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October 18 2021 4:14 PM ˚

More than ‘just takeout’

Lazy Susan “garlic broccolis,”
The takeout-only menu at Lazy Susan includes dishes like crab rangoon and “garlic broccolis,” a dish featuring two varieties of the vegetable, in San Francisco, June 8, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
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In 1983, Tim Ma’s parents opened Bamboo Garden in Conway, Arkansas. It was a side hustle — his mother was in graduate school, and his father worked full time as a medical technician. As owners of the only Chinese restaurant in their small town, the Mas made good money in their first year. But it wasn’t without setbacks. There was the brick hurled into their family’s home, the drunken driver who crashed into the restaurant’s dining room and the eventual arrival of competition, when their talented chef opened his own restaurant across the street.اضافة اعلان

The struggles the Mas endured informed their son’s future career in food, and his new restaurant, Lucky Danger. The Washington, D.C., takeout spot, which he opened with Andrew Chiou in November, is a reflection of the Asian American experience, he said.

“It is a kind of respect for our elders,” Ma said of Lucky Danger. “That’s a little bit of the mission here.”

Billed as “American Chinese by a Chinese American,” Lucky Danger serves many of the American Chinese classics that Bamboo Garden once did — lo mein and fried rice dishes, orange beef, cashew chicken — as well as less conventional offerings inspired by the chef’s personal tastes and experiences, including a Taiwanese-style omelet with dried radish and a whole branzino dish.

Lucky Danger joins a new generation of American Chinese takeout restaurants redefining how this food is regarded. Historically, “most Chinese eaters have really disdained Americanized Chinese food,” said David R. Chan, a historian and archivist of Chinese food in America. Intimately aware of Chinese food’s long and complicated history in the United States, the owners and chefs behind this new crop of restaurants are proud of their Americanized offerings. With a more modern emphasis on branding, marketing and operations, they’re transforming what Chinese takeout can be.

“American Chinese food is a really great case study in how cultures come together,” said Lucas Sin, the executive chef and co-owner of Nice Day Chinese Takeout, which opened in New York City’s West Village last summer. Having grown up in Hong Kong and attended college in the United States, Sin is fascinated by the cuisine’s ability to absorb influences from all over. Nice Day’s website describes American Chinese food as “a wonderfully inventive and flavorful regional Chinese cuisine.”

The notion of American Chinese food as a legitimate subcategory of Chinese cooking is a fairly recent and radical idea, according to Chan. That sensibility is on full display at Lucky Danger and Nice Day, as well as at San Francisco takeout shops Mamahuhu and Lazy Susan, where the owners are committed to the classics — at least from a culinary standpoint.

“People chalk it up to ‘just takeout,’ but what I see is a lot of ingenuity, observation and a lot of skill,” said Brandon Jew, the chef-owner at San Francisco’s lauded Mister Jiu’s and the owner of Mamahuhu, a casual American Chinese restaurant that opened in January 2020. “No question, that is why people love it so much — because there was so much thoughtfulness in how it was done.”

Traditionally, meat is used sparingly to stretch across vegetables and rice, a resourceful hallmark of the cuisine. Even the precise way the chicken is cut for a sweet-and-sour dish contributes to the overall experience of eating it, Jew said. Inspired by historical recipes, the sweet-and-sour sauce at Mamahuhu is made with pineapple juice, honey and hawthorn berries, which impart an earthy flavor and reddish tint.

“As much as I am interested in Chinese food on the mainland, because I’m cooking for an American audience, I’m interested in what Chinese chefs have done here, too,” he said.

Chinese food’s evolution in America goes back more than 150 years, and can be traced to the first wave of immigration in the 19th century, when mostly Taishan men found work in the United States as laborers. After taxes aimed at foreign workers and violent attacks effectively barred many immigrants from holding jobs, some of them opened restaurants, offering humble stir-fries with no direct parallels in China, said Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” a history of Chinese food in America. The cooking was improvisational, a means of survival rather than a point of pride. Dishes like moo goo gai pan and chop suey — which roughly translates to “odds and ends” — were the beginnings of a culinary tradition.

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