Wok Away: Cantonese Food in the Valley Soon May Be a Thing of the Past

Helen Yung earns her living making ice cream, but for her, Chinese food is serious business.

On a Saturday afternoon in July, she arrives at New Hong Kong Restaurant in Central Phoenix with two canvas bags. One's full of glass food-storage containers. Yung always brings a bag of containers when she goes out to eat Chinese food, which is often. The clear glass allows her to quickly inventory a fridge that's constantly stocked with Chinese leftovers. It's always full because of Yung's habit of over-ordering, driven by her desire to try as many dishes as possible.

The other bag contains a box of pastries from a nearby French bakery. "I never skip dessert," she says with a smile. Chinese restaurants usually only offer fortune cookies or an orange slice, so Yung brings her own. At the end of the meal, she asks the restaurant's owner in fluent Cantonese if she can eat her own dessert. The owner, who, like many Chinese restaurant owners in the Valley, knows Yung well, just smiles and nods yes.

In her mid-30s, Yung passes for half her age, and despite her strong affection for dessert and giant Chinese meals, she's got a slight figure typically clad in a T-shirt and jeans. She drives around town in a black Volkswagen hatchback with a license plate that reads "YUM CHA," a phrase that translates to "drink tea" in Cantonese.

It's a joke.

"Chinese people never say we're going to dim sum," Yung explains, referring to the Cantonese tradition of eating a variety of small dishes that make up a whole meal. "We say we're going to 'drink tea' when we're actually planning to eat a massive amount of food."

It's also a sign of just how much Yung loves Chinese food.

Yung, who co-owns the Scottsdale-based ice cream shop Sweet Republic — a spot that's led the national gourmet ice cream trend for years with flavors like basil lime sorbet and appearances on the Food Network — is widely known in metro Phoenix as "the ice cream chef." She's also the Valley's unofficial expert on Cantonese food. Born in Hong Kong, she craves Cantonese food because it's the food she grew up eating.

Since she moved here in 2007, Yung has been able to find a handful of what she considers top-notch spots to get her fix. But lately, she has noticed something she finds very troubling: Cantonese restaurants in the Valley are going extinct. With the closure or imminent closure of at least two local Cantonese restaurants, Yung picked up on the beginning of a national trend that's already been identified by others, including national Chinese food expert David Chan.

Several months ago, the owners of New Hong Kong, one of Yung's favorite spots, put the business up for sale. After nearly 10 years of operating the eatery on the northwest corner of 24th Street and Indian School Road, owners Jian Xin Yu and Xiao Hua Huang are ready to retire. So far, the couple hasn't had any serious offers, even though they say they're selling the business at a competitive price.

This year already saw the loss of Yung's favorite Cantonese restaurant in the Valley. Chef Kwok Pat of Lucky's King Wah, located on 43rd and Northern avenues, sold his Cantonese restaurant and has retired. Yung says she's seen him eating dim sum and hanging out at Mekong Plaza, an Asian supermarket and food court in Mesa, but the handwritten Cantonese menus that used to hang on the wall at Lucky's are gone. The restaurant now serves Americanized Chinese food, chop suey, and crab puffs instead of crispy red intestines, which used to be one of the chef's specialties.

Yung recalls her favorite item on Pat's Cantonese menu, steamed silken tofu. The chef stuffed each cube with shrimp paste before covering the squares in a rich, multi-layered soy sauce.

"It makes me sad just thinking about it," she says wistfully.

According to the Chinese restaurant trade magazine Chinese Restaurant News, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America, meaning Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald's franchises nearly three to one. For many Americans, red-and-white takeout boxes and fortune cookies make more regular appearances in the family dining routine than any other type of food.

But Chinese food wasn't always such a big part of American culture.

Chinese immigrants who came to the United States looking for fortune during the California gold rush introduced Chinese food to America. Between 1850 and 1882, more than 300,000 Chinese immigrants arrived — and someone had to feed them. Many of these sojourners later would return to their native country, but in the interim they opened small eateries that mostly catered to other Chinese immigrant workers.

Early Chinese immigrants faced rampant discrimination, which culminated in Congress' passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It was the first law to prohibit a specific nationality from entering the country, and it placed major restrictions on Chinese immigration that would stay in place until 1943.

With immigration down to a trickle, the number of Chinese in America hit a low in 1920, when there were just over 60,000 living in the United States. Nearly all these immigrants came from a specific part of China: Toishan, a farming district outside the city of Canton, also called Guangzhou, capital of the Guangdong Province in southern China.

Prior to 1950, at least 80 percent of Chinese immigrants came from Canton and the surrounding areas. With an abundance of fresh water and easy access to the ocean, the region's food is characterized by simple dishes made with fresh ingredients. Balance, of both textures and flavors, is of utmost importance, and chefs favor clear, natural flavors over altering or masking the ingredients. At the center of the Cantonese kitchen you'll almost always find a wok, the large, round-bottomed pan used to fry, boil, steam, and braise. The most talented Cantonese chefs master the precise timing required to create wok hei, or "breath of the wok," the unique flavor and texture achieved by cooking on a wok's hot surface.

Staples of Cantonese cuisine include long-boiled soups, which usually accompany every meal, and steamed fish, often served with soy, sauce, ginger, and green onion. Cantonese meals typically also include gently wok-fried vegetables and steamed white rice, as well as something braised or fried such as soy-braised duck or chicken.

Faced with the decision to return home or stay in a hostile foreign country after the end of the Gold Rush (during this time, Chinese people were even required to carry identification cards) many Chinese people left. Those who remained in America during the late 1800s turned to one of two industries: restaurants or laundries. By the early 1900s, Chinese restaurants had begun to spread throughout the country. In 1905, New York City counted more than 100 Chinese restaurants, up from a total of six just 20 years earlier. The success can be credited in no small part to the invention of chop suey, which translates to "odds and ends" in Cantonese but is definitely a Chinese-American creation.

At that time, with the Chinese immigrant population being a largely homogeneous group from a small area of southern China, Chinese food in America almost exclusively referred to Cantonese cuisine. What most Americans today think of as "authentic" Chinese fare usually reflects Americanized versions of dishes from a small rural region of southern China made with limited access to Chinese ingredients. Some of the most famous dishes include chop suey and egg foo young.

In 1965, the repeal of the natural origins quota system opened the door to a new influx of Chinese immigrants, many of whom came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They introduced new dishes that helped propel Chinese cuisine to new heights with American diners, including one of the most infamous Chinese-American dishes, General Tso's Chicken. The story of the dish's creation by Chinese chefs who came to the United States by way of Taiwan is documented in the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. According to Lee, the original dish probably was created by a chef Peng in the late 1960s in Taipei and then brought to America and sweetened to appeal to American palates during the 1970s.

It was during the '70s that immigrants from northern China began arriving in the States in large numbers and establishing the first non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants. The first new styles to emerge included spicy Sichuan- and Hunan-style fare, which began to replace the ubiquitous Cantonese restaurants. Unlike the subtle flavors of Cantonese cuisine, northern cuisine favors spices, salting, and pickling, and the dishes feature beef, which rarely is eaten in Cantonese cuisine.

Despite the arrival of these new Chinese cuisines, Cantonese food already had made a lasting impression on the American diet. Even today, fast-casual Chinese restaurant chains such as Pei Wei, Panda Express, and P.F. Chang's serve dishes like honey walnut shrimp and wok-fried rice that have their roots — albeit distant ones — in Cantonese dishes. The influence of Cantonese food even stretches into American grocery store freezer aisles, where Chung King egg rolls carry on the tradition of southern Chinese spring rolls.

Data about the specific provinces from which Chinese immigrants come to America is hard to find, but Arizona State University professor Wei Li, who researches Chinese immigration and ethnic geography, says the Chinese-American population continues to grow more diverse. In recent decades, she's seen increased immigration from northern areas within mainland China. For example, the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, which has always been home to a large Hong Kong immigrant population, has seen an uptick in Dongbei-style restaurants serving food from northeastern China. Cantonese restaurants, in contrast, are on the decline.

The diversification of Chinese restaurants could be the result of increased demand for other styles of cuisine, thanks to a growing northern Chinese immigrant population, Li says. She also says the changes could be the result of restaurant owners not wanting to compete against each other by serving the same style of food.

Whatever the cause, Li thinks Cantonese restaurants will endure in some way, in part because they're so ingrained in the Chinese-American experience. For more than a century, Cantonese language and food have been synonymous in America with Chinese-ness, Li says. And even though new immigrants tend to speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese and grew up eating northern-style food, the status quo in America probably will remain the same.

"When people say they speak Chinese, the assumption is still Cantonese," Li says. "Just like the French, [Chinese] people have very strong cultural identity. I seriously doubt all the Cantonese restaurants will be gone."

Arizona's claim to Chinese food fame is somewhat dubious: Scottsdale is the home to the P.F. Chang's empire.

Paul Fleming opened the first P.F. Chang's restaurant at Scottsdale Fashion Square in 1993 with help from consultant Philip Chiang, son of famed San Francisco restaurateur Cecilia Chiang. The restaurant got the "P.F." portion of its name from Fleming and the "Chang" from an adaptation of Chiang's last name. P.F. Chang's since has grown to become the largest full-service Chinese-American chain in the United States, with more than 200 locations in the United States alone. It's best known for its menu of Americanized Chinese cuisine, like orange peel beef and kung pao chicken, and for being particularly accommodating to diners with food allergies.

But Arizona's Chinese food history actually extends beyond Mongolian beef and chicken lettuce wraps.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Arizona during the late 1860s to work in mines and, eventually, railroad construction. The 1880 census listed 1,630 Chinese in the Arizona Territory, most of whom were railroad workers, and when construction ended the Chinese began to open new businesses.

In the mid-1890s, the beginning of Phoenix's long-gone Chinatown began to take root on the southeast corner of First and Madison streets in downtown. During the early 1900s, a bustling two-block area housed Chinese residences and businesses, though the city's Chinatown was torn down in the late '60s to make room for a fire station.

One of the last remaining pieces of this part of Chinese history in Arizona can be found at 27 West Madison Street, at Sing High Cafe. The chop suey house, which opened in 1928, originally was located one block north of its current location in what was the heart of Phoenix's Chinatown. It moved to its current location in 1981 after the decline of Chinatown.

Rudy Yee, 75, was born and raised in the Valley in a Chinese family that once owned a neighborhood grocery in South Phoenix. He remembers one bygone Chinese restaurant in particular, a restaurant that, he says, turned the Valley's Chinese restaurant scene on its head: China Doll.

"China Doll was the place," Yee says. "The interior décor was like entering into a palace. It was the only one of its kind at that time."

The two-story banquet hall and restaurant was located on the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Osborn Road. At a time when almost all Chinese restaurants in the Valley were mom-and-pop operations, the ornate China Doll set an entirely new standard. The restaurant served sophisticated Cantonese cuisine and dim sum cooked by chefs that owner Roy Ong brought to the Valley directly from Hong Kong. Many would go on to open their own restaurants, helping to fuel the spread of Cantonese-style food around the Valley.

Not long after China Doll came another large-scale Cantonese restaurant and banquet hall, Great Wall Cuisine. Located on 35th Avenue and Camelback Road, this sprawling Chinese restaurant still is in operation today. Other large Cantonese restaurants in Phoenix included Golden Phoenix Chinese Restaurant, still located on 16th Street just north of Bethany Home, and China Village, still located on 27th Street and Indian School Road. Yee remembers the '70s as the heyday of Chinese cuisine in Phoenix.

But the golden age for Cantonese restaurants wouldn't last long.

In the mid-1980s, Yee got laid off from his job as an engineer, launching him into a second career in Chinese restaurants. He worked as a host and manager for local restaurateur George Yang. Yang's still in the business with two restaurants in Scottsdale and Phoenix, George & Sons, but back then owned a Cantonese spot called Wing's Restaurant. Yee got involved just as American tastes began to turn away from Cantonese food in favor of newly introduced Sichuan- and Hunan-style cuisine. Yee watched Wing's Restaurant become Szechuan Inn. Soon, other Cantonese restaurants, including Golden Phoenix and China Village, followed suit.

Yee says some newer Cantonese restaurants, including Phoenix Palace and C-Fu in Chandler, continue the legacy that began with old-school Cantonese restaurants such as China Doll and Great Wall Cuisine. But over the years, he's seen most of the mom-and-pop operations, places like New Hong Kong Restaurant, fade away.

Sitting in the dining room at New Hong Kong Restaurant eating such classic Cantonese dishes as a soft tofu hot pot and soy sauce chicken, Yee remembers when the restaurant first opened as Tang's Rice Bowl, before China Doll arrived on the scene. Back then, the 100-person dining room made this one of the largest Cantonese restaurants in town. There were no wood panels on the wall, and the booths weren't falling apart; the restaurant was a nice place for hosting large parties and banquets.

Nowadays, Yee says, people favor the bolder flavors at the newer northern-style restaurants. And for Cantonese food, most people prefer large spots like Great Wall and C-Fu.

"The tastes have changed," Yee says, looking around the restaurant. "We have evolved way beyond this."

If you're dining at New Hong Kong Restaurant, your server probably will be a short Chinese women with short hair wearing a red collared shirt and a single jade bracelet. Xiao Hua Huang, the restaurant's owner, plays hostess and server almost daily, fielding phone orders while refilling water glasses and delivering bubbling hot pots to tables.

Huang graduated from school in China in 1977. She was 17. She was assigned to work as a waitress in a restaurant, which is how she met her future husband, Jian Xin Yu, who at 18 was assigned to take over his father's job as a cook. Under Communist rule, neither Huang nor Yu got a say in their respective career paths, but Huang says she was lucky with her job. She got to stay in the city where she grew up, unlike her sister, who was sent to go work on a rural farm.

After Huang and Yu got married, they wanted to move to the United States. Through family and friends, the couple learned of a restaurant in America that needed Chinese cooks. They applied for visas and, in 1997, came to Phoenix to work at China Doll.

Nearly 20 years later, the couple is still in the industry. It's all they've ever known. They now own and operate New Hong Kong and do almost everything to keep it running entirely on their own. The couple's son, Derek, says when his parents bought the business 10 years ago, they hired staff. But when the economy went south in 2008, they fired everyone and turned to the kids for help. The couple's daughter, Mei, worked at the restaurant until about a year ago, and Derek, a senior in high school, can do only so much.

Running a restaurant with no help has become too much for Huang and Yu, who are now in their 50s. About six months ago, they began advertising to sell the business.

"We are so proud of the achievements over the years, but sadly, the time has come," reads an announcement on a website Derek built for his parents. "Age has caught on to us, and we cannot handle the large amount of traffic in the restaurant. As the owners of the restaurant, we are looking for someone whom we can pass this legacy onto."

David Chan, a Los Angeles-based accountant by trade, says Cantonese restaurants like New Hong Kong Restaurant are on the decline all over the country. Since the 1970s, Chan has eaten at more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants, recording the experiences on an Excel spreadsheet he began in the early 1990s. His incredible experience with eating Chinese food has established him as a national expert of sorts. He's been featured in articles and interviewed for documentaries about Chinese food, and he regularly updates a personal blog that mostly focuses around Chinese food.

Last year, he wrote an article titled "Where Have All the Cantonese Restaurants Gone?" for the Huffington Post's food blog, a piece that noted the decrease of Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. The area is often considered the Mecca of Chinese restaurants in America, and Chan noted a decrease of Cantonese restaurants, even as restaurants serving other Chinese cuisines seemed to be on the rise. Since 2014, Chan says the trend has spread.

Chan says the fall of Cantonese restaurants coincides with increased immigration from northern China. And though he hasn't catalogued the number of Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, he can use the demographics of recently opened Chinese restaurants to establish a trend. In Southern California's Chinese restaurant capital, only a small portion of new restaurants serve Cantonese cuisine. Increasingly, he's seen restaurants serving food from Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, and Dongbei.

"The fall of Cantonese food in overseas locales is really a worldwide story," Chan wrote in an e-mail. "We were in Australia back in May and I noticed a similar trend in both Sydney and Melbourne." Chan knows that, in the end, it all comes downs down to numbers. And Yung knows she's in the minority when it comes to preferring traditional Cantonese food.

"You can't ask for the supply of something awesome," she says. "There's just not the demand for the food."

There is some hope for Cantonese food in the Valley. Yung, Chan, Yee, and Li all agree: The biggest Cantonese restaurants, places that pull in a high volume of customers with dim sum and banquets, are likely to survive.

"You'll always have Great Wall and Mekong," Yung concedes. "Those places won't go away."

Moving forward, these stalwarts of Cantonese cooking will be supplemented by newer restaurants. This year, the East Valley gained two new notable northern Chinese restaurants. The first, Dinghao Shanghai Bistro in Mesa, initially opened with a Chinese menu that included some Cantonese dishes. But they've already been supplanted with Sichuan fare.

Only a few miles away is Nan Zhou Noodle House, the newest spot to gain traction in the Valley's Chinese restaurant scene. It opened about three months ago and specializes in the hand-pulled noodles of northwestern China.

Diners love the showmanship that comes with the making of hand-pulled noodles. At Nan Zhou, customers can watch a chef make noodles from a window that looks into the kitchen. Before the Mesa restaurant opened, there was only one place in the Valley for this type of dinner and show, another northwestern-style restaurant called China Magic Noodle House in Chandler.

Chou's Kitchen in Chandler already has established itself as a mainstay in the metro Phoenix food scene. Tong Rizzo and Ping Chou opened the small restaurant in 2011 and specialize in Dongbei cai, a regional culinary tradition that favors dough over rice and strong flavors from pickling and preservation.

For now, traditionalists can find a handful of Cantonese restaurants around the Valley. In Central Phoenix, New Hong Kong Restaurant will continue to serve Cantonese food until the owners find a buyer, and Tao Garden in Chandler, Nee House in Phoenix, and Silver Dragon in North Phoenix appear to be going strong.

One of the best enduring Cantonese restaurants is Hong Kong Asian Diner in Tempe, where owners Bai and Choi Kuang serve delicate dishes unlike anything else in town. The couple works seven days a week and takes pride in its Cantonese cuisine. The Kuangs use only whole ducks, in favor of the frozen variety, and regularly offer hard-to-find Chinese vegetables when they're in season. The rare dishes offered here include fish rolls with yellow chives, a labor-intensive dish made by wrapping thinly sliced Chinese sausage in pieces of white fish fillet, and a whole braised duck served with taro that requires two hours of advance notice to make.

Choi and her husband are in their mid-50s, but she promises the restaurant isn't going anywhere.

"We'll be here," she says with a smile.

Only time will tell.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria