A new generation of American Chinese restaurants has emerged with a fresh look and takeout experiences to keep up with trends in the country’s culinary scene. Traditional American Chinese restaurants are often associated with diverse menus and white boxes with red pagoda logos. However, the new generation of such eateries—Lucky Danger, Lazy Susan, Mamahuhu, and Nice Day—redefine traditional takeout while embracing leaner menus and colorful packaging.
Some may associate America’s Chinese dishes with the American dream. Ironically, these foods trace their origins to the hardship faced by early Chinese immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Racial discrimination, a high income tax rate, limited job opportunities, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prompted many immigrants to open restaurants serving humble stir-fries that bore no resemblance to traditional Chinese cooking. Recipes were improvisational and created as a means of survival.
To attract American patrons, Chinese restaurateurs adapted foods to suit local ingredients and preferences. Many American Chinese dishes follow a similar formula, combining a protein like chicken or beef with stir-fried vegetables and a thick, sweet sauce. Catering to the local palate also meant changing the dishes significantly from authentic Chinese cuisine, resulting in kung pao chicken that was more sweet than spicy, orange chicken that drew from sweet and sour dishes, and deep-fried cashew chicken from Springfield, Missouri, instead of mainland China.
American Chinese dishes became increasingly popular in the 1970s due to their affordability and convenience. Working parents perceived Chinese takeout as a healthier alternative to pizza and fast food. However, the rising popularity of American Chinese cuisine has also prompted backlash. Chinese restaurants in the United States are well known for using monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer, and misleading anecdotal evidence and various publications about the negative effects of the substance in the New England Journal of Medicine in the 1960s gave birth to the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome." The labeling of MSG as a dangerous or even toxic ingredient continues to plague American Chinese dishes despite the release of follow-up studies that have concluded that the substance is not necessarily harmful.
While new Chinese restaurants are entering the American culinary scene with fresh concepts, older eateries are closing their doors. The number of Chinese restaurants has fallen across metro areas in the United States. Opening eateries in the United States was a means of survival for the first generation of Chinese immigrants, but subsequent generations view more lucrative industries like tech, consulting, or finance as better options.
Despite their complicated history and the uncertain future of many restaurants in which they are served, America's Chinese dishes have acted as a reminder of the significant impact Chinese immigrants have had on culinary culture in the United States. The effects of evolving palates and the post-pandemic era on the future of American Chinese cuisine will become more apparent as a new generation of restaurateurs takes the stage and innovates with classic dishes.
Natasia Engeline is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Her research interests include monetary and fiscal policy as well as ASEAN–US relations.