As the Year of the Rooster dawns in China, chefs in North American offer a fresh, exciting spin on Chinese cuisine.
No matter where you live in the United States, chances are you’re no further than a short drive from a spot where you can get wonton soup, scallion pancakes, and General Tso’s chicken. Chinese restaurants, it seems, are as ubiquitous as pizza parlors and Irish pubs.
While Peking duck will never fall out of fashion, a new crop of chefs are offering some pretty inventive, if not radical, twists on familiar dishes. You could make the case that David Chang started it all. The New York chef’s name remains synonymous with his first venue, Momofuku Noodle Bar, a lively, funky joint he opened the East Village in 2004 that famously offered modern versions of his favorite dishes from Chinatown’s gritty old-school noodle houses. Later came Momofuku KO, offering more polished selections, including Asian morsels enhanced with foie gras, truffles, and other global morsels. Now he’s gone on to open a veritable empire of clever Asian eateries—throughout New York but also in Sydney, Toronto, and, most recently, Las Vegas.
These days, though, Chang hardly has a monopoly on intriguing Chinese fare in Manhattan. A few years after Momofuku opened came RedFarm, a project by Joe Ng and Ed Schoenfeld, both notable figures in the New York dining scene. Today there are three outposts in the city. Billing itself as “Innovative, Inspired Chinese Cuisine with Greenmarket Sensibility,” the menu runs the gamut from dumplings that are a far cry from classic, what with they’re being shaped like Pac Man and those ghosts, to a full papaya/ginger/soy-sauce-marinated rib steak and the most New York-y eggroll you’ve ever seen: stuffed with Katz’s pastrami and served with honey-mustard and kaffir-lime sauce.
Chefs elsewhere around the country add their own regional accents, like Ryan Bernhardt, who opened TKO in Nashville in the fall of 2016. He brings a strong southern influence to his recipes, making creative use of pickles, porridge, buttermilk and other classic flavors. To wit: the kale salad, cruciferous veggie du jour, appears here adorned in shallots, cashews, crispy pork and chili vinegar. A buttermilk-dressing-slathered medley of broccoli, raisins, spicy peanuts and lemon. A cocktail list that leans heavy on rum- and rye-based drinks seals the deal.
In Atlanta, Chef Wendy Chang offers something not often associated with the deep south: soy beef and soy chicken. Herban Fix is her airy and modern vegan restaurant, where she fuses traditional Asian tastes with all the wholesome elements frequently found in cafés in San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont. There’s Pan seared soy fish w. organic kale simmered in spicy curry noodle soup as well as a mushroom/quinoa/cherry tomato/kale. All the classic preparations are along for the ride, too—in vegan form, of course—like scallion pancakes and sweet and sour tofu.
Regional obsessions play into the style at HRD, a longstanding coffee-shop-style restaurant that bills itself as serving “global fusion” cuisine, but regardless of what you call it, it’s uniquely San Franciscan, as beyond the rice bowls, curry plates, and salads, the menu offers a wide range of burritos and tacos with inventive fillings, like spicy pork, organic tofu, and panko-crusted pork, each with kimchi and a few other eastern-leaning flavors. While we’re on the west coast, Portland, Oregon can always be counted on to throw some creative culinary mojo into the ring. We were particularly taken by Expatriate, a hip, dimly lit cocktail lounge with inventive craft drinks alongside a menu of inspired bites that fuse all sorts of global tastes and traditions. China meets the American South the Chinese sausage corn dog, a heat-fiend’s fantasy with hot mustard and “xxx death sauce.” Consider yourself warned. A tremendous nachos platter dubbed the Expatriot Nacho with a wink is a tremendous pile of fried wonton chips, thai chili cheese sauce, spicy lemongrass beef, crema, kaffir lime, and tomato salsa, and herbs. A feast for the eyes and the body.
Moving north, Joanne Chang broke the mold in Boston in 2007 when she opened Myers + Chang (pictured), an eatery that blends American diner kitsch with a down-home Chinese style in terms of both food and décor. You can also spot Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese touches on the menu, which, in addition to a roster of noodles and familiar dishes, includes options like fish tacos with kimchee sesame salsa and fried chicken with ginger waffles, an elevated spin on the country classic.
Chang told us she recommends Bao Bei, a self-styled “Chinese Brasserie,” in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. The small shabby-chic spot puts a premium on local, seasonal, organic ingredients and the thoughtfully designed menu blends Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese traditions, with a little French flare tossed in for good measure. The result: dishes like spicy noodles flat wheat noodles swimming in chili lamb mince, pork fat, sesame sauce, cucumber, and preserved yellow bean. Steelhead trout is adorned with crispy squash and cumin gnocchi, rapini, and velvety shiso butter clam sauce. A far cry from beef noodle soup, to be sure. And certainly only a hint of what's to come from this new generation of chefs.