A funeral procession may seem like an odd sign of vitality, but for Martin Yan, the host of the long-running PBS series Yan Can Cook and winner of the 2022 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s all part of what makes a “truly colorful, living Chinatown.”
“[The deceased] says a final farewell to their place of birth and their place of work before they go to the burial site,” explains Yan, who lives just outside San Francisco and often leads guided tours of the city’s famous 24-block Chinatown for charities. “I was there two weeks ago and had just mentioned it to my group, and all of a sudden there was a funeral passing by.”
It wasn’t long ago that Yan and cookbook author Grace Young—who The New York Times dubbed the “stir-fry guru”—feared a death knell was sounding for America’s Chinatowns and their traditional, family-run Cantonese restaurants. The two culinary stars have sought to ease the pandemic-related woes of these neighborhoods: Yan created the “My Chinatown” YouTube series in 2022 to encourage visitors to return to the San Francisco district, while Young’s work, including the 2020 video series “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories,” helped earn her the 2022 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award, as well as the Julia Child Foundation’s Julia Child Award. The latter came with a $50,000 grant, which was split among nonprofit organizations that support Chinatown residents and restaurants in San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, Boston, and New York City.
“Chinatowns represent the story of America, because they are historic immigrant enclaves, with mom-and-pop businesses that used to be the backbone of this country,” Young says. “In the last two years, we have had plenty of new businesses open; I wish them all well, but I don’t feel that bubble tea, an espresso shop, and a Thai fried chicken restaurant carry the same weight. I wanted to help the legacy restaurants, because for me, those are the heart and soul of every Chinatown.”
A longtime New York resident, Young grew up in San Francisco, where her family enjoyed meals at a restaurant that ultimately received some of the Julia Child Foundation grant. Far East Café opened in 1920, and it’s now the neighborhood’s last remaining banquet hall. “It’s a very important part of Chinese culture,” Young says of the banquet hall setting, “and it’s sad and tragic that during the pandemic [Far East Café] almost closed twice, if not three or four times.”
Two restaurants in Manhattan received funding: Hop Lee, which is frequented by teachers on lunch break from the nearby P.S. 1 elementary school and is known for what Young calls “off-the-charts-incredible” crispy chicken in garlic sauce, and Mee Sum Café, which serves zhongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) and other inexpensive dim sum items. “The owner never wants to raise the price,” Young notes, “because he wants the restaurant to be affordable for the old-timers who go there.”
While newer Sichuanese, Hunanese, and Shanghainese restaurants contribute to the vibrancy of Chinatowns, Yan says that older Cantonese establishments represent a significant heritage. “These places were so important for so many of the early immigrants, as well as the next generations of Chinese and Asian Americans,” he observes. “To support historical Chinese restaurants is to respect our history and our past.” Diners, he adds, “can reflect on the history of all these generations—and after this, they can go to the bubble tea place.”
Chinatown Restaurants to Visit
Chinatown’s legacy restaurants “can’t survive without all of us showing up,” says Grace Young. Here are places she recommends visiting in three more U.S. Chinatowns.
New Golden Gate Seafood draws diners with its ginger scallion lobster, steamed fish, and geoduck. New Wing’s Kitchen specializes in juicy, crispy House Empress Chicken.
Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery serves mooncakes filled with the customary red bean paste or island-style taro, while Royal Kitchen stuffs manapua (buns) with everything from Portuguese sausage to char siu pork.
Carnivores should head to New Gold Medal Restaurant for Hong Kong–style roast pork and wonton soup; herbivores, meanwhile, will revel in the mock chicken dishes and fried rice at Nature Vegetarian Restaurant.