me, simply, "It's like being home."