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Egg rolls and more queries for prolific Chinese food eater

April 23, 2013|By Frank Shyong | Los Angeles Times
  • David Chan knows Chinese food well, having documented eating in more than 6,200 Chinese restaurants. Despite trying over the years, he has never learned to use chopsticks. Above, he dines at Shawn Cafe in Arcadia.
David Chan knows Chinese food well, having documented eating in more than… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

David Chan is a third-generation Chinese American who has eaten at 6,297 different Chinese restaurants around the world.

Trained as an accountant, he's kept track of every Chinese restaurant he's dined at on an Excel spreadsheet starting in the early 1980s.

He grew up with few real Chinese influences. He can't speak Chinese and he has never gotten the hang of chopsticks. But each meal helped bring him that much closer to his culture -- even though he always had to ask for a fork and an English menu. 

He was the focus of a Column One -- "6,297 Chinese restaurants and hungry for more" -- which prompted numerous reader questions. Here's a recap:

Question: How did The Times hear about David Chan?

Reporter Frank Shyong: I was actually Googling Chinese restaurants in search of a place to take my parents. They were visiting from out of town and they're pretty specific about what they like -- it has to be authentic, but also cheap so we can eat without feeling guilty. I found David's top 10 list published on Asia Society, found his blog, and started reading news pieces about him from there.

Question: What meals did Chan share with The Times?

Shyong: Our first meeting took place in the Times cafeteria, but I think I just had coffee. Our second meal was at Lunasia, a menu-driven dim sum place that offered some of the freshest, piping hot dim sum I've ever eaten. It was the first time I had ever had dim sum that didn't come from a cart.

Our next meal was at Green Zone, an organic Chinese Restaurant in San Gabriel that serves up a mean Hainan chicken. We've also eaten at Paul's Kitchen, a really old Chinese restaurant in the produce district in Downtown Los Angeles. It was a taste of the kind of Americanized Chinese food that David had grown up eating -- cheap, fast, and cash only. Our most recent meal was at Huge Tree Pastry in Monterey Park with another food writer, Clarissa Wei. It's a Taiwanese breakfast place that's pretty popular. 

Question: Has Chan written a book?

Shyong: No, and Chan says he has no plans to write one.

Question: All that Chinese food can't be healthy. How does Chan stay so slim?

Answer: "I'm on medication, but that's not from eating," Chan said during a Times Web chat, adding that his family has naturally high cholesterol levels. Chan also controls his portions and tries to cut down on pork and beef, electing to have fish and chicken when possible. 

Question:  Why doesn't Chan take pictures of his food?

Answer: "People assume that having been to thousands of Chinese restaurants that I'm a foodie. My kids are foodies. They photograph all their meals," Chan said. "I'm not a foodie. I began eating Chinese food as part of my quest to learn more about Chinese Americans and Chinese American communities across the country."

Though his blog mentions food occasionally, there are no pictures. His posts focus more on history, demographics and origins rather than taste or texture. 

Question: Chan's top 10 list seems to focus on Cantonese food and dim sum. What's his experience with different regions of Chinese food, like Taiwanese food?

Shyong: Chan has been to, by his own estimate, 99% of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley from Monterey Park to Rowland Heights -- Taiwanese places and boba shops included. But the list reflects his own personal tastes, and he readily states that he is not a fan of most Taiwanese food. 

Question: What about Chinese food in Orange County?

Shyong: Chan said he likes to eat in Orange County, primarily in Irvine. Branches of San Gabriel Valley restaurants have opened in South Orange County. "There's serious Chinese eating there, but obviously the critical mass isn't the same as in the San Gabriel Valley," he said. 

Question: What constitutes American Chinese food and how is it different or less authentic than Chinese food? 

Shyong: The authenticity of a particular dish or restaurant is always passionately debated by foodies and critics.

But who's to say the way your mother cooks is more correct than my mother's style of cooking -- if they're both from Taiwan, and they both make it the way their mothers made it? Who's to say the Americanized Chinese food in the United States isn't its own regional variety that is valid in its own way? Everyone makes their own version of their favorite dish, and they call it whatever they want. 

I posed this question to Chan, and his definition is purely functional: "A shorthand answer to authenticity is whether a typical Chinese person living in Monterey Park would consent to eating there."

"As to what is authentic or not authentic, there's no one factor, but rather an amalgam of what dishes are offered on the menu. Obviously, if the restaurant serves chop suey there are severe questions. If the menu has jellyfish, it's authentic. But obviously there are gradations."

Chan wrote about the topic for an online food site.

Question: How do you keep track of all your meals?

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