What’s the best Chinese restaurant in Seattle? Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou gets this question all the time.
She struggles to answer, she told KUOW’s David Hyde, because there isn’t one.
“We haven’t established Seattle as a place where high Chinese cuisine comes to live,” Chou said. “Many of the restaurants exist because it is a mean to survive.”
“You’re not about growing the cuisine, you’re not pushing any boundaries, you’re not finding out how to modernize thousands of years of development,” she said of Chinese restaurants here.
Chou knows how Chinese restaurants work. Her parents opened a restaurant in Columbia, Missouri, in 1980. They knew nothing about the business, she said, but they needed to earn money. The restaurant sent their three children to college.
But there were years when the family had little business. Their restaurant didn’t serve egg foo yung or General Tso’s chicken – they hadn’t heard of these dishes – and customers’ eyes would bulge at a whole fish laid out on a plate.
“There were many, many times where people would walk into our restaurant, and because we do not have these things, because we did not have the all-you-can-eat buffet, they literally turned around and walked out,” Chou said.
Despite her father’s pride, they caved and started serving fast, cheap Chinese fare. Business picked right up.
When Chou goes to Chinese restaurants in Seattle, her kids order pot stickers. It’s a simple dish that is rarely prepared correctly, she said.
“A proper pot sticker you make by hand, you roll it out. You can’t freeze them. Cooked fresh, they take seven to nine minutes to cook in the pan, and you can’t do them in too big of a batch, because then you don’t get the success you want,” she said.
But diners don’t want to wait 10 minutes for an appetizer, Chou said, so cooks take shortcuts. She described the perfect pot sticker in mouth-watering detail:
It’s got a nice thickness to the wrapper. The bottom of your dumpling is just slightly thicker. When you cook that in your pan, you have this crust, so you have this crust on the bottom. The top of the dumpling is steamed, because you cook it in oil and water – just slightly chewy but soft.
So you have this combination of textures and the flavor of the filling as well as the dipping sauces – it’s a wonderful experience that comes at you from all different directions. That’s what’s missing in a lot of these quick-serve environments.
The expectation for fast, cheap Chinese food harkens back to when the railroads were being built.
Chinese food was peasant food served out of hole-in-the-wall restaurants for Chinese laborers who had come to the U.S. to work on the railroads, she said.
“From there to grow into something that is high cuisine and sophisticated is going to require a little more time,” Chou said. Palates are evolving, she added. “People aren't as wigged out by seeing pigs ear on a menu or intestines.”