Once the subject of sneers from so-called foodies for so-called inauthenticity, Chinese-American food is enjoying renewed appreciation in culinary circles. Some now even view it as its own regional cuisine. “I call it indigenous foreign food,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. “It’s indigenous because it was created here, but it’s inspired by something foreign.” Hong-Kong born chef Lucas Sin, of Junzi Kitchen, agrees:
Chinese-American food is authentic to the Chinese-American experience. For that reason, I like to think of Chinese-American food as very regional. It’s far too easy for people to look at a bowl of orange chicken, or General Tso’s chicken, and say, “This is not the real stuff.” Because, it is real, and it is made by a specific immigrant group, and it is delicious, and it has its own set of rules, just like every other regional Chinese cuisine. So I think a common misconception perhaps is that Chinese-American food isn’t real, that it isn’t good. It really is.
Whatever one’s view of it, there is no doubting its success — one of the greatest restaurant success stories in modern America. Lee says Chinese-American restaurants are now “more American than apple pie.” And, the numbers back her up. The 40,000+ Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S. exceed the number of McDonald’s in the entire world.
Here in Charlottesville, Chinese-American restaurants are everywhere. Some are new. Some have been around for years. But, none has the run of success of Szechuan. Sing Kung Yu and He Qing Li Yu began working at Szechuan more than three decades ago and bought the restaurant in 1996. Since then, it’s been a family affair for the husband and wife team, as their children practically grew up in the restaurant, a common story for Chinese-American restaurants.
More than thirty years of success is difficult to imagine for almost any budding restaurateur. So, is there anything unusual about Szechuan’s menu? Not really. It’s largely the same Chinese-American dishes that Americans all over the country enjoy for takeout every day –with plastic packages of soy sauce, duck sauce, and Chinese mustard. And, of course, fortune cookies.
Is Szechuan’s marketing especially savvy? That’s not it either. In fact, unlike many of today’s restaurants, aside from a barely used Facebook page, Szechuan is virtually invisible on social media. You won’t find a word about the Yus on the internet.
What, then, explains Szechuan’s sustained success? It’s actually not much different than many success stories: a focus on quality and relentless hard work. For the 30+ years since the Yus opened Szechuan, they have typically worked 12-14 hours per day, seven days per week, their daughter Ann once explained.
Charlottesville is much better for it.